10 Essential Tools for Every Remote Team in 2020
The rise of remote work and all-remote teams poses many unique challenges. Communication, scheduling, dealing with sometimes vast time zone differences, tracking work and productivity, developing an organizational culture, and building trust are a completely different ball game when you aren’t sitting next to colleagues or seeing them across a meeting room table.
Fortunately, there are many tools — for design, project management, scheduling meetings, and much more — that can help turn these pain points into opportunities.
To help remote teams get started, we’ve put together a simple, curated list of 9 types of essential apps, and a recommendation for the best product in each category.
1. Chat tool: day-to-day communication
Whether it’s to keep projects moving, brainstorm ideas, or stay connected in real time and asynchronously, for remote teams, chat tools are typically more efficient, organized, and authentic than email. They save time on formalities (like worrying about who needs to be cc’d) and keep an organization’s communication in one central place and searchable by anyone on the team. Look for the ability in a chat tool to create threads or channels for communication by project or topic and for direct messaging between individuals.
It’s important for remote teams to not over-rely on chat. Like any communication tool, these apps have their drawbacks. When people aren’t speaking face-to-face, miscommunication and misunderstanding can arise, especially when teams can’t be in the same room. As the recent controversy at luggage company Away reminds us, there’s the temptation to use chat as casually as if it were text message. Chat tools are as much a written record of organization discussions as email or any other format. For important or sensitive conversations, it’s best to use voice or video (see below).
Remote team leaders should set boundaries, so chat doesn’t become a distraction from meaningful, focused work. At Groove, CEO Alex Turnbull and his team use Slack, with channels for check-ins, knowledge sharing, management/administration, and the “water cooler” — where team members can talk about anything non-work related. As he says: “Rather than try to avoid off-topic banter, we encourage it in Slack, especially in those couple of hours each day when most time zones overlap.”
Best chat app: Slack
Slack is the most popular team chat app for a reason: it does all of the above, and it’s incredibly intuitive and user-friendly. It also has extra features like the ability to create bots to automate tasks. And Slack provides a helpful guide for remote teams.
2. Voice tool: video calls
When chat isn’t appropriate, as we’ve talked about above, it’s time to make calls with a voice tool — for internal team meetings, quick check-ins, or an important or sensitive conversation as well as for external calls with clients, UX research, job interviews, and more.
A good voice tool has high quality, reliable streaming, integrates with scheduling apps, allows for screen sharing and text chat, has dial-in functionality, and can host large groups. It should also have great customer support and work on a wide variety of platforms.
Best telecommunications app: Zoom
Zoom is widely considered the best video conferencing service available. Its streaming is top quality, it allows for file share and advanced screen share (so you can control what on your screen you want to show), and it can be used to host webinars. Zoom also gets high marks for its troubleshooting support, communication about outages, and its “generous free mode” says Wirecutter.
3. Meetings tool: record and transcribe meetings
Because of geographic separation and time zone differences, meetings can be a challenge for remote teams. Remote company Groove HQ, which is dispersed across time zones, has one fixed time where the team checks in by video each day. At the other end of the spectrum, Basecamp doesn’t have status meetings.
Remote teams need to balance the benefit meetings provide of keeping teams connected and providing a forum for needed discussion and decision-making with avoiding meeting overload. Too many meetings not only diminish productivity — especially for team members whose jobs primarily involve heads down work — but can be a time suck to schedule.
Software that digitally records and transcribes meetings — high quality versions of which are fairly new to the digital space — helps solve the meeting problem.
With the ability to make and record video calls and generate a searchable transcript, everyone, including those who couldn’t attend a meeting, has a written record that they can use to review later. This preserves the value of meetings while allowing flexibility for who has to attend. It also captures much better than any note taking can what is often an organization’s most valuable data — the spontaneous conversations that teams have when they come together.
Best meetings app: Vowel
An all-in-one app like Vowel, with video conferencing, note taking, recording, and transcribing, helps you avoid toggling between apps and lets you focus on what’s most important: the substance of a meeting.
Its transcribing quality is better than other services because the microphone of every user (and not just the person recording) is activated during a call. The transcript is not only searchable but can be annotated with “hotkeys” that help you keep track of particular moments in meetings (like #decisions or #nextsteps). And the audio/video quality is crystal clear.
4. Project management tool: organize and track projects
Project management software allows organizations to keep track of deadlines and project evolution. It’s especially important for remote teams, who don’t have the same opportunity as co-located teams of having a quick conversation or overhearing important context for a task.
A good tool lets remote team members understand — and visualize — their own accountability, how their role and contribution fits with overall team goals, and their team’s productivity.
Features should include: task lists, scheduling and assigning, file sharing, communication (like comments), integrations with email and apps like Google Drive and Dropbox, timeline visualizations, and a mobile version. Another helpful feature is the ability to add clients as collaborators.
What’s most important is to have the right project management software for the team — not one stuffed with features that ultimately go unused. Visualizations, like kanban or Gantt charts are good for teams that require a lot of structure and reinforcement, while the ability to create and track tickets is ideal for customer service teams. Creative teams may do better with deadline tracking but less structure around process.
Monday is our favorite project management app for its intuitive, visual layout of project status and workload. Projects are sorted and color-coded by stage and can be viewed on a timeline and as a kanban visualization. Users can post not just text but images, videos, and links in the comments section. And there’s third-party sharing to include clients in a project. It integrates with Google Drive, Dropbox, and Zapier, among others. And it’s great for creative teams, with features like editorial and blog planning.
