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The SolarWinds Guide to Work From Home: Collaboration at a Distance

Level 17

A lot of these tips are predicated on the idea that the work we do is largely individual contributions. But the truth is at SolarWinds (and probably where you work, too), we do a lot of brainstorming, whiteboarding, and even four-hands-one-keyboard-ing. How can we continue to work together when we’re not actually together?

For any communications with internal individuals, your collaboration platform—whether it’s Microsoft Teams or Slack or something else—should be your first choice. There are many reasons for this, but the short list is:

  • The ability to conference other people into a team discussion surpasses anything you can do on a cell phone by an order of magnitude in terms of ease of use.
  • The audio and video quality are “good enough” (depending on your internet connection of course).
  • Many of these tools allow you to “blur” the background of your video calls (hiding your cluttered office, kitchen, etc.).
  • The screen sharing is simple and intuitive.
  • You and your callers can easily work on documents simultaneously.
  • File sharing is stored within the collaboration platform.

Consider using a “true” meeting tool (such as Zoom or Webex) only when you’re meeting with external parties.

Use the status features in your company’s chat app to signal your availability. When you come into the office, set your status and your status message to indicate you’re available and working at your home office. When you go to lunch, set the “be right back” status, and log out using “away” at the end of the day. Many chat apps have the option to set a custom status, so use it at your discretion to indicate a status the out-of-the-box indicators don’t cover. Your team will learn to rely on checking your status for availability if you use this consistently.

Also, be aware certain events or actions will change your status in Teams. Starting a call with someone will automatically change your status to “in a meeting.” Starting a screen sharing session will automatically put in you “Do Not Disturb” mode until you stop sharing. Generally, these are good things, but you should nevertheless be aware of them. See your company’s application guidelines for automatic status changes you may be subjected to.

Regardless of your collaboration software choice, you should (almost) always use a camera for video sharing. Attendees are more responsive when they see a face.

  • Webcams: You want to “maintain eye contact” as much as possible when working remotely. This is easily done with a laptop because the webcam is attached at the top. If you connect to an external monitor, it’s best to have the other person’s video near the same place as your camera. This allows for natural eye contact instead of you looking at other screens. Also, raise your laptop (re-use a shipping box you haven’t recycled or use a stack of books) to put yourself at or just above eye level. Nothing’s more distracting than looking up someone’s nose during a call.
  • When you’re speaking, look directly into the camera. Pay attention to your lighting, so your face isn’t constantly in shadow. (See “lighting” in the “Your Work Life at Home” post.)
  • Screen sharing: The power of sharing what you have on your screen cannot be overstated. Even if you aren’t collaboratively editing a document at the same time, just being able to say “Wait, go back to the bit at the top” and talking through things is incredibly helpful.
  • Whiteboarding, old school: Some people think best when they can sketch things out freehand, scribble down notes, and draw (literal) connections from one idea to another. If you have a whiteboard handy, training your webcam on it and going to town is just about the same whether you and the team are in the same room or miles apart.
  • Whiteboarding, new style: Technology allows us to take the simple whiteboarding experience and kick it up a notch. Within Teams, you can invite everyone to a meeting and then do a whiteboarding session where everyone can sketch, type, connect, and revise until an idea begins to form. Other whiteboarding apps, such as Freehand by InVision, can integrate with chat apps like Teams.
  • Co-working on a document: One of the nice parts about sharing a document (either in Teams or in SharePoint) is multiple people can simultaneously open the document and add new information, make changes and edits, etc. If you really need “all hands on deck,” there’s no better way to get everyone involved and crank out a deliverable in record time. And it beats the heck over the “email a copy around to each person one at a time” method we used to do.
  • Other apps in Teams—there are dozens of other apps you can use for workflow (Asana, Trello, Divvy), brainstorming (Evernote, Freehand, OneNote), and more. Your company may use a different chat app, like Slack, and there are often options you can explore for integration there as well.

Collaboration is key to your work experience both in the office, and now in the new work from home lifestyle. Hopefully, our tips help your team be efficient while you are in disparate locations, and when the dust all settles and we go back to “normal” life, you’ll know how these tips can be used both in the office and when coworkers are remote. Close the gap between team members and even different teams and collaborate more! Your energy and ideas may be what gets a project moving again, or someone from a different team or department might do the same for your project.

Find our next foray into the work from home series, Clear Communication, where we’ll discuss the importance of maintaining those communication channels, ways to stay connected, and general advice about remote conversations.

1 Comment
Level 14

Thanks for the article!