Working Remotely.

by | Mar 19, 2020 | SMB, Tech | 0 comments

Intro.

As the COO of the remote-working, Toronto-based payments startup QUID I had to select and implement technology tools and services that would support our business operations and remote workers. As many businesses need to figure this out for themselves pretty quickly right now, I feel that summarizing my learnings here could be helpful to others.

Although the QUID team is fairly small — we had nine employees and one contractor at our peak — we still have a full spectrum of business processes to support. I handle the following during a normal week at QUID:

  • Perform customer support activities,
  • Review and document merchant applications to satisfy our Know-Your-Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) policies,
  • Process payroll and employee expenses,
  • Receive, approve, and pay invoices,
  • Grant and manage employee access to corporate services,
  • Record business expenses for our bookkeepers,
  • Supporting our engineering activities,
  • Schedule weekly team meetings, and
  • Develop and execute business reports, providing updates to our board.

On top of performing all of these business functions, I strive to do it in a way that anyone on the team can take over any task at any time and have access to all the same resources. Typically this means not relying on locally saved documents, spreadsheets, or databases and as we don’t have a physical office location, we have no on-premises server resources that many companies use to facilitate that sharing of information.

Email and scheduling.

Probably the easiest choice to make is using Google’s G Suite for Business for email and scheduling. I’ve used G Suite for the past 10 years and, although initially it was a bit of a functionality compromise to move to Google from an in-house Microsoft Exchange environment, the continuous improvements made by Google to the core G Suite services over the last decade and the general shift to web-based email and calendars makes it a non-issue now.

From a setup and administration perspective, it’s very straight-forward to setup a new G Suite domain and Google has robust tools to help you migrate email and calendar data from existing accounts, whether in a regular Gmail account or on a different technology platform.

From a cost perspective, there are three tiers of G Suite for business: Basic, Business, and Enterprise. Most small businesses can likely opt for the Basic tier at $7.80 CAD per user per month. This includes the core services of Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, and Sites and the basic G Suite admin features. The Business tier, which we use at QUID, is $15.60 CAD per user per month and adds additional per-user Drive storage capacity and Google’s retention and e-discovery service Vault. The top tier Enterprise service costs $34 CAD per user per month and adds a lot of security and integration features that would typically only be used by larger enterprises.

Virtual meetings.

The biggest change when working remotely is the lack of personal interaction with teammates, whether for the social value or for coordinating activities. At QUID we started off using Google’s Hangouts Chat for online chat rooms and Hangouts Meet for our daily video team stand-up meeting and for one-on-one and smaller group discussions. This service and the Chat client were fairly new when we started using them and we found them to be a little too buggy, so we switched to Slack.

Slack is the leader in business chat services, and their client apps (desktop and mobile) are easy to use. They offer Free, Standard, Plus, and Enterprise Grid tiers of service. We opted for the Standard tier on a month-to-month payment plan for $8 USD per user per month. This gives us the group chat and video conference features that are available in the Free tier but also lets us login to Slack using our G Suite accounts, includes full message history retention, and adds a screen sharing functionality that are not part of the Free tier.

I have recently started using Google Hangouts Chat and Meet again and the applications have improved a lot, so it’s a completely viable option. Hangouts Meet also supports larger video conferences than Slack, with up to 100 participants in Hangouts in the G Suite Basic tier and increasing in the other tiers. In comparison Slack only supports video conferences of up to 15 participants in all paid tiers.

Documents and collaboration.

Again, Google G Suite is the easy choice here. All tiers of G Suite include the following applications:

  • Docs: the written document creation and editing application alternative to Microsoft Word,
  • Sheets: the spreadsheet application alternative to Microsoft Excel,
  • Slides: the presentation application alternative to Microsoft PowerPoint,
  • Forms: a form-based data collection/survey application that saves entered data in a Google Sheet, and
  • Sites: a tool for building and viewing simple websites, suitable for intranet-based content.

Google has led the online document collaboration space since they acquired Writely back in 2006 and they have continued to add functionality to all their collaboration tools making each of the applications a very good alternative to the Microsoft Office competitor.

In addition to the features of each application, there are many benefits to having files created, saved, and updated in a cloud-based storage service like Drive. First, it’s incredibly easy to share a document with someone else in your organization or even, if allowed by your G Suite security settings, with external users. There is no more need to send a copy of the file to someone by email and then not have visibility to the changes they have made. Second, you can collaborate with teammates and edit a document at the same time. This is a huge productivity booster when you’re working with someone on planning activities or drafting some content together. Third, the documents are available from any device (there are Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Drive apps for iOS and Android devices) at any time.

