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May 6, 2021

We're 100% remote. Here are the tools we use daily.

We've been working remotely since day one. It's going quite well. Exhausting the entire spectrum of remote working tools to find the right solutions has been a process we wouldn't wish on anyone. So, in light of common remote-work-woes, we're sharing what we've settled on.

These recommendations are based around collaboration, one of the areas most at risk where a shift to remote is new or inefficient. Thank us later.

Notion.

Notion is amazing. It's an all-in-one-workspace that looks like a word processor, but is made of 'Lego-style building blocks' that replace most of the functionality of five or six common office applications in a highly flexible yet straightforward package. It works in a browser and updates instantly to a shared cloud workspace. It's friendly and easy to get started with, but with time you'll realise that minimalist, clean interface hides powerful functionality.

What we use it for:

All-in-one hub for tasks, collaborative working and information storage.

How we make the most of it:

Use it as an online HQ, with everything your team uses under a single roof.

With Notion as a shared online workspace, colleagues can tag each other, collaborate on documents in real time and work from their browser rather than saving and sending documents. The power of this is difficult to put into words. Instead of having team communication occurring in fragmented documents and conversations, having it all in one place is truly a game-changer.

Its secret weapon is pivoting data between views.

Notion's brilliance comes with the ability to create a 'database' - say, a list of features, which can be seamlessly be viewed as a timeline, Kanban board or calendar. There's a slight learning curve, but trust us when we say it's worth it to learn this decade's answer to the Pivot Table.

Use a variety of Templates to create what you need, quickly.

There are a plethora of templates, from to-do-lists, to group Kanban boards, to roadmaps, to meeting logs.

Use the shortcuts, links and embedding for maximum power-'Notioning'.

Since I realised that I could simply start a block with a number of hashes for a level of subheading - for example ## to create a 'Heading 2', I'm unable to go back to other systems. Try this; write a slash character in Notion and investigate the sheer number of options for shortcuts and embeds, linking to the files you can't have in Notion or embedding myriad other apps.

LucidChart, or Draw.io

On the face of it, LucidChart is a powerful but streamlined tool for creating diagrams and flowcharts, equipped with templates galore. From the trusty mind-map to sales processes, org charts and much more - see here for use cases and inspo. But, it's real power comes in its immediate and easy collaboration features. We use these as a visual communication tool to brainstorm and work creatively. It's cloud-based, which means you can share your work with a link that grants access to the latest version, minimising pesky back and forth of PDFs.

Note that LucidChart is free to use personally, but collaborating is a paid feature. If this is important, consider collaborating via screen share with one person as a scribe. Or, simply use a tool called draw.io which is a similar, less powerful but completely free option, allowing for collaboration if a file is saved on Google Drive.

What we use it for:

Exactly what it says on the tin - easily digestible diagrams, especially for real time communication and collaboration. Collaboration is a paid LucidChart feature, but is free on Draw.io.

What we do to make the most of it:

Use diagrams during a group call or meeting, to get your ideas across.

We've all been in there, trying to get our thoughts across with words. Words? We have the internet. Start a diagram and send a link out to the people in the meeting, so you can 'chalk and talk' with a diagram or flowchart. Plus, you'll have it for later presentation to anyone else who needs to know, rather than verbally regurgitating.

Set reminders to come back to, or update, diagrams.

Right clicking a diagram gives you the option to remind yourself to come back to it - handy. Nudge yourself into updating a roadmap, or finishing off some documentation.

Layer and use 'Actions' that link pages together to create 'nested' diagrams.

Layers organise multiple levels of diagram that can be overlaid and removed to create simplified or specific views. Or, click the lightning bolt to link a shape to other pages or LucidChart documents. We use this to start off with a top-level diagram, that can be clicked through to more granular parts. Just remember to pop in a little link back up the chain, for smooth navigation.

Use power features like shortcuts, editing the whole diagram at once, or linking outwards.

Just tap L to create an arrow or line, or quickly clone things by holding Alt and dragging away. A huge time-saver is to edit all similar shapes; click 'select > shapes with same > shape type'. You can also make shapes link to external pages.

Whiteboards; LucidSpark, OneNote, MS Whiteboard

Virtual whiteboards have honestly changed the way we work. Moving from being stuck in text, emails or describing concepts verbally to being able to scribble and draw as a group is revolutionary. A picture speaks a thousand words, but communication is a two-way street; an ability to edit the same picture at the same time reduces the need to speak so much.

LucidSpark is the most fully-featured for collaboration.

With its smooth real-time operation, an infinite canvas and complete feature set - from sticky notes to voting with dots, this is the most professional-feeling option available. However, to use more than a certain number of scribbles, you'll have to pay - sorry. Whiteboards are stored, but it takes a few clicks to move between them.

OneNote is best for organising, storing and referring to a large volume of notes.

Our personal favourite, and a fully-fledged note taking suite that comes with a searchable digital notebook, plus impressive chops as a drawing tool. You can insert shapes and data and convert handwritten text to typed notes. It also syncs across devices and even offline. Start working on your laptop and add a eureka moment thought on your phone. Gone are the days of squandered moments of inspiration.

MS Whiteboard is the fast, easy option for 'fire-and-forget' group scribbling.

An Office 365 Add-On - it doesn't have the same options as OneNote in terms of filing away work once your session is over, but it's lightning quick and ideal for a more informal brainstorm or 'idea dump' as a team. This is another tool equipped with sticky notes and the option to import documents and media forms directly onto the page.

What we use it for:

Brainstorming together in real-time.