Similarly, Jira is ideal for software development teams, with the added ability to customize workflows, releases, and project roadmaps, along with a vast plugin ecosystem to further extend its functionality and integrate with other tools.
5. Prototype collaboration tools: provide feedback on designs
Developing and testing designs isn’t only relevant for organizations that create websites and apps. It also can be used for email templates, logos, digital ads, and more. This means nearly every company can benefit from using a design and prototyping collaboration tool.
For remote teams, a good design and prototyping app inspires the kind of iterating, brainstorming, and collaboration that pushes a product to the next level. Keeping feedback within the design/prototype app helps maintain context and keep conversation distinct from the chatter of a team chat app like Slack.
Features include the ability to make a prototype interactive and view and comment on the design.
Figma is our favorite app for design collaboration because it works on any platform (easy for teams where designers use Macs and others use PCs!), keeping all data in the cloud for easy access (no need to spend time exporting!), and integration with Slack so comments reside there. It also has unique design tools, like the “modern pen” that allows you to draw in any direction.
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6. Documents tool: write, edit, and manage written work
Where once the gold standard for word processing and document organization tools was a hard-drive based program like Microsoft Word, remote teams need a cloud-based system, or, they’ll run into chaos, with files all over the place and confusion about editing and version history.
With cloud-based software, documents can be accessible to all members of a team from the moment they’re created, making communication and collaboration much easier than if a document lives on just one person’s computer. The software should include search functionality, an organization system like folders, version history tracking, and the ability for multiple people to edit documents at the same time.
Most cloud-based tools have the same basic word processing features we’ve come to expect from Word, like text formatting, tables, and the ability to track changes and comment on text.
Best document app: Google Docs
There’s no reason to rock the boat on this one. Google Docs has great search, organization, and formatting options and automatically saves all work. Teams can easily access the same folders and edit collaboratively through the intuitive share features. Plus, Google Docs is integrated with project management software, Word, and it can export to different file types, like PDF and docx, so you can share files with people who don’t use it.
7. Wiki tool: retain institutional knowledge
Retaining institutional knowledge is especially challenging for remote teams. Not only do you face the normal communication gaps and turnover that any organization deals with, but you also can’t turn to your coworker and ask a question.
Plus, remote teams need to onboard new employees, familiarize employees with policies and procedures as they are updated, and build team culture and cohesiveness all from afar.
If institutional knowledge isn’t centralized and easy to access, you lose on productivity. About half of employees surveyed by workflow management company Nintex report they waste time trying to locate documents and policies.
Wiki tools help manage the knowledge of an organization so it’s easily understood and centralized in one place. Wikis are great for an organization’s HR manual, onboarding guide, links to forms, mission and vision, and other policies and procedures.
Plus, a wiki encourages collaboration and transparency because everyone can get access, and team members can contribute. This not only improves retention of knowledge, it also gives employees a stronger sense of efficacy and value in the organization. Just make sure to keep your team wiki current — it’s only as useful as it is up-to-date!
Best wiki app: Notion
Notion gets rave reviews for its clean layout and ease of editing and moving around with drag and drop. Its design invites team collaboration, it can be shared with external guests, and it’s actually fun. Plus, it can be used for other purposes than a wiki, like task management and file sharing, so it’s a nice app to know.
8. Password manager: provide shared app access and security
Security breaches are devastating for startups, yet they’re preventable with the right tools. A password management app should definitely be part of your cybersecurity solution. While some people don’t like password managers or don’t think they need them, it’s a must for remote teams. It enables easy, quick, and secure access to shared company apps and saves the trouble of keeping track manually of one’s passwords. And it means no more copying and pasting critical passwords in your company Slack!
A good password management app should provide a unique, virtually impossible-to-crack password for every app and the ability to revoke access if needed.
Best password management app: 1Password
1Password has all of the standard features of a quality password manager. It’s accessed through a “master” password that is set by the user, and it has dual factor authentication. You can move password data from other applications to 1Password, and it even has alerts that show when websites you use have security flaws, so you can change your password. Plus, it performs audits to show which passwords are weak.
9. Scheduling tool: set up meetings
When they can, remote teams should cut back on the amount of time they spend on administrative tasks, like emailing back-and-forth to schedule meetings. Fortunately, there are many good tools available to schedule across time zones, schedule meetings with a lot of people, and set up calls with clients and job candidates. A good scheduling app should easily sync with your online calendar to update to your schedule, connect with common online calendar tools — iCal, Google Calendar, Outlook, and Microsoft Office 365 — and adjust for time zones, so it can be used to schedule meetings with external people.
Best scheduling app: Calendly
With Calendly you sending a link to the person you want to meet with that they click on to access available times on your schedule — which is synced to your calendar. You can even create options for standard meetings you offer, such as a 30-minute “client check-in,” or 45-minute “candidate interview.”
10. Time zone conversion tool: adjust for time differences
A major advantage of remote work is it broadens your hiring pool significantly, opening you to top talent from around the world. The hard part is navigating the time zone differences when scheduling meetings and communicating in general. Time zone conversion software saves serious time on the mental math of figuring out time differences.
Best time zone conversion tool: World Time Buddy
World Time Buddy is a world clock and time zone converter and can also be used as a meeting scheduler. Add the locations of team members to view when is best to meet for people who are spread over, let’s say New York, Dubai, and Sydney. World Time Buddy also overlays Google Calendar.
Great apps don’t solve every problem. Remote teams still need to foster the kind of communication, cohesion, and transparency that can only come from human interaction and engagement. But what the above tools can do is make these processes significantly easier and put your team on a path to succeed in 2020 and beyond.