Tag: telecommuting

Are you part of a team with members located in different places? If so, it can sometimes be tricky to keep the team on the same page when it comes to projects.

Stop the endless chain of emails back and forth, and consider using some collaboration tools. Here are some that work for me.

Shared documents

A while back, I worked with a team of special librarians at the Consortium of Foundation Libraries to update a research guide, Tools for the Trade, that focused on core resources for grantmakers. With team members working on the project from both sides of the country, the group used the collaborative features of Google Docs, a free tool, to update the guide.

Team members could add changes at any time and make use of the shared document’s commenting feature to post questions or tasks for the group. This was a particularly useful feature especially with team members working in different time zones. Occasionally, I would be notified that another team member was collaborating with me in real time when I saw their user icon pop up in the upper right corner of the Google Doc. This sometimes became tricky when their changes caused the document to move up or down while I was writing.

In another experience, as part of a journal committee, collaborative documents were used to collect ideas for journal content and to keep the team on track for upcoming articles, interviews and future themes. Working with a team that was dispersed across the country, the team lead used Google Docs during regularly hosted teleconference calls. When team members couldn’t make a call due to a scheduling conflict, they could review the shared Google Doc to see the call’s notes, and to add their ideas and comments as needed. In the upper left corner of Google Docs, you can view changes to the document you are collaborating on by clicking the blue “See new changes” box. With team members logging in during different times of the day to make changes, it is helpful that Google Docs autosaves content–no matter who makes the changes.

Team chat apps

I’m currently gaining experience with this as part of a conference planning team. We are using Slack, a cloud-based chat application. One of the features I appreciate about chat software is that I can get regular updates sent to my email about new content and comments that have been added to Slack. While the committee is large and spread out across the country, the ability to develop profiles and add a profile picture within Slack helps others learn about each other.

Slack offers free trial accounts for small teams.

Project management tools

These tools keep a complicated process, for the most part, running smoothly. I used Basecamp recently as part of a conference planning team. With members representing a variety of divisions at the association, this tool helped to update the team on deadlines, facilitated collaboration on conference sessions, and allowed for planning documents and information to be shared.

The takeaway: Email can be a great tool for some purposes but it fails us for true collaboration. When planning your next project, consider if there are needs your current systems don’t meet and whether a new tool can help you save time and money.

Heather Martin is a speaker at the 2017 Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.

Imagine waking up when you want, not having to shower or get dressed in the morning, sitting around with your feet on your desk drinking as much coffee as you need, taking a break and binge-watching Netflix—and getting paid to do all that. This image is what most people think about when they think about being a remote employee… unfortunately, it’s a myth.

When it comes to working at home, there are some definite perks: no commute, wear what you want (your pj’s!), fewer interruptions from your colleagues, less focus on the daily concerns of office politics, and the potential to multi-task with household chores. But to get these perks, you need to first prove that you can be productive and successful at your job. It’s up to you to make it work.

Last year, I wrote an article for NTEN, “Managing Virtually for Ultimate Productivity.” I focused on companies, providing tips for how the organization can successfully support remote employees. In this article, I turn the tables, looking at what remote employees need to do to make this relationship successful.

Communication is key

As a remote employee, you may assume you have all the information you need to get your job done. If that is not the case, many remote employees get frustrated, upset, and even angry, asking “Why is my manager not communicating critical information to me?”

To be as successful as possible, you first have to assume positive intent. Your manager is not trying to keep things from you, or purposely keeping you out of the loop. They may not even realize that the information was not pass on as clearly as possible.

As a remote employee, your job is to take responsibility to make sure you have all the information you need. You need to ask questions, request information, and clarify expectations. The more you communicate with your team and your manager, the more necessary information you will have to do your job well.

Create a routine

If you go into an office to work, you create a routine: wake up, shower, get dressed, make coffee, take care of kids/pets/spouses, and get to the office. This routine helps you start your day and be ready to jump into work. When working remotely, a morning routine is similarly helpful to jumpstart your day and be ready to be productive. There is no right or wrong routine, just create one that works for you and stick with it.

Ensure you have a good work environment

Invest in a stable internet connection, a good headset (if you will be on the phone or video conferencing), and a comfortable chair. Make a space for yourself that is conducive to getting work done. For some people this may be an office with a door, for others a desk in the basement where no one can disturb them, or even a table by a window at a coffee shop or a coworking space, if you are more productive around others.

Make sure you are given the proper tools to use, as well. If you need to communicate via video conferencing, make sure your camera and computer provide you with what you need. Find software that works best for your needs. A great place to start looking for ideas and information is Idealware. They have reviews on everything from online conferencing tools to software that helps manage team communications.

Work with your manager to set goals

If it is not part of your manager’s or organization’s process to set goals for employees, insist on it. Or start by writing your own and sharing them with your manager. Being on the same page as your supervisor and aligned with the organization’s overall vision and mission is essential to an employee’s success.

I like the story that my father once told me when he first used a GPS system in a car he had rented in Chicago. He was on his way to catch a flight home and put the airport into the GPS. The directions took him exactly where they were supposed to, even avoiding construction and other detours, while making great time. When he got to his destination, he realized he was in the wrong place. Turns out he put the wrong airport into the GPS system. Moral of the story: You may be excellent at what you do, but if you are doing the wrong thing it doesn’t matter how good you are at doing it.

Pick up the phone

Reaching out by phone can nip all issues in the bud before they are blown out of proportion. My rules for reaching out by phone include:

  • If you are on the 3rd email back and forth on a topic, pick up the phone.
  • If you are unsure or do not understand the project and timeline, pick up the phone. There are no stupid questions.
  • If you are waiting for a response to something and it has been a reasonable amount of time, pick up the phone.


