Tons of companies sent record numbers of employees to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even businesses that previously balked at the idea of a remote workforce chose or were forced to go virtual, at least temporarily, during the year.

For many companies, the push to stay home and stay safe resulted in new lessons learned on managing a remote workforce. Most found the endeavor challenging but discovered benefits and rewards, which could lead to continued support for the process. According to SHRM, prior to the pandemic, only around 7% of the average company’s employees worked from home. That figure rose to 44% in July 2020. Even as stay-at-home orders relented and employees began returning to workplaces, the average business still saw work-from-home ratios of around 19%, and enterprises expect the numbers to stay higher in the post-pandemic world than they were before.

Whether you just want to have a stellar backup process in place to support remote work in the event of another shutdown or you’re investing in the benefits of virtual work environments for the long-haul, you need to know what the best tools are for the job. Here is a rundown of five types of tools (along with some suggestions in each category) that are important when managing remote employees.

1. Communication Tools

Communication — and specifically keeping everyone on the same page — emerged as a top challenge experienced by businesses that sent their employees home during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re used to wheeling into the next cubicle or popping a few doors down to a supervisor’s office to ask questions or get directions, remote work can seem daunting and more than a little isolating at first. The right communication tools are critical to staving off miscues and making sure that everyone feels like they’re still part of the team.

For many, Slack is the darling in this category. It’s easy to use, even for people who aren’t used to these types of tools, and you can start with a robust free option that meets many temporary needs. The app works on desktop and mobile; you can integrate emails, Google docs and many other tools; and people can customize notifications to ensure they stay appropriately in the loop without becoming overwhelmed.

Some other options to consider include:

  • Microsoft Teams (especially if you mostly already use Microsoft products, as Teams doesn’t play well with non-Microsoft tools such as Google Docs)
  • Facebook Messenger for Business
  • Skype, which supports calls, video calls and text chat
  • Chat systems in your own fleet management, project management or other specialty software, if they’re robust enough and everyone has equal access

2. Project Management Systems

Project management systems come in a huge range of types, so you can find something that supports what your business is trying to accomplish. You can try simple tools such as Trello, which work for small teams that want a visual way to track tasks across various parts of a project. 

But for more complex applications or to keep most of the work in one application, you might consider a paid project management software such as the one from Visual Planning. Our simple project management system supports a wide range of endeavors. It helps you plan and coordinate work, manage resources including supplies and team skills, prioritize and assign tasks and support workflow and tracking. You can do all this virtually, with every employee having the right access so they can see their work and how it fits into the bigger picture.

3. Conferencing Software

For the purpose of this list, we’re separating conferencing software from everyday communication tools such as Slack. Good web conferencing solutions make it easy for people from various locations to connect “face-to-face” in digital rooms or at least hear each other’s voices.

One of the most popular options during the COVID-19 pandemic has been Zoom, which is a video conferencing system that’s fairly easy to use and access. You can use the free version to host shorter meetings with limited people, but you might need to splurge for a paid version if you want to have meetings of an hour or more with many people.

Other options for both paid and free video conferencing include:

  • Google Hangouts (though everyone does need a Google account)
  • Facebook Rooms (usable if you spring for a Facebook for Business account)
  • UberConference (which has paid and free versions and supports video or voice calls)

4. Time Tracking Tools

A common concern among employers sending staff home to work is that they might end up paying people for time that wasn’t spent on actual work. With kids in the background, family meals to be made and other distractions vying for attention, it’s easy to wonder if remote staff is giving business the priority it needs.

This is especially true for companies that pay people by the hour. How do you know whether or not the hour you paid for was productive and spent on business tasks?

Time tracking tools are a potential answer. You can find various types of time tracking tools depending on what you need. Here are a few options you might consider.

Personal Time Tracking Tools

These are options that help staff keep track of their own time so they can report it correctly. You might use these types of tools if you’re running client-based projects and need staff to allocate their time to each endeavor for billing purposes.

One example is Toggl. The free version lets people install an app on their mobile device or desktop. While working, they can quickly task switch with a click of the mouse or tap of the screen, and Toggl tracks the time they spend on each task. At the end of the day or week, the person can generate a report so they know the total time to bill to each task. Paid versions of Toggl come with more options for businesses.

Use-Tracking Tools

If you’re worried about ensuring value and productivity during work hours, you might consider use-tracking tools. These tools are installed on the employee’s work computer and track the time someone spends with various apps and websites automatically. You can then generate reports to see what portion of the work day was spent in your customer service system, responding to emails or researching online. You’d also be able to see if a significant portion of work hours was spent on something like social media.

5. Document Management Systems

Another common challenge for businesses with remote workforces is document management. You can quickly get caught up in a workflow that involves emailed documents, documents stored only on one person’s computer and some documents stored in options such as Google Drive or Dropbox. 

In this tangled hybrid approach, everyone has to check half a dozen locations to find what they need, and you can never be sure all the right people have access. Plus, version control can be a huge issue. When you’re emailing documents back and forth, everyone has a different copy. One person might make changes that don’t reach everyone else.

Small businesses often opt for using free systems such as Google Docs, which does reduce the emailing issues and support basic version control. But it can get tedious and time-consuming to manage if you have a lot of documents. If that’s the case, you may want to invest in a document management system that supports document scanning and creation, storage, searching by keywords, version control and access controls. 

Ultimately, what you need to run a remote team depends on your business model. If you’re ready to add intelligent software to the mix to keep everyone on the same page, increase productivity and reduce

Manale is a passionate about digital marketing. She joined STILOG I.S.T in 2018.
She brings SEO & SEA expertise, email marketing and creative content marketing to create a great brand experience for Visual Planning customers.

Manale KARROUM

Marketing & Communication Manager