My ten-person company is not very traditional. We implement technology, like customer relationship management (CRM) systems. We have no offices. We are very spread out. Our overhead is low. To get our projects done and coordinate effectively, we have to collaborate. This hasn’t been easy to figure out. Luckily technology to help connect disparate teams has improved. And we’ve all gotten a little smarter. Here are three things I’ve learned from running a de-centralized business.
Standardize on one collaboration platform
There are many great cloud-based tools to help teams collaborate. The ones I have found to be the best are those that provide the most options and features. A few years ago we were working with a handful of these tools. But things have changed. Microsoft Office, for example, has significantly changed. What was once a desktop application for word processing and spreadsheets has now evolved into a cloud-based platform of tools that we are using for email, file sharing, presentations, conferencing, scheduling, note-taking and customer management. Slowly but surely, Office 365 has replaced many of our other collaboration applications and has enabled my team to keep everything in one place under one umbrella. Because the interface is consistent and we’re able to do our work from any device, it keeps getting easier to standardize on this platform. The lesson: I’ve learned to pick a good platform that offers all the collaboration tools I need and invest in it.
Balance technology with human interaction
I know I may sound old school when I write this, but I close more deals when I meet prospects face to face. I have better relationships with those people that I see in-person more frequently. I am able to manage people more effectively when I’ve met them. A good collaboration platform is critical for my workgroup because we’re running around everywhere and need that one place to do a data dump. We use the technology to remind of us of tasks, alert us when things are coming due and maintain data about projects that no human being can remember. But in the end, we still meet in person. Sure, we don’t have offices. But we all talk on the phone, both individually and in groups. We meet on Skype for Business, where we have the option to talk or even see each other face to face through video chat. We meet at coffee places and for lunch. We take time aside at client locations to discuss projects and even other clients. I’ve learned that technology can do a lot, but human interaction is still really, really important. Find the technology that allows you to blend both.
Put someone in charge
I’ve found Office 365 to be a very powerful platform to use, and so have many of my clients. But the ones that use this service the best have made an investment in a central person to administer the system. This is not a tech person or an IT firm – it’s usually an administrative person who is smart, confident and willing to learn the software and not afraid to make mistakes. This person is given the responsibility of making sure that all the data in the system is complete and accurate. If you’ve got a workgroup of five or more people this is easier said than done. Minor mistakes are inevitable, but an administrator is tasked with making sure that there are alerts and controls in place to limit these problems and help take action so that they don’t happen again. A collaboration system has many moving parts to it and for it to work effectively one person should be the go-to resource for answering questions and taking responsibility. I’ve learned that investing in this person pays itself back many times over and not having this person significantly increases the risk of my collaboration system failing.
Ten years ago, when I closed my offices, I made a lucky guess. I guessed that I could rely on collaboration technology to help me make up for the fact that I didn’t have an office. Think about how nascent those technologies were back then. It turns out that my guess was right. Given my track record of getting things right, the fact that I predicted this is astonishing. But hey, even a broken clock is right twice a day.