If you are ready to take on the challenges of working remotely and have a realistic view of what that work environment will be like, there can be many rewards. Keep an open mind, be flexible, over-communicate, and have patience—you will be provided with the flexibility to be even more productive and succeed in ways you may not have been able to in a traditional work environment.

For this month’s Connect theme, we are highlighting some of the speakers, facilitators, keynotes, attendees, sponsors, and scholarship recipients of the 2015 Leading Change Summit in Washington, DC September 13-16.

Information technology (and especially the Internet) have helped to remove geographic barriers that once defined working teams. Organizations of all sizes are finding that the benefits of distributed teams outweigh the risks and weaknesses. At Community IT, we have come to rely on distributed teams as core to our business operations. For us, this started with long-time staff moving away from the Washington, DC area. These incredibly talented and experienced staff remained committed to the mission of the company and wanted to continue working from their new location.

A decade ago, this would not have been possible, given that our primary service was on-site support of nonprofit networks. The tools did not yet exist for doing this work remotely. That limitation has since changed significantly. Some of the main technological factors behind this change include:

  • Evolution of IT specific tools for remote network management (including remote access tools, like LogMeIn)
  • Evolution of general technology tools that allow for virtual collaboration (in particular enterprise chat and video conference software—in our case Skype for Business)
  • Affordable, high-bandwidth Internet
  • Increasingly remote nature of the clients we serve

The last point is worth emphasizing. As many nonprofit organizations also move to a distributed work model, it became increasingly important for us to be able to support them remotely. The organization may be based in Washington, DC, but they might have a field office in Chicago, and three other staff working in Denver, Charlotte, and Philadelphia.

Building the capacity to work as and with distributed teams is becoming less of an option, and more of a requirement for many organizations. In order to remain competitive and relevant, and in order to work effectively with other organizations, understanding how to support distributed teams is essential.

There are a variety of specific issues to consider when building, expanding, and/or managing distributed teams. For the purposes of this article, it is helpful to think of these issues in terms of people, policy, and technology.


Not every person or every position is suitable for a distributed team. For some, it could be their temperament or work style; perhaps they need more structure than a distributed team can provide. Staff who are early in their career, or new to their positions, may require more guidance and training than is available in a distributed environment. I personally believe that leadership teams are more effective if they meet in person on a regular basis. And for some organizations, there may be positions that cannot be performed effectively in a distributed way. In my role as CEO, I try to spend as much time as possible meeting with our clients; in my experience, there is no substitute for having those meetings in person.

It is important to be clear, as early in the process as possible, which positions and roles can be performed in a virtual, distributed manner (ideally as part of a written policy.)

It is also important to understand and establish clear expectations about how distributed staff and teams are expected to work.


Labor laws vary from state to state. Make sure that your HR team is aware and has the capacity to manage employees in multiple states. Does your health insurance provide coverage nationwide? Does your payroll system allow you to easily manage state tax across the US? What about internationally-located staff? Are your staff exempt or non-exempt, and what impact will that have on expectations around working hours?

Having to address these issues can sometimes be addressed with “1099” self-employed workers rather than the standard “W–2” employed workers. In fact, as the so-called “sharing economy” starts to move into the area of labor, it is possible to do more small-scale contract-based work. This, of course, raises other questions about the commitment of staff to the mission and the ability to establish and foster a strong working culture. At Community IT, we have resisted the industry trend to outsource our help desk overseas. Although the cost savings could be significant, commitment to mission and customer service are core to our business. So we have a strategic imperative to maintain an in-house help desk.

How does your organization’s strategy impact the approach you should take to your distributed teams?

There are no easy answers or one-size-fits-all answers. Some trial and error is probably also inevitable for any organization looking to build up its ability to work with distributed teams.

Who provides the bandwidth connection? What about equipment and office supplies? We originally had our employees provide their own equipment. A few years in, as the number of distributed staff started to grow, our management team expressed some concern about this policy. After studying more closely, we realized it would be more effective for us to provide and manage the computer for most of our distributed staff.

There is a wide variety of issues resulting from working in distributed teams. It is vital to involve the operations team throughout the decision-making and implementation aspects of this approach. I strongly advise developing a solid written (though living and evolving) policy pertaining to all relevant issues. Having a well-written HR policy that outlines expectations and requirements for both the distributed staff, as well as the organization, is not just a best practice—it can help organizations be more deliberate in getting ahead of these issues.


There is an unprecedented number of tools to pick from for facilitating the work of distributed teams. Our primary tools at are special-purpose applications, such as our ticketing system and our endpoint management software. Your organization will likely benefit from a few special-purpose systems as well.

There is also a variety of more general productivity tools that will prove important for organizations looking to foster distributed teams.

By way of a brief survey of what is out there, following are just a few examples by category.

  • Communication
    • Email
    • Skype for Business
    • Google Hangouts
    • Slack
    • Yammer
  • Video communication and desktop sharing
    • Skype for Business
    • Google Hangouts
    • GoToMeeting
    • Adobe Connect
  • Project and Task Management
    • To do lists: Basecamp, Asana, Todoist, Wunderlist (now MS)
    • Kanban Board: Trello, Jira
    • More advanced: Smartsheet, Podio, SharePoint Online
  • Document collaboration
    • Office 365 SP Online
    • Office 365 OneDrive
    • Box
    • Dropbox
    • Google Drive
    • Use a dedicated purpose tool
  • Note-taking and tracking
    • Office 365: OneNote
    • Evernote
    • Use another solution for note-taking

I am not endorsing any of these tools for your organization or situation. I will be surveying the entire sector at the upcoming Leading Change Summit in my session on Working with Distributed Teams, and helping to lead attendees through the process of making decisions around their IT solutions.