My Favorite Tools for Distributed Teams

In software consulting, I typically embed myself into other companies for the duration of my project. One of my normal "onboarding" activities when I begin work with a new client is to acquaint myself with the tools that they use. A core part of my job is learning new tools quickly, so I can proficiently communicate and collaborate with my client's team. It can be a little exhausting sometimes to learn new tools and processes so frequently, but it's also one of my favorite parts of the job.

Many teams that are traditionally co-located are now being urged to operate as distributed teams. In my line of work, working with a distributed team is fairly common, so I figured I'd share a list of my favorite collaboration tools. It's not meant to be a comparison of similar tools, or some sort of exhaustive options, just tools that I find handy and delightful to use.

Hopefully those of you who have unexpectedly been thrown into the world of remote work to help suppress the spread of COVID-19 will find a tool in this list that can help you or your team work more effectively.

The List

1. Slack (Instant Messaging) -https://slack.com/

Slack offers a hybrid messaging platform that allows people to communicate 1-on-1, with groups of specific individuals, or on "channels".

Some of my example channels:

  • #dallas-office - reserved for communication with my company's Dallas employees
  • #clientx-project1 - a channel for team at my company who is all currently on "Project 1" for "Client X"
  • #what-to-watch - a "just for fun" channel for anyone in my company to go and get recommendations on TV shows or movies that others have been enjoying recently
  • #aws - an area for developers to share interesting articles or questions related to Amazon Web Services

You should probably use this tool if...

  • You still need to be informed, but your inbox needs a break
  • You need to communicate with a specific group (or groups) of people immediately, regardless of whether or not they are sitting at their computer

2. Zoom (Face-to-face Communication) -https://zoom.us/

Zoom lets groups of people join a call and share their screens with each other. I use this instead of other tools like GoToMeeting because its user interface is in my opinion the most straightforward for attendees to use.

You should probably use this tool if...

  • You need to run a formal meeting remotely
  • You need to have a long, open-ended, creative conversation
  • You need to have a conversation where tone/expression is important

3. A Web Whiteboard (Whiteboarding)\

https://awwapp.com/

I use A Web Whiteboard (AWW) to quickly share a whiteboard with others that we can use to visually convey some concepts that we're discussing. I'm on a MacBook Pro that doesn't have a touchscreen and find the tool easy to use. This tool is especially convenient if you have a touchscreen with a stylus.

You should probably use this tool if...

  • You need to express a rough visual idea to somebody quickly

4. Figma (Designs/Whiteboarding) \

https://www.figma.com/

Figma makes it really easy for people to collaborate on the same design together. It's typically used to design software products, but is flexible enough to be used for other use cases as well (e.g. process flows, relationship modeling, etc..). Tools like draw.io are great for diagramming, but when real-time collaboration is more important than cleanliness of the design, I've found that Figma fills a gap occasionally.

So what's the difference between AWW and Figma?

  • Using AWW is like drawing on a post-it note or pad of paper. You can discard rip off a sheet and toss it to keep things tidy.
  • Using Figma is like drawing in your precious Moleskine notebook. Once you draw in it, you might want to tweak the drawing, but you don't want to rip the page out entirely.

You should probably use this tool if...

  • You need to extensively collaborate in real-time on a design or diagram(that you can draw without a specialized diagramming tool)
  • You need to design and collaborate on user interfaces

5. Notion -https://www.notion.so/

Notion is a virtual workspace for your team. It allows you to build a space for managing tasks, managing data, documenting progress, and anything else you can think of. It's almost a bit intimidating because it's so flexible, but that's where it's power lies. If you're interested in how it could be used, this template gallery might inspire you. It's like a hybrid between SharePoint, Google Docs, and Trello.

It's so flexible, that I didn't think that a single screenshot is sufficient, so it gets 2 GIFs.

You should probably use this tool if...

  • You want your team to use a single platform to handle a variety of tasks and communication needs
  • You need to uniquely organize information for your team

The End

For those of you who are broadening your digital toolboxes, good luck! Let me know if you have any questions.

For those of you who already use tools like these extensively, let me know if you have any other collaboration tools that you've thoroughly enjoyed using. I'd love to try them out if I haven't already.

Happy remote working! If you have any questions or want any additional tips for how to work from home effectively, send me a message. I'm always happy to chat! 👋

Best wishes! -John

John is a technology consultant based in Dallas, Texas. He rides mountain bikes and tries new recipes when he's not focused on tech.