2018 Edition : Tools to succeed with dispersed teams

Our 2018 edition of the tools to succeed is now available! The objective of implementing these kinds of tools should always be to improve collaboration, communication, visibility and effectiveness.

Chris Winfield-Blum
Written by Chris Winfield-Blum
Published 26 Nov 2018

It's been a year since our last update on the best tools to manage your teams, so we took the time to revise our list; some products were removed, some have appeared on the landscape and are worth consideration and some are just reliable and consistent. We even added a new section for Support and HelpDesk Solutions!

Dealing with dispersed teams, as is the case with offshoring, is much more successful if you have the appropriate tools in place to make collaboration and communication easier and more effective. This article will discuss a number of tools that we have used, or seen being used, and then discuss how they may improve your processes.

For the purpose of this article, we have largely ignored on-premise solutions because we see so few infrastructures in the offshoring space setup using this approach and utilising VPN connections etc.

Further, in thinking through this article it's gotten harder to differentiate some of the obvious products as their scope expands. We will, however, attempt to categorise these tools but you may see some products mentioned multiple times or see part of a product suite mentioned.

Office Productivity Suites

We will start with office productivity, because this decision may shift your entire approach. We're talking about your basic tools for word processing and spreadsheets and there is only really two offerings in the cloud space that I've come across so far.

GSuite - Google for Business

https://gsuite.google.com/ 

For many years google was the clear standout and innovator in cloud-based, collaborative productivity tools. Their basic tools like Gmail, calendar, docs, sheets and slides are feature rich and have strong collaboration components. Google let us dare to dream that a business life in the cloud is not only viable but available.

They may have lost of bit of that glamour as it's become clear that corporate business is still clinging onto Microsoft offerings.

Office 365

https://products.office.com/en/business/explore-office-365-for-business 

Office 365 has evolved into much more than a cloud-based SharePoint implementation, that is the supported by online versions of Word, Excel, Powerpoint and even Visio and Project (extra subscriptions) is compelling, especially when it comes with 5 licenses of the desktop applications for each user as well.

The online versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint have come a long way since they were initially released when they felt immature compared to GSuite, but now they just kind of work, just don't try to use table of contents in your documents, it's a nightmare!

With your subscription you get the following (to name a few);

  • Hosted Sharepoint and Exchange
  • Online and Desktop versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote and Publisher
  • OneDrive
  • Skype for Business (being phased out and included in MS Teams)
  • Planner
  • Teams

It's easy to see why Microsoft have had such a great response and uptake of the Office 365 offering(s) and other organisations like Google, Slack and Atlassian should be taking note and not simply pidgin holing Microsoft or thinking of them as the same organisations they were 10 years ago.

Collaboration and Chat-Based Communications

Effective collaboration and communication tools are essential for dispersed teams because when working well, they can bring your teams together and have them working as if they are next to each other.

The warning that we do give you with any of these tools though is that there need to be guidelines on their usage. One issue we have seen is that teams can get themselves so committed to using these chat type tools that they spend their working hours in them. There is a time and a place to get on a call to resolve issues, so make sure your team understands that.

Note: HipChat has been removed because Atlassian announcing product end of life.

Slack

https://slack.com/

Slack is still the leader in chat-based collaboration and has such a huge range of apps and an open API the potential is huge for how this could integrate with your own business processes.

Further, they've also added voice/video communications directly into the application which is a great feature to run your meetings or business functions as channels. Consider using a channel and/or a bot to trigger your weekly feedback or even your daily standups.

The pricing is great to give it a try (free!) and if you require an extensive chat history (past 10000) then it moves to a per user/per month model.

Microsoft or MS Teams

https://products.office.com/en-us/microsoft-teams/group-chat-software 

MS Teams has steadily grown since first making this list and is challenging Slacks' business model due to the footprint that Office 365 already has in their existing and target markets. It offers similar features to Slack (some better, some not as good or missing to date) but takes it's integrations with Office 365 to the next level, with seamless connectivity with SharePoint and online/desktop versions of Office and an API that will supports "connectors" that allows third-party tools (like Online Scrums!) to integrate.

Unfortunately, they have managed to upset a lot of their community with the slowness of their approach to teams and channels. They have been "working on" private or access control at a channel level since they launched the development release 2 years ago. If you would like to see how NOT to communicate with your customers, search for Private Channels on their uservoice. Effectively their implementation means that to have "sub-teams" within a core responsibility you need multiple teams, and it's a real PITA.

For example, if you have a project called "Gummy Bears", you ideally would be able to have channels for "Development", "Support", "Reporting" all with different users able to access and collaborate. Instead, you probably end up with 3 teams; One for public consumption and stakeholders, one for internal project work, and another for internal budgeting and resource discussions.

The also released a version for non-O365 teams with some limitations (SharePoint is not accessible for example) so it's a good time to give it a try.

Task & Project Management

Being able to have visibility of your teams' work or tasks is an important part of running an offshored team. There are a number of more "basic" ways of doing this using office documents but these approaches tend to lack the reporting that I desire in my processes.

Note: We removed Wrike from this list, we have lost patience with their pricing and business practices. Change Fox founder, Chris Winfield-Blum, was an early adopter and advocate for Wrike and it is a great product but we feel they've lost their connection to their community and they are no longer a viable option; especially for small teams and startups.

