Friction free collaboration in remote working organisations

by | Mar 18, 2020 | News

An introduction to a surprisingly friendly world of little apps, bots and zaps

Resilience Brokers grew out of the Ecological Sequestration Trust (The Trust), set up as a dispersed organisation. We were born remote. As a charity, this enabled us to keep our overheads low, but it gave us so much more that.

As well as making us a resilient organisation, the fact that we can all have the flexibility of working from home, means we can attract a greater range of people to work in our team, both in the UK, and around the world. Being international ultimately means we can be “open” all hours. It also means we can extend the close collaboration easily and quickly to our large and diverse network of partners to create a hive mind of the world’s experts across national and local government, academia, the private sector and faith communities to work together on our projects.

We have a small team based mostly in London where we also now have a project teamspace to work in together. Our team has at times worked from Germany, China, Ghana, Mongolia, Australia, Geneva, Suffolk and travelled short term to dozens of other countries. The Trust was formed in 2011 at an ideal time to start using cloud-based software services, what has become known as a “best of breed cloud technology stack”. As a very open organisation, cloud-based tools allow us to share and store everything that we do online. These give us the following:

  • Tools that are in active development (continually improving)
  • Low barrier to entry (easy and quick for people to pick up and use
  • Intuitive to use
  • Flexible
  • Collaborative
  • Open (with standard patterns for integration – API’s)
  • Cross-platform with mobile apps

It has been possible to build a network of apps tailored to our workflows using the best tool for each job with Google authentication for single sign-on (only one login to Google Chrome to access them all) and integrations between the services. This allows for a single point of entry for data while allowing access to it from wherever it is relevant. Any integrations that are missing or we want to tailor to our needs can be created using further services like Zapier to connect them with what they call zaps⚡️, for which Zapier provides many practical how-to guides (see Further reading / resources at the end of this post).

Our communication by video, voice, and screen share is done using Zoom, our use of which I detailed in an earlier blog post. Gsuite (formerly Google apps for work), which is free for us to use as UK charity, provides profiles and logins for team members, file sharing and versioning (Drive), online collaborative document creation and editing (Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms etc), shared calendars (Calendar) and email (Gmail). Slack allows for short text-based communication that integrates by linking into documents and workflows. Slack integrates with all our other apps via bots 🤖 and will enable us to have a channel where everything we do can be found in one place rather than having to jump into a specific app. Every document, task, piece of relevant content from social media or event is listed in chronological order so you can quickly get an overview of what’s going on in the organisation at any point in time or use the advanced search to find anything you might want or filter the content to a particular user, or file type for example. We also have a public channel where the users of our products can talk to each other and us. Trello, which is tightly integrated with Slack, allows us to structure and track our workflow and the related documentation in Google Drive.

To make the apps easy to find we have a hub dashboard (a Google Drawing) which describes the functions of and links to each of the online tools as well as to other dashboards for our organisations key workflows.

We connect our processes and workflows to the online tools using links and symbols in these dashboards (Google Drawings) and text describing what should be done at which stage.

As a charity / non-profit, we qualify for either discounts or free accounts for many of these service providers for which we are very grateful.

There are some challenges with this approach, with file types and some features without integrations being duplicated across the apps, for instance. Microsoft Word docs are still fairly standard, but Google Drive allows us to store and version, and Docs to edit them using the real-time collaborative tools built-in. Chat and voice calling tools are also increasingly common features across many of the apps, so it’s a challenge to stay in Slack (our chosen core one) and not jump into many of the other chat tools which are silos and therefore easy to lose conversations in (e.g. Zoom, Docs & Trello). With active development, new functionality and tighter integration are added almost daily (which means this post will need updating regularly!), but with this rapid rate of change inevitably, some apps also fail. We went through two dedicated apps (Hojoki & CatchApp) to aggregate all our notifications into one place, both of which were closed before Slack came along.

Systems, networks and the relationships between their parts can be visualised and navigated based on spreadsheet data using Kumu.io. An example being the system map of our apps below.

So how do I work at my computer? Mostly in a web browser, I usually have two Google Chrome windows open, one for me personally and the other for the administration of the organisation as a whole. 

What’s surprising about all this? Well, nobody had to write any code, you change some settings in a web app. The headline is that with a focus on usability, apps have become more straightforward. With openness, it’s easy and quite fun to connect them and fit them to your workflow rather than you having to fit in with them.

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If you are looking for help with remote working get in touch team@resiliencebrokers.org

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My related blog posts

Portable Zoom meeting / webinar kit

Further reading / resources

Edge Ryders – Distributed Collaboration Manual

Coronavirus Tech Handbook – Remote Working: Best practice for working from home

Zapier – Guide to Working Remotely: How to Grow, Manage, and Work with Remote Teams

Photo by Eleventh Wave on Unsplash