Thomas Southmayd

Remote Working Hacks - How We Use Trello for Our Workflow

May 26, 2020

Our team is now fully remote and, like many others, we’re finding it increasingly important to implement better ways of working remotely. Our team is small (less than 15 people presently) and, before switching to remote working, we typically worked very closely, pointing over each other’s shoulders at screens to help each other on tasks, and with good visibility on what people were working on.

When transitioning from in-office to remote and working under the stresses of absence from our office space and the close community of working together, this naturally affected our productivity levels and ability to hit deadlines.

One of the tools that our team’s taking advantage of to better transition to remote working is Trello, and we’ve learned a lot about team-based workflow through our experience with it. For those that don’t use Trello, it’s a list-making app and, for us, also a workflow management platform that we use to visualize our team tasks, responsibilities and deadlines. We wrote this article to help our team and network connections to think through what’s working and why we do things a certain way.

We particularly like Trello because of its resemblance to a typical spreadsheet and, as an aside, our document review and editing teams love and live inside of spreadsheets.

*Here’s a day in the life of our editing team: The day is all about details - we review documents in our database, series of improvement points, audit that document for changes versus the current standard, and all of these tasks result in a multiplicity of changes and fixes, of work that may be performed by the first reviewer, or need to be transitioned to someone else if that reviewer runs out of time.*

Trello’s card movement and list-building features allow our review team to nimbly create cards, move them around, add mini-checklists and tag in other team members for discussion or to take action.

Transitioning to Trello was not necessarily easy though, and it’s taken a while to unlearn our old approaches to list building and project management. We thought we would share some notes on how we’ve improved our own Trello (online workflow) experience:

  • Organizing Our Growth: Trello’s platform encourages the creation of task-related lanes, so that you can group your tasks in their respective lanes and have a better snapshot of your goals and deficiencies. We’re big fans of relying on our “Active”, “Today”, “This Week” and “This month” lanes, to ensure that tasks are completed.
  • Monthly Goals - SMART Goals: SMART stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. These are the guidelines we use to determine the goals for the month. Depending on the team, we’ll assess all of the tasks and goals that have accumulated into the teams’ Trello boards and then pinpoint a set number of goals to be treated as high priority goals for the month. For our development team, we typically stick to three monthly goals because we understand how much effort goes into each. For faster-moving teams like our business development team, we’ll set anywhere between 25 and 35 monthly goals for that same reason.

    A crucial part of this process is the collaboration between team leads and the executive team. We’ll work together to break down monthly goals into lists of steps, in order to determine what truly is a SMART goal that can be achieved within a set timeframe. The key is making sure that both the executive team and the team leads agree on what exactly the goals for the month are. This allows for a fluid conversation throughout the month that doesn’t stray into different directions and ultimately keeps our teams aligned.

  • Keeping Focused: Designing our month using SMART guidelines helps us keep our month realistic, but we also know that managing a single day can be overwhelming too. In tandem with our monthly goals, we’ve developed a system that allows our team to focus on individual tasks throughout the day, instead of fussing over a list of tasks. Using Trello, we ask our team to set out a list of tasks they plan on tackling over the course of that day. We then ask our team to set an “Active” lane right next to their day plan so that they can quickly drag and drop tasks as they begin working on them.

    We have two reasons why we like this method:

    1. It allows our team to focus on one task at a time. Looking at an inbox of 100 emails is overwhelming, but looking at an inbox of one email is easy to handle. Having an Active lane forces our team to keep their focus on just that one single task, instead of stressing about the other tasks they need to get done that day. When that one task is complete, they drop it out of their Active lane and choose a new one to tackle.
    2. It allows our team members to see what each other’s working on. This helps to align collaborative tasks, scope out future tasks, estimate deadlines, and such. This also helps to cut out all of the “where’s my stuff”-type conversations that can end up wasting time, sometimes coming across as impatient, and sometimes leading to rushed work.
  • Task Timing and Quick Wins. Two processes we put in place to organize day planning is Task Timing and Quick Wins.

    Task Timing refers to making an estimate as to how long a task is going to take to complete,regardless of how small and granular the task may be. In order to do this, we use a Trello add-on called Scrum, which is a free extension that allows users to associate timing to individual Trello cards. This helps our team scope out their general day, their capacity, their meetings and calls schedules, as well as allowing team leads to pinpoint gaps in the day, the division of tasks and other project management functions. Scrum will even calculate the total allocated timing of individual lanes, which helps if you organize your tasks based on function and want to know which functions of your business your team’s focus lies.

    Quick Wins refers to a set allocation of time per day that’s devoted to strictly quick tasks. These are tasks such as administrative-type emails, quick lander editing, short meetings - small tasks that make a world of difference but only take about 10 minutes to complete. For instance, our team was noticing that many of our users would get confused as to what to fill in in a specific field on our signup form. A quick edit of the instructional language almost completely rid our users of that confusion and saved us loads of time in customer support efforts. And all it took was about 5 minutes to change! Because these tasks are always very short and sweet, we notice that they’re almost therapeutic to complete and often act as a stress reliever in our team’s day.

  • Daily Scrums and Lane Resets: As I’m sure many of you also do with your teams, our teams gather for daily “scrum” calls where we go over the day’s plan, general comments and concerns, reminders on important tasks, etc. We also gather for daily scrums across the executive team, to catch up on team progress and other items worthy of sharing.

    Keeping all of our tasks organized on Trello allows our team to expedite these scrums and gives everyone a chance to prepare beforehand, by reviewing each other’s boards and lanes to gain a general understanding of the discussion before it happens. At these scrums, we’ll also set lanes and reset lanes. Our morning scrum helps to determine the plan for the day, and our end of day scrum helps to reset the lanes so that the team can start fresh each day, with a clear lane and clear mind.

  • Trello Mobile: We especially appreciate Trello for its mobile platform. Now that we’re all working remotely, we always have access to our primary workstation laptops/desktops - but as anyone who works remotely can tell you, switching it up by working from the couch, treadmill, while cooking, etc. is almost a necessity in keeping sane! Trello mobile works perfectly for when you’re switching it up and need a change in pace. Having lanes side-by-side allows us to start and stop our task work by simply thumb-dragging cards lane-to-lane, or thumb archiving cards in a snap - this is very useful for out of office working, because our teams may be collaborating on a group call with participants distributed from their home office, back yard, or in transit to a grocery story. Sometimes, there are just too many spots that need executive eyes, and using Trello mobile helps to quickly manage.
  • Offline Access: A few of our team members are dealing with unreliable internet access these days (remote locations, cottage and such) and are using Trello mobile for its ability to access and edit boards, lists and tasks while offline. If you need to work offline every so often, Trello mobile can be a big help and can help you and your team members stay on track, even when WiFi goes down. Much like other workflow tools with this functionality, when you do get back online, Trello mobile will update your boards according to your offline changes.

Working remotely is definitely a struggle, but providing our team with the right resources to get their work done comfortably and efficiently is really making a difference. If you get the chance to test out Trello, try out some of our team’s tricks or reach back out to us and let us know your own shortcuts and best practices for enhancing your team’s workflow transparency and visibility.

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Written by Thomas.