Trello

https://trello.com/ 

Trello is a great way to visualise your teams work in a typical kanban view. They were also recently bought by Atlassian and we are seeing to simplified approaches from Trello make their way into UX updated for JIRA. Trello has a great API and a plethora of "power-ups" available. It is fast becoming our go-to simplified task management tool if it is not already.

Atlassian JIRA

https://www.atlassian.com

We've used Atlassian tools for many years now, they are in many ways the default software development platform (especially for teams that aren't hardcore "Microsoft Shops"). They have taken the direction of simplifying their offerings into core offerings like JIRA Software and JIRA Service Desk (help desk) and we believe they're doing a great job overall on the updates I've seen. JIRA is their project/task management suite that can be used for kanban or agile style processes. They also integrate seamlessly with their other tools like Confluence and BitBucket which again is a great selling point for software developers.

Asana

https://asana.com/ 

Asana's emphasis is putting your work list front and centre by priority and enabling effective communications. While Asana itself doesn't have much more scope than the above (that we know of), it does have a lot of integrations which expands its feature set. If you aren't using one of the "suites" likes Office 365 or Atlassian, or you feel they aren't quite right for your organisation then take a look at this product.

Microsoft Planner (included in Office 365 for business)

https://products.office.com/en-us/business/task-management-software 

Microsoft Planner forms part of the Office 365 suite and is a very basic project management tool. It lacks some of the reporting features of the above-mentioned systems. You can create buckets such as "In Progress", "Blocked", "Completed" and move your tasks as they progress as you would expect in a kanban style task management tool.

The reason we added this as an option is that for small projects that lack complexity, and for organisations already committed to Office 365 it may be worth a look. It integrates (kind of) with Teams and we are interested to see how many features they add to this tool. The more they add to Planner, the more they challenge their popular MS Project product, which also has its own online version that costs as much (if not more) than your regular Office 365 subscription.

Software Development and/or Agile Platforms

Software development environments have very specific requirements that shouldn't be ignored if you have a dispersed development team.

Online Scrums

https://www.onlinescrums.com/ 

Online Scrums takes the development environments discussed below and adds missing aspects that can make a real difference with dispersed teams; notably systemised agile scrums and better-integrated retrospectives. Key features include; daily reports highlight work that was not completed as planned and video reports; scrum & sprint reports provide useful information for scrum masters and organisational leadership; trends provide insights across sprints; their approach to retrospectives encourages more, higher quality feedback to support continuous improvement within the team. Over the past year Online Scrums has released UX improvements and integrations with JIRA, Trello, MS Teams & Slack.

Atlassian JIRA Software

https://www.atlassian.com/ 

As discussed above as part of JIRA, Atlassian tools form a very compelling story with task management (JIRA), document management (Confluence) and source control and deployment (BitBucket) all working seamlessly to drive your product development. Combined with their Service Desk offering for customer support it's no wonder Atlassian has achieved the success that they have over the years. They're priced well and scale with your organisation well too.

Azure DevOps

https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/devops/ 

Azure DevOps previously known as Visual Studio Team Services, VSO and Visual Studio Online, is a great option for "Microsoft Shops" and we believe comes included in Microsoft Partner Programs and as such may make sense. It has been impressive to see the feature set of these offering from Microsoft grow and develop. They even offer free usage (including devops & agile management, documentation, source control) to small teams.

Support and Helpdesk Solutions

Helpscout

https://www.helpscout.net/

Helpscout is an organisation and product we've been following for a while now and we have to say that we're very impressed with their approach to user experience and customer engagement. The product looks great and their use of tags and teams to delegate work quickly and effectively is particularly appealing to software teams that are productised ( read Hyper Growth if you haven't! ). Definitely worth exploring if you are considering a shift away from another helpdesk offering, or are just starting out.

The connection between; chats, tickets and frequently asked questions is amazingly simple and should really help with reducing the number of tickets that end up in the inbox. You do of course need to develop the content to support that.

Atlassian Service Desk

https://www.atlassian.com/software/jira/service-desk

It makes sense for Atlassian to expand its offering to capture feedback, bugs and support requests from customers directly, it is a logical next step for them. For the most part they do it well too, but currently the product lacks an option for custom domains, instead, you are expected to send your customers to yourname.atlassian.com or whatever it is. Not ideal nor professional.

Freshdesk / Freshservice

https://freshservice.com

We've used Freshdesk (now Freshservice) for a few support teams now and they have made a lot of improvements over the last 12 months to the agent experience. It is an odd thing though that when we ask a user of the product we rarely hear anybody talk it up and say many positives. Very customisable and configurable, but that comes with its own set of challenges.

Support can be a little poor at times and it always seems that an innovative idea for how to manage things with the team ended with a requirement to upgrade our license type, which was frustrating. We kept it on our list though because it is a solid product that we've used to great success.

 

Conclusion

There are so many tools out there, and as such, it is important to evaluate them against your organisational requirements. There is comfort in bundling core business requirements into a single product like Office 365 but this sometimes leads to adopting a less-than-ideal solution for your business or potential risk if the pricing structure isn't scalable for you.

Don't underestimate to organisational benefits of improving collaboration and increasing effective communications to your organisational culture, team retention and overall productivity and as such we encourage you all to challenge the default response and evaluate these tools appropriately (they nearly all offer either a free offering or trial period, so it's not a costly exercise). You may just find that a shift towards collaborative, cloud-based products gives your dispersed or offshored team the tools to provide the competitive advantage your organisation and team needs.

 

Original Post can be found here https://www.changefox.com/articles/tools-to-succeed-with-dispersed-teams

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