Tools to succeed with dispersed teams [updated]
Read about the tools that we have used or worked with that can assist with the management of dispersed teams. The objective of implementing these kinds of tools should always be to improve collaboration, communication, visibility and effectiveness.
Published 28 Nov 2017
Dealing with dispersed teams, as is the case with offshoring, can be 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 I have used, or seen being used, and then discuss how they may improve your processes.
For the purpose of this article, I have largely ignored on-premise solutions because I 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. I 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
I will start with office productivity, because this decision may shift your entire approach. I'm 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
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 and not letting go. If there was hope for Google on this front I think the success of the Microsoft Surface line slowed them down, at least for now.
I'll start this part by saying that I was not a huge supporter of Microsoft in the past, even leading open source replacement projects in Malaysia going back 15 years. I have to give full credit to their cloud strategies and the changes I've seen in the way that they have involved their community into their development and roadmaps. What they have managed to do is offer the market a cloud-based productivity suite that is reasonably priced, and feature rich. It feels like every couple of months community feedback is incorporated into their product, and the scope of Office 365 continues to expand without increased costs, which sounds very "non-Microsoft" of old, and that's great!
Purely talking about their base offering, cloud-based SharePoint, 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.
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
- Skype for Business (previously Lync)
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 Text 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 I do give you with any of these tools though is that there need to be guidelines on their usage. One issue I 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.
Slack is by far 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.
Part of the Atlassian family, HipChat has lost ground to Slack from what I've heard in the industry. In saying that though, if you are running Atlassian tools for software development or service desk then it probably makes sense to consider this instead of another product offering as they do work well together. You can create a channel and invite the appropriate staff or teams to help on a support ticket or development issue.
The free offering excludes Group Chat and unlimited storage but again may be worth a look, given it is free.
Microsoft Teams (included in Office 365 for business)
Still technically a "developer release", Teams has the potential to be amazingly good and has been labelled a real risk to 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 support "connectors" that will allow third party tools to integrate. For example, I have connected my Google AdWords and Analytics to a Marketing channel for a daily update.
What it lacks as of today is external collaboration (they're currently working on this) and some fine tuning of their own integration (like Planner). In saying that, the Teams team is active on their UserVoice ( https://microsoftteams.uservoice.com/ ) and we're seeing significant releases and updates at least monthly, if not more frequently.
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.
Wrike is one of those tools that if you're not careful, slowly takes over your entire productivity and business operations. This is a good thing, it talks to the ease of use and feature set that they offer, but it can be a problem if you're not careful.
Wrike is, at its core, a project and task management tool that allows your internal and external resources to work together on complex project deliverables. What you consider a project could range from external to internal sales, marketing, strategic projects. I even recently implemented a kanban style board (using folders and dashboards) for management sprints at Graycorp and it works great. Their implementation of Gantt charts is easy on the eye and great for sharing project schedules and milestones with stakeholders.
My concern with Wrike is that the pricing structure starts to get expensive for small business, the price scale is too steep in my opinion. I've also observed a trend of taking their paid community feedback and rolling those features into more expensive plans which is completely their choice of course, but just felt wrong. Despite really enjoying using Wrike, for Change Fox, I couldn't achieve what I needed in Wrike without a 5 user, business plan paid annually. In my first month of business, when it was just myself, this was a large investment and as such, I moved towards the tools that came with my Office 365 subscription.
Trello is a great way to visualise your teams work in a typical kanban view. They were also recently bought out by Atlassian so it will be interesting to see how they integrate these two great tools. I have only used Trello as a collaborator on an outsourced project but found it to be user-friendly and quick to use. If you're looking for a quick method of creating visibility and drive your processes then this may be worth evaluating.
I'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"). JIRA is their project/task management suite that can be used for kanban or agile style processes. Coupled with their other tools like BitBucket, Confluence, HipChat and recently their Service Desk offering, these are very well designed and integrated tools that encourage and enable team collaboration.
I've not used Asana previously, but it's a tool that I've heard mentioned a number of times over the year or so. The emphasis for Asana is putting your work list front and centre by priority and enabling communications.
While Asana itself doesn't have much more scope than the above (that I 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.
If you do use Asana, I'd love to hear what you think of it and how it's changed the way you work.
Microsoft Planner (included in Office 365 for business)
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.
The reason I 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 I am 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 Environments
Software development environments have very specific requirements that shouldn't be ignored if you have a dispersed development team.
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 to 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
As discussed above as part of JIRA, Atlassian tools form a very compelling story with task management (JIRA), document management (Confluence), chat and communications (HipChat) 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.
Visual Studio Team Services
Visual Studio Team Services (previously known as VSO or Visual Studio Online) is a great option for "Microsoft Shops" and I believe comes included in Microsoft Partner Programs and as such may make sense. Further, if your organisation is already committed to Office 365, this makes a lot of sense to evaluate against your requirements. Combining VSTS with SharePoint and even Teams is an interesting way of combining a lot of your everyday tools with your software specific products.
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 I 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 competitive advantage to your organisation.
I would be happy to discuss the above article and the tools I've discussed with anybody going through the process of either building a dispersed team or seeking improvements in their effectiveness, connect and message me through LinkedIn or via the LiveChat on this site!
Have a great week everyone!