Selecting the Right Tools to Support Distributed Teams

With more employees working from home, companies are seeking out the best digital tools to support them—but don't neglect the human side of any rollout.

Thanks to technology, it’s possible to be just as (if not more) effective at home. But organizations often get stuck when it comes to finding the best digital tools, not to mention onboarding employees onto new tools. At NOBL, we’ve been conducting our own tools refresh, and reached out to Atlassian to discover some of their best practices on selecting tools for your team. 

Phase 1: Assess Needs

First, conduct an audit of the tools you use currently to identify what’s working and what’s not, as well as the most common work flows and projects you and your team work on. Ask questions like: What do you use most often? What type of work takes place most often on which tool? How do you manage information, assign tasks, mention colleagues? This will help surface what problems are most pressing, and ensure you prioritize those features and functions above all else.

At Atlassian, they’ve developed a Remote Readiness Assessment (RRA): a consultative interview that helps managers and team members understand what remote readiness entails, how ready they are, and what they can do to fill in any readiness gaps. Within the context of selecting tools that facilitate remote work, ask questions focused on communication and workflow, such as:

  • Roughly what percentage of your team’s communication happens digitally? Digital interactions are the lifeblood of successful remote work. If your team tends to default to in-person interactions, you’ll want to build some muscle around using digital tools for chat, meetings, and project tracking.
  • How much does your team rely on contributions from other teams in order to meet your goals? Remote work has an impact on your stakeholders and anyone else you depend on for cross-functional work. If your team is highly dependent on others, you’ll want to make sure you have a digital project tracking tool that provides visibility into each team’s backlog and collection of work in progress. 

Once you’ve collected responses, determine what criteria you’ll use to compare and select tools for further testing.

Phase 2: Test and Select

After doing due diligence on tools that could potentially meet your needs, narrow your search to three tools to do a few trial runs. Remember, no tool is perfect, so you’ll have to make some compromises on what’s “must-have” versus “nice-to-have.” Take advantage of free trial periods to get primary users testing out features and functionality. Ask them to recreate a current work flow in the tool: if they don’t get very far, that lack of action will likely be an indicator of how slowly the tool could be to adopt. Finally, timebox your testing period and keep them focused on use cases—fancy features might distract you from addressing your actual, day-to-day needs.

After a few weeks of testing, collect feedback from your users and assess:

  • Price. It’s got to fit your budget. Many tools use a “free-mium” pricing model (basic features are free, but the advanced features come at a price) or are free for a small number of users but cost more as your team grows. Consider any guest access from clients or external partners, and take the scale of features needed into account.
  • Ease of use/adoption. Examine this from multiple levels: primary users (who are responsible for keeping information up to date), secondary users (others who will need to view the information), and clients/external stakeholders and how easily they can adopt the tool. Tools that are an administratively challenging tend to be maintained less rigorously and lovingly than their admin-friendly counterparts. It’s important to think about this across various use cases, not just on an ad hoc basis for what will meet the needs of one project that’s top of mind. 
  • Feature setMore features doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better piece of software. The question is whether it has the right features for you, both now and into the foreseeable future. If one or two critical features are missing, there may be plugins or other ways to extend the functionality and get what you need. Beware of taking this too far, however: the more you get into “Franken-tool” territory, the more compatibility issues you’ll run into. 
  • Integrations with tools you already use. This is generally considered a “nice to have”, but sometimes, integrations are really nice to have. Getting an automated ping in your team’s chat room saying the design work you requested is done? Great. Adding a comment to the design ticket right from that same chat room? Even better. 
  • Privacy and access. If you work with a lot of external clients or contractors, you’ll benefit from tools that offer an easy way to include them and keep their proprietary information private, as well as control how much content they have access to. 
  • Data storage. Chat and project tracking tools place restrictions on how much data you can store. This includes not only the work items and chat history, but also any attachments or files you might send back and forth. Be sure to work with your IT team on estimating how much storage you’ll need, then factor that into your decision. 
An example of a simple approach to evaluating different tools.

Speaking of working with your IT team, while you’re thinking about feature sets, they’re thinking about security concerns and how much time it will take to support the tool on an ongoing basis. According to Ryan Hastie, an IT manager at Atlassian, the ease of choosing and rolling out a new tool depends a lot on how security-focused your company is. 

“We look for things like single sign-on (SSO) and two-factor authentication support at a minimum,” he says. “Beyond that, IT admins appreciate when a tool has external directory support so that account provisioning and group management can be automated, and the ability to customize session length so users are automatically logged out after periods of inactivity.” 

He also recommends having the following information handy when you approach IT, or at least be ready to partner with them in gathering it:

  • How many people will be using this tool? If not the whole company, then which teams? 
  • How does billing work? If a new hire puts you over your limit of allotted seats, will you be able to add them right away and pay for the overage in your next bill? 
  • Is the tool cloud-based and hosted by the vendor, or will you need to install it on your servers?
  • How will end-users first get access? Do they download an app or log into a website and it “just works”, or will IT need to manage individual license keys for each user?

Given the number of considerations, it’s best to start working with IT as soon as possible. Even if you don’t yet have all the answers to these questions, they’ll appreciate being brought into the process early. 

Phase 3: Onboard and Train

Of course, the best tools are useless if people refuse to use them—so don’t neglect the human side of the equation. People resist change for several reasons, all related to loss:

  • Loss of time. Learning any new skill takes time and energy. If deadlines are looming—entirely possible in all the chaos of switching to work from home—it’s tempting to push off learning until later. Ideally, the tool will save time in the long run, but to ease the transition, work with your team to de-prioritize other work. And if you’re overhauling your entire stack, space out trainings based on frequency of use and user-value (e.g., start project managers with project management tools they’ll use daily, rather than your business development pipeline tool). 
  • Loss of control. People may have already developed their own personal “stack” of preferred tools. If you come in with a list of tools, people are likely to rebel—after all, what’s wrong with their tools? Where possible, solicit feedback before selecting a tool. Do make timelines clear on when old tools will be retired, and when work needs to be transitioned over. 
  • Loss of competence. People will experience a learning curve on any new system, which means they’ll feel frustrated until they’ve established a basic level of mastery. In addition to training, hold office hours for folks to troubleshoot their specific issues, and give them guidance on how to ask for help. For instance, give them a prompt like “As a ______ (type of user), I want to be able to _________ so that ________.”
  • Loss of Familiarity. Not only are you asking people to adopt new systems, you’re doing so at a time when the rest of their environment is in flux. They may be dealing with childcare issues due to school closings, or concern for older, more vulnerable relatives. Work with them to identify sources of stability, and make sure that you are modeling the behavior you want to see. 

Finally, many companies are realizing that remote work is highly effective—not to mention saves on office leases—so expect the work-from-home trend to continue long after the initial crisis has passed. If you’re looking for more ways to maintain connection and engagement in your workforce, don’t miss our article on maintaining company culture in a virtual workplace

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