Herding cats better with web apps

With working from home becoming more common, a good web app can make all the difference for an entrepreneur

Herding cats better with web apps

Work is getting increasingly fragmented, with more freelance staff, agencies, consultants and people working from home or remotely.

My company Techdept operates an office in London and a production office in Sheffield. Our team are found working at client offices, on trains and in cafés. We have partner agencies for financial direction, PR, business development and content marketing, and on specific projects we can be working with people from all over the world.

When your colleagues are not sat next to you it’s easy to misunderstand things or get lost in endlessly CCed email threads. Your time gets absorbed with ‘busy work’ (hunting for files, or digging in your inbox) rather than real work.

Working this way can feel like herding cats. No matter how planned you are, you’re doomed to fail. So how do you deal with this fragmented modern workplace?

Open collaboration 

With a remote workforce, relying on traditional ways to manage and run a business – emails, calls, meetings and good old-fashioned ‘management by walking about’ – doesn’t work. In fact it’s a good way to run yourself ragged.

I manage all of our PR, marketing and new business agencies in Basecamp. Each company has its own project in which discussions take place. But each company can see the other’s activity – such is the nature of open and transparent cross-collaboration.

We have taken all discussions about marketing content out of the email inbox and into the relevant project in Basecamp. This makes it easier for everyone to pick up a thread of conversation at any time or to drop an idea in it and then come back at a later date so we don’t lose those ideas. By using their free mobile app, it means we can keep in touch while on the go.

This activity is supplemented by regular Skype calls where we all concentrate on creating the next set of activity, aggregating the discussions on Basecamp.

Cloud-based operations

The way we use Basecamp is not exactly that ground-breaking – many people are now working in this way using that platform. But recent years have seen an explosion of ‘social business’ apps like Yammer, Huddle and Jive.

We use a web app called AtTask which gives us granular control on all operational tasks – allocating individuals and target deadlines. The platform then allows notes, discussions and time-logging to each task.

This means that a detailed view of the ins and outs of our operational workflow is available from any web browser in a few clicks. Data for our monthly ‘actionable metrics’ (a concept I discussed a few months ago) comes from AtTask and our production director can see a helicopter view of all the activity in the company, helping make scheduling decisions.

However we’ve learnt that, for us, one size doesn’t fit all and AtTask is only one of a number of business apps we employ.

Our operational software is in fact a constellation of different solutions we use both as a company and as individuals. I just mentioned Basecamp and Skype above but we use (and have used) Google Docs, Google+, Dropbox, Hightail, WeTransfer, Highrise, Podio and Asana.

The down side

These web tools can help manage distributed teams, but there are several cons to consider.

Who set them up? What are the passwords? Who has access? What if that person leaves? The more software you use, the more this is an issue. With the explosion of business apps, I predict tools that ring-fence them together will begin to become more prominent, integrating a single login experience.

This will allow more corporate control without losing the flexibility that they bring – an undoubted benefit.

But it is still a bit of a wild west

The simplest way to combat this diffusion of services is to rely on some good old common sense and good management practice. Auditing all the tools you and your team use is a good starting point – write them all down and map out who is using what and why.

I would recommend reading Remote, the new book by 37 Signals, the creators of Basecamp. These guys have more experience than most at the subject of remote working and indeed their book extolls its virtues. But I found the most useful chapter to be their advice on security, with a list of practical tips that are a great help for any business.

Staying in sync

Another big challenge of any IT operation is that file servers, inboxes, desktops and Dropboxes usually end up messy. And try accessing your office network when you’ve just stopped off at your local Starbucks.

Solutions like Box, Huddle and indeed Dropbox are all vying for the corporate file management market – a modern gold rush to underpin 21st century business.

At Techdept we’re in the process of moving all our file servers into the cloud, using Microsoft OneDrive for Business (previously SkyDrive Pro), to avoid issues we face around synchronisation and back up. We often use Dropbox when working with people but then take the finished piece of work, add tags and descriptions in a platform we created called Tidybrand (hosted on Microsoft’s Azure Cloud). This means that our team can quickly search and find the latest and correct file – like a sales template or logo.

I like to use cloud-synchronised note-taking and reminder solutions to avoid meeting notes disappearing in notebooks or on my desktop. Evernote is a great way to create notes which sync automatically between your mobile device desktop and browser.

An app called Wunderlist is great to use as a to-do list and memory aid. When I think of something I need to do, I quickly add it to my Wunderlist inbox on my phone, which then automatically syncs with the cloud. If I lose my bag or phone, then I don’t lose my to-do list.

It also lets you create shared lists of tasks with others so you can collaborate quickly and remotely with colleagues, whilst utilising focused instructions.

There are lots of benefits to working the way we do – but without our use of web technology we would spend most of our time unsuccessfully trying to herd those cats. 

Dan Kirby
Dan Kirby

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