When working intensely on a complex project with a group of people scattered across the country, completing even the smallest of tasks seems nearly impossible. Who hasn’t seen the infamous “A Conference Call In Real Life” parody video and seen all their own conference call experiences flash before their eyes? The ability to communicate effectively across the entire remote team is paramount to the success of many of the projects we have here at CPPR.
I have a personal love of technology and thrive on the process of finding and testing tools that might make the remote communication process smoother. The current project I coordinate has partners in four different states, spread across seven organizations, providing a great opportunity to do some of this testing. Over the last several months, my project team has utilized a cadre of tools (which some team members had never had the opportunity to use before) that are helping our remote team of partners build momentum and move us toward our end goal. An added benefit is that most of the tools we have settled on can be used for FREE**. Below, I will introduce you to the tools that we have had the most success with.
Using Google Docs for Grant Writing
Version control is a phrase that I hear like nails on a chalkboard. When you’re writing as a team, trying to keep track of who is making edits in a document at any point in time, making sure they’re editing the correct version, then making sure the correct version is passed along to the next editor. . . is all one big, complicated, and tedious job. With Google Docs, multiple writers from each of the partner organizations can have the document open at the same time, all contributing to the same final product at once. Without a doubt, this process saves our team many hours of time on edits and additions. Here’s a great video on how to use Google Docs to collaborate with your own teams.
Using Zoom Video Conferencing for Regular Calls
Another hiccup that can come up with remote teams is live communication. “When should we talk?” “How should we run our calls?” “Who should be on the calls?” These are all questions we asked ourselves when we started work on this project. Ultimately, we decided that we would need to have in-person meetings a few times per year. Our first meeting was held over three days, on the campus of James Madison University and, in July, the partners visited our team here at the University of Kansas for our second meeting.
For our biweekly meetings, we decided to try video conferencing, as we get our best work done when we can see one another. Video calls were going to be our best option since we’re spread so widely across the country and can’t justify the cost of in-person meetings more than a few times a year. While we tried several different video conferencing services, it wasn’t until the University of Kansas offered access to all staff earlier this year that we settled on Zoom as the tool we would use going forward. Zoom offers the ability to have device-based video and audio from all participants, a calling feature for times when someone can’t log in using a computer, and the ability to share screens — all very important features that make this tool work well for our needs.
To prepare for these regular calls, we use Google Docs to share an agenda ahead of time so that no one is surprised by what we’re talking about on any given week. Included in these agendas are links to relevant files so that people can review them prior to the call and access them easily while the call is happening. This also allows us to know when we need to move a topic to another week if the correct stakeholder will not be able to join us on that week’s call.
Additional Communication Tools
Slack. In addition to calls, we started using Slack to communicate between scheduled Zoom meetings. Slack is a relatively new communication tool for teams where you can have threaded conversations about any topic. Separate channels can be set up for discussion by subject, and people can subscribe to just the channels that are relevant to their work. Private channels can be set up for topics that don’t need full-team discussion. In addition to the channel feature, Slack includes a function allowing private, direct messages to be sent between team members, providing a quick option to reach someone for an immediate need or request, or just to share news. Slack also includes the ability to add files and images to your teams’ channels, which are easily searchable through the search feature. A lesser-known feature available is one-to-one video calling. While this option only exists in a one-to-one scenario in the free version of the tool, calls between up to 15 people are available in the paid version.
Trello. For project management and tracking, we’re using Trello. Trello takes the Japanese Kanban technique of project management and puts it into an easy to use web-based tool. Teams use boards to create lists (for example, “To Do”, “In Progress”, and “Completed”). Within those lists, team members can create cards for each task that needs to be completed. Each card (task) can be assigned a due date, and be tasked to an individual or multiple individuals on the team. Checklists, files, photos, notes, and updates can also be attached to each card. When a card is complete, it can be archived, deleted, or moved to the “Completed” list for archival purposes. This process helps keep the team on task and informed about where everyone is on each of their assigned tasks within the project.
Moving into my job here at the Center for Public Partnerships and Research two years ago was a real leap of faith for me. Having spent nearly a decade in the corporate worlds of finance and insurance, I had no experience writing grants or even being involved in the grant-writing process. Using these tools has made the transition much smoother.
The work we do here at CPPR is life-changing, not just for the people whose programs we work with, but for our staff, as well.
We’re working every day to make a difference in the lives of families across the country, and hopefully, soon, across the globe. With a limited amount of funding available, it’s always important to be mindful of opportunities to make a project more cost-effective. Using free or relatively low-cost technology tools for collaboration and communication can take a large cost burden out of the management of projects. The tools I’ve mentioned here today are not only playing a large part in the success of my project, but in projects across CPPR.
Incorporating new technology into daily activities can be painful for some, but the temporary growing pains are worth the reward when working with remote teams. Being intentional about which tools you choose to incorporate is important. Introduce too many new tools at once, or without a solid use-case, and team members may become overwhelmed or reject them completely. However, when your team finds the right balance, tasks are completed with less confusion and delay, team members always know what they are responsible for and what their deadlines are, and the lines of communication stay open.
Dipping your toe in the ocean of organizational, communication, and project management tools available right now can be scary, and overdoing it is definitely a risk, but don’t let yourself be frightened of trying something new. Here at CPPR, we know that we can only be navigators of social change by taking risks, exploring innovative ideas, and encouraging our partners and colleagues to embrace the opportunity to find the right technology tool for the job.
**Zoom, Slack, and Trello have premium versions that are not free. Those versions have additional features that haven’t been necessary to use with my project, but may provide an added benefit to others. Each tool’s website clearly discloses their pricing structure for their premium product.