What we do to make the most of it:

Link to a whiteboard on a video call.

This affords you a break from staring into each others' faces and instead, lets you huddle around a common space for throwing ideas out or communicating with each other visually.

Invest in a graphics tablet - they're cheap and will make brainstorming a joy.

If you're a keen doodler, or if you find working visually as helpful as we do, you'll quickly realise that drawing with a mouse is like sculpting with a chainsaw; grab a drawing tablet. There are cheap but usable options for as little as £30 ($40) e.g. the XP-PEN G430S, small enough to fit on any desk. If you want a little more space or precision, go for the Wacom Intuous range.

Microsoft 365 SharePoint (or Google Drive)

SharePoint - included in any MS 365 subscription - lets you work out of a common, auto-updating shared folder, even offline. This will knock down a mighty dam from any team workflow. You don't have to be constantly pestering colleagues for the latest versions of documents or for resources - because you'll all be working from the same place, out of the same folders. Nobody attaches things to emails anymore. It's not 2004.

What's the difference between OneDrive and SharePoint? OneDrive is a repository for one user's files on the cloud, whereas SharePoint is a mutually accessible space for group files, with specific features like access privileges. Google Drive does both, a little less sophisticatedly - but for free. If you already use MS 365, use SharePoint.

What we use it for:

Storing and organising work files in a shared space, synchronised to your computer.

What we do to make the most of it:

A must: sync the group SharePoint/Google Drive to your local computer.

The convenience of this can't be overstated. On the SharePoint site, it's as easy as pressing 'Sync' on the group folder. This is a full guide, or look here for a Google Drive guide. This means you can open files from the group drive, as if they were on your own computer.

Use the 'Share' feature to quickly generate a link - or just tell them where it is.

Avoid the tiring ordeal of 'draft tennis', each time appending DIY labelling a la 'version no.15 full edits_by_Steve FINAL ver. 2.0' which may not be the 'final' version if there happens to be a 'final final' version out there.

Instead of emailing a file, hit the 'Share' button in the top-right of any Microsoft software - see screenshot below - to generate a quick link. It links to the actual version, not to a copy, so any updates you make will be visible in real time. You can even make the link public, to share externally. Alternately, if you're both synced, just say 'It's in the Marketing folder' and they can open the live version from their own computer as if it were saved.

Work from a single copy, simultaneously. Click it through.

Related to the previous point, MS 365 and Google Drive both support simultaneous editing in real time, even being able to see where collaborators are working in the document and a history of edits.

Don't make copies for successive drafts - use the 'Version History' tool.

Hidden behind a click of the file name itself at the very top of Word, Excel or PowerPoint, is a feature called 'Version History' - see screenshot below. This will let you to see a document's state at any point in the past, even alongside the current version, and you can even manually save a 'draft' milestone as a named version. This removes so much clutter. 'Filename Draft 1'. 'Filename Draft 7'. Please, no more.

Microsoft Teams

Microsoft's answer to persistent chat-based collaboration. It comes with easy document sharing, voice and video calling options and is organised by way of 'teams' (as the name suggests) and 'channels' within those teams that can be organised by a particular project or goal. If you're unfamiliar take a look at this guide.

Whilst Slack is a sleeker, more easy to use option, Teams builds off the Office 365 platform, affording it seamless integration with Microsoft apps. If you use office, using Teams is a no-brainer. Otherwise, go for Slack.

What we use it for:

Daily team communication.

What we do to make the most of it:

Update Bulletins and Channel Messages, used correctly, can replace so many meetings.

Unlike a traditional 'bulletin', these can be edited and replied to publicly or privately, making them a great way to quickly publicise and discuss small amounts of information. This can often entirely replace an all-hands meeting. We like to use a 🏁 emoji to denote the goals for the day or week.

Make a group chat dedicated to non-work, general chatter.

It's important to maintain the social element that the office once provided. Group chats are the new office water coolers. Don't chastise colleagues for chatting during work hours - they would've done it in the office anyway. It just means they'll stay on Teams rather than switching to their phone.

Microsoft Teams

We'll go into more detail about this soon, with more tips and tricks on how to make this remote schtick work, but for now we think phones deserve a special mention as an underrated tool for working 'on the go'. As per the above sales pitch, download the mobile app for your group calling solution of choice to join calls away from your work station. Or even just use good old phone numbers - remember those?

What we use it for:

Walking and talking.

What we do to make the most of it:

Use calls as an opportunity to get a walk and a breather in the day.

Ahmed and Tim usually phone each other up for daily briefings while they wander around the neighbourhood. Of course, having a walk free of any technology is the best way to truly disconnect, but if you're on the call anyway, it's better to be in the fresh air than chained to your desk. It's also surprisingly easier to focus on the call itself if you're moving around.

Muting work apps after a certain time isn't slacking - it keeps you productive.

The above point is useful, but you run the risk of being 'always on' and roped into work after you clock out. Use your 'digital wellbeing' settings to mute work apps after a certain time, or to switch to 'do not disturb' mode. Both Apple and Android have recently gone big on adding these features. But do tell everyone you're doing this and not to expect to hear from you in the evening. It may sound like you're working less, but you'll be working fresh.

With these tools, you'll hopefully be able to share ideas effectively, keep them recorded and work to develop those ideas with minimal friction and barriers of unnecessary back and forth. By combining these tools, we've made it smooth and easy to be creative together, from wherever we are. We hope they're helpful.

But, what actually needs to get done? We'll get to that in the second half of this piece, to share our task management and delegation tools. See you there.

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