Everything I know about optimizing remote workflows
6 min read

Everything I know about optimizing remote workflows

When things move inefficiently I'm hungry to find a better way to do things. I love knowing a change implemented on my suggestion has made somebody's job easier, enabling them to achieve the same result in less time.

Below are observations on how to optimize remote workflows based on 10 years of working remotely—mostly asynchronously—for small marketing teams and agencies.

1️⃣ Empower your team to work on the work

I believe the secret to a culture of productive remote work is the absence of ambiguity. Clear communication enables your team to work on the work, instead of defining and redefining what needs to be done over and over again before the work is even started.

Remote employees who communicate ambiguously create Metawork for the rest of the team. Metawork is any clarifying question that must be answered before someone can actually work on the work. Metawork is costly to turnaround times, annoying to deal with, and a telltale sign of unrefined operation procedures.    

How can you eliminate Metawork?

By standardizing task assignments and task handoffs. Exactly what information does each person in your company need to complete their tasks?

If I am assigned a task with incomplete information, the following Metawork is created:

  1. 👦 I must write out a friendly comment explaining what information I need and send it to the person who assigned the task.
  2. 👦 I must wait for that person to see my comment before I can complete the task.
  3. 👨 That person must stop working on their active tasks and either (a) pass over the required information or (b) write out a friendly comment explaining they don't have what's required, but will seek it out for me.
  4. ️️️️👦I must stop what I'm doing and check my inbox until I notice that the step above has been completed and the information I require to do my job is available to me.

This entire 4-step process could have been avoided entirely, allowing for interrupted work, if the task assigned to me arrived with complete information.

Takeaway: Only assign tasks with complete information. Make perfect handoffs by asking the next person in line what they need to complete their highest frequency tasks, then create templated tasks that require the assignee to add that information before the task is assigned.  

2️⃣ Answer every question once. Document every answer.

A question asked once is an opportunity for filling a gap in team knowledge. A question asked twice is a symptom of poor documentation.

Documentation is automation. Documenting detailed answers to today's questions prevents future metawork from being created when a new team member joins and requires the same information.

Ideally everybody on your team is taught and encouraged how to create functional SOPs with screenshots, Loom videos, and clear instructions. Partial participation is better than none, but baking documentation into team culture will ensure SOPs are always updated and relevant.

Nobody on your team should have to re-teach the work they do to every new hire. That's an added responsibility keeping them from working on the work. Again, documentation is automation. An SOP written or recorded once can teach 10 new hires.        

The better your library of documentation the easier it will be to onboard new hires.

3️⃣ Have a non-negotiable single source of truth  

It should be clear to everybody in your business where they can find the data required to produce the product or service they are responsible for.

The less notifications across unique applications your team has to track the happier they will be. The less pages they need to monitor and maintain the more time they will have to work on the work. A single source of truth empowers them to know at a glance what needs to be done.

What questions do you need your software to answer for you?

The questions your software answers for you will vary depending on your role within the company. Here's how I broke it down for an email marketing agency:

👷‍♀️ Employees building the emails needed the software to answer: what tasks do I need to get done today?

👨‍💼 Project managers controlling the flow of work needed the software to answer: what is the status of project X?

📞 Client specialists managing client relationships needed the software to answer: what have we done for client X recently?

When a human is asking another human these questions, it's a sign your workflow is broken and your task management software isn't living up to its potential. 

Store information about the work (SOPs, company policies, client notes) in Notion or Google Docs and store tasks (aka the work itself) inside of task management software.

A task doesn't exist if it's not assigned in Asana. Company policies, SOPs, and critical notes about clients don't exist if they don't live in Notion.

These rules must be strictly enforced or else the collective trust in your systems will quickly dissolve. The moment your single source of truth doesn't contain 100% of the information your team needs it creates a seed of doubt that's difficult to recover from.

The efficiency of your systems are irrelevant if you're unable to persuade your team to use them as intended. Managers get comfortable holding meetings to get caught up on tasks in progress instead of simply glancing at a dashboard. Project information occasionally gets passed over Slack, damaging the integrity of your single source of truth.  Navigating buy-in is the most difficult part of building workflows.

4️⃣ Standardize how to ask for help

There is no such thing as a stupid question, but incomplete questions create metawork.

hey do you have a minute?
can you help me with something?
can I borrow you for a bit?

Standardizing how questions are asked via Slack/email reduces the amount of wasteful metawork created.

This is the framework I use for asking complete questions:

  1. Explain what you're trying to accomplish and what you've already tried. This makes it easier for us to help you.
  2. Keep questions as close to the relevant task as much as possible. Questions about an Asana task should be asked in the Asana comment section.
  3. Include screenshots (with arrows!) whenever possible.
  4. If you need to ask a question on Slack, ask your question to a channel, not a person. This allows everybody the chance to learn together.
  5. If you're having trouble typing up a complete question, create a short <5 minute Loom video where you explain what you're trying to accomplish and what you've already tried.

5️⃣ Minimize the use of Slack as much as possible

Slack is a distraction machine that does everything it can to interrupt your team and prevent them working on the work.

Instant messaging promotes stream of consciousness communication and endless back and forth. The metawork created by Slack keeps your team from working on the work.

Slack can be useful when actively chewing on a problem with a coworker in between accomplishing tasks. It's not all bad—Slack can also be an upgrade over email communication which feels impersonal, if not obsolete.

The best compromise I've found is to use Slack for urgent emergencies, personal conversations, or asking questions that aren't relevant to a specific task in Asana. Notification muting should be encouraged to allow everybody to work on the work.

Slack can also be useful in place of a Zoom call or GMeet to collaborate on solving a difficult problem. Neither assigning tasks or discussing tasks should take place in Slack, as this breaks your single source of truth and creates a situation where part of a task lives in Slack and another part lives in your task management software.    

Questions asked in Slack should be asked in channels—not in DMs—so pressure isn't put on a specific person to pause working and answer, and so the answer is visible to everybody who could benefit from seeing it. Answers to questions can then be copied and pasted into an SOP or onboarding doc for the next hire.

6️⃣ Automate or outsource recurring tasks

Recurring non-creative tasks are best done by computers to free up time for humans to work on tasks best done by humans. Hire a marketing automation specialist to review all your SOPs so they can tell you which tasks they can retire from your workflow by means of automation.

Not everything should be automated. Automation is rarely ever perfect. Automations require maintenance, monitoring, and quality control. It's important these trade-offs are made obvious and documented in your SOPs.

Outsourcing to a micro-freelancer can be another form of automation.

Small companies often have employees handling tasks outside of their core competencies. This results in mediocre output and damages team morale, because nobody wants to be responsible for work they know they're not very good at. Hiring a freelancer or virtual assistant to handle these tasks will make work more enjoyable for your employees and potentially even improve the output.  

7️⃣ Standardize how to give feedback

When someone deviates from a SOP it could be a sign that your process isn't the best way to achieve the output you're looking for. Standardize a way your employees can propose changes to existing SOPs so nobody feels trapped performing a task in a sub-standard manner.

It's also a good idea to standardize how to give feedback to someone who has (accidentally) deviated from procedure. Using a template to inform someone that they made a mistake, how they should fix it, and how they can avoid it in the future, saves a ton of time and awkwardness many people feel when correcting others.