Tag: working remotely

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.

A version of this post originally appeared on bethkanter.org and is reprinted here with permission.

In many of the workshops I’ve been facilitating based on the Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout, nonprofits are recognizing that offering some workplace flexibility to employees is not only an attractive benefit, but also can increase productivity and help prevent burnout. Many nonprofits allow staff to work remotely one day a week. Workplace flexibility creates a need for better skills in facilitating virtual meetings and hybrid meetings where some participants are in the room and others participate are using audio-only or video conferencing platform.

However, there are many challenges to running effective virtual or hybrid meetings. Virtual meetings which are not well implemented can mean a loss of productivity or create collaborative overload. Aside from technical issues, the biggest problem is engagement. As Hasan Osman points out in his Pyramid of Communication,  as you move to virtual modes of collaboration and communication, group cohesion and intimacy decreases. This makes it hard for people to fully engage with each other.

Here are some best practices for virtual meetings to get past the pain.

1. Co-create your team’s rules of engagement or virtual meeting norms

Rules of meeting engagement or “meeting norms” are stated standards that refer to processes, preparation, and communication practices which can apply to any meeting. Virtual meetings may have some specific norms, such as:

  • We will use the technology that most accessible to everyone on our team.
  • Test your technology before the meeting and resolve any technical issues.
  • Use a phone line with audio clarity and stability.
  • Do not multi-task (do other work) during the meeting.
  • Follow an organized line-up to ensure each person has a chance to respond.
  • Find a quiet space to participate.
  • Use the mute button at your site to prevent transmitting background noise.
  • Speak up to get attention if you have something to say.
  • Turn on your video whenever possible and be camera-ready.

Meeting norms should be shared with your agenda at the top of your meeting, used to reinforce different behaviors, help you improve your virtual meeting process, and should be a short list of no more than six. Meeting norms should be co-created and discussed with your team because for them to work, everyone has to own them.

A thirty-minute facilitated process can be used to discuss and create a draft for your meeting norms. Alternately, you can use a process called Gifts and Hooks where participants share what gifts they can bring to create an engaging meeting and what they need to be engaged.

2. Remember that virtual meeting design is more than agenda planning

While agenda planning covers what topics will be discussed for how long and by whom, virtual meeting design requires more designing. You need to think through purpose, roles, meeting norms, materials, facilitator agenda (specially if you are using online tools to do activities like brainstorming), technical, scheduling, and communication.

If you want to get better engagement, identify different people to assume different roles on a rotating basis. Roles may include:

  • Facilitator: Designs and facilitates meeting
  • Note taker:  Takes action notes/takeaways and emails them to everyone right after meeting
  • Technical support: Helps with technical troubleshooting
  • Bridge moderator: Someone who can assist remote participants in a face-to-face meeting or those unable to use a video conference platform or facilitates in the chat
  • Time keeper: Keeps time

Some teams appoint a “Yoda” to add some levity and increase human connection. A Yoda is the person who mentions the elephant in the room or calls it out when meeting norms are not being followed.

For more on designing your virtual meeting, read this helpful resource from Nancy White and colleagues.

3. Avoid technical and time-zone scheduling snafus

It isn’t a matter of whether or not technical problems will happen—expect them to happen and have a Plan B or a way to avoid falling into the pit of technical despair  where the meeting gets derailed because of one person’s technical issue or you experimenting with a new tool and it doesn’t work as planned. First, make sure everyone troubleshoots their technical issues before the meeting, if possible. Many platforms have a technical testing page and good tech support; include those links ahead of your meeting. And, if not, here’s a great infographic of common virtual meeting technical issues and fixes.

My secret is to write out a step-by-step facilitator agenda if using a new technical tool and rehearse it. And, always have a plan B. For examples, if your platform drops callers, be a little flexible with the agenda. If someone is supposed to share their screen and is having a technical problem, make sure people have copies of the document. As the facilitator, you should also have a copy so you can share your own screen if needed.

Many virtual meetings require working across time zones; my best tips and tools are in this recent post.

4. Always do a virtual icebreaker or check-in

A great meeting or training starts with a great icebreaker. Icebreakers are discussion questions or activities used to help participants relax and ease people into a group meeting or learning situation. It is important to build in time for an icebreaker because it can create a positive group atmosphere, break down social barriers, motivate, help people think about the topic, and get people to know and trust one another. Almost any icebreaker you do in a face-to-face meeting can also be done virtually.

But you can also have some fun with virtual icebreakers that build trust and engagement. For example, you can share photos of your workspace or your location.

5. Create a line for participants to follow

Establish a method to call in participants. This might include alphabetical order by first or last name, or if you are using a video conference platform, by order on the screen. If you are using an audio-only conference call platform, you can use the clock technique where you assign people numbers on the clock at the top of the meeting, then use that for introductions and later in the meeting to call on people as part of the discussion. Here are some more tips for making audio-only conference calls more effective.

Pro Tip: If you are using a video conference platform, watch for eye movement (means person is reading something), arms moving or typing sounds (they’re typing), or bored expressions. Don’t call out the person specifically, but remind people that one of your meeting norms is full attention.  Here are some more techniques to ensure your virtual meeting participants are listening.

6. Use techniques for virtual brainstorming, voting, feedback, and energizers

In face-to-face meetings, one way we get engagement is doing activities like brainstorming and sticky voting. Both of these activities can be done online using different tools. For brainstorming and sticky dot voting, there are many free, simple to use, and low cost tools you can use. My two favorite sticky note applications are BoardThing and  Linoit.The tool is the least of the requirements for an effective virtual brainstorm, you need to understand how to design and facilitate an effective process. If you are using a video conference platform, you can do a thumbs up or down vote.

During face-to-face meetings, you can easily tell when participants are getting tired or the energy drops.  With virtual meetings, even with video conferencing, it is more difficult. You can ask people about their energy level and then ask them to do a simple stretch movement to help replenish energy. There are also some fun virtual energizers and games that make it fun.

7. Evaluate and continuously improve virtual meetings

Your nonprofit’s virtual meetings will get better over time if you allocate 5 or 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to evaluate how it went and what you need to improve. You can use the same methods you would use to evaluate any meeting or training. Here’s an example of using virtual sticky notes to evaluate meetings using two different methods, “Sad, Mad, Glad” and “Plus/Delta.”

8. Make sure virtual participants aren’t left out in hybrid meetings

When you have both remote participants and people in the room, use a bridge moderator (someone in the physical meeting) who ensures that there is a linkage between all participants. The bridge moderator reminds people in the face-to-face meeting that virtual participants are part of the meeting. They check to make sure that virtual participants can hear, see, and speak. If you’re using video conferencing, project remote participants on the screen or give them a seat at the meeting table.

9. Send meeting notes that people actually read

I’m sure you are not surprised: no one reads meeting minutes. Nonprofit professionals are so under-resourced and busy that they don’t often have time to go through meeting minute documents and reading them to figure out what they missed. Most people rely on what was mentioned verbally in a meeting, which can lead to miscommunication. A brief, concise follow-up email that summarizes who is working on what is a lot more more effective than meeting minutes. Here’s a good guide for meeting note taking.

Additional tools and techniques

If you are like me, you are always looking for more tools and techniques to increase engagement during virtual meetings, webinars, and workshops. Check out “The Ultimate List of Virtual Meeting Tools” or “The Ultimate List of Online Collaboration Tools” for more tools. If you want to evaluate meeting platforms, check out this list from Gartner or this curated list from Collaboration Super Powers. If you are looking for different facilitation techniques to adapt to virtual meeting spaces, check out “8 Fabulous Meeting Facilitation Playbooks.”

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.