From an IT administrative perspective, using G Suite simplifies many things: there are no applications to install locally, drive and the other G Suite apps include change histories so team members can see and restore past versions of their documents, and if you have Google Vault, your documents are backed up.

From a security perspective, Google does a great job with security settings and features made accessible to your G Suite admins, and having single sign-on and two-factor authentication across all the G Suite tools. Google also has data loss prevention (DLP) tools that let you scan and alert when sensitive data is saved in a document. Unfortunately, there is no built-in data encryption available in G Suite. There are some third-party tools available in the G Suite marketplace, but I’ve not used them.

Business process management.

Sometimes you need to track specific business process tasks, either to ensure a process is being followed or to make sure that other employees can support the process. You can easily do this using a Google Sheet, and even have multiple people work on a single Sheet document at the same time if your needs are pretty simple. But if you want to track a process that has different data types and requires some level of reporting, you will find that a spreadsheet quickly becomes unmanageable.

This is where I like to use Airtable. At its simplest, Airtable looks like a spreadsheet, but treats the data within the “sheet” more like a database table with columns having data types. For example, if you have a column called “Signup Date” you can set the data type for that column as ‘date’ and prevent any other type of data from being entered. There are also really useful data types like select lists that allow you to specify the possible options for a column and restrict the entry to only those values. You can have an attachment column that will let you upload and save files associated with a particular row.

As you develop more complex applications with Airtable, its database-like features become more useful. You can link a field from one table to a field from another table. For example, I have a Airtable application to track access granted to employees. There is one table for employees, another table for systems, and a third table that has a row for each account an employee has. From any of these three tables I can quickly see who has access to what systems and details about when the access was granted, by whom, and why.

An Airtable application (in Airtable’s terminology – a “base”) used for tracking access to QUID systems.

I use Airtable to track our vendor agreements and invoices as well as our merchant applications and approvals. With both of these Airtable bases I can see what tasks are completed, which are outstanding, and I can review the history of each. Airtable applications, or bases, can be accessed by multiple users at the same time, so it’s relatively easy to use Airtable to support teams of employees.

Airtable has four service tiers:

  • Free: $0 per user per month,
  • Plus: $12 USD per user per month,
  • Pro: $24 USD per user per month, and
  • Enterprise: custom pricing

Each tier includes successively larger amounts of storage and retention and the Pro tier enables the use of custom “blocks” which can be used to help you build your custom Airtable application. We’re using the Free tier as our needs are relatively small.

Payroll.

The biggest advantage with a cloud payroll provider is that your payroll administrator and employees can all access their payroll information from anywhere. This usually includes paystubs, tax documents, and even time tracking for hourly employees. QUID uses Wagepoint for payroll processing. It costs $20 CAD + $2 per employee per payroll run. The service is easy to setup, easy to operate, and the support is amazing.

Employee expenses.

With the QUID team all working remotely, we have expenses related to their home offices that we cover and we need to pay them quickly. Our accounting firm uses Xero so we set it up to allow our employees to submit individual expenses online. Once submitted, it’s simple for me to review and approve expenses for reimbursement or to request additional information.

Our Xero fees are included in the monthly bookkeeping fee we pay our accountants, but to acquire the service directly you would pay $30 CAD per month for the Standard plan or $40 CAD per month for the Premium plan (which add multiple currency support). The Starter plan is $20 per month but has fairly low transaction limits that make is suitable for only the smallest businesses. Add $4 per user per month for expense reporting.

Customer service.

One of my favourite services that we implemented at QUID is our customer service tool: Intercom. Intercom has a conversation-based approach to customer interactions, as opposed to a ticket-based approach a lot of systems use. A conversation can span multiple communication channels, usually chat and email, and can be assigned and tracked like a traditional support ticket.

You’ve likely seen the Intercom chat widget in the bottom corner of many websites (like this one). It makes accessing support easy for any visitors to your site. In addition, Intercom has an extensive API that lets you deeply integrate your application with their service. For example, when a new merchant signs up for QUID a user profile is automatically created in our Intercom workspace. When the merchant applies for payout approval, it automatically creates a conversation that is assigned to our KYC and AML team (me) and is used to communicate with the merchant if any additional information is required.

An Intercom Product Tour running within the QUID merchant dashboard.

Pricing for Intercom starts at $39 USD per month, which includes only a single “seat” (or license) for their chat support service. Intercom has many services that compliment the chat support service including a knowledge base, chatbot automations, and the ability to create and run product tours for users of your website. It can add up quickly but based on the time saved by using the Intercom services, it’s easily worth the cost.

Wrap-up.

With the wealth of cloud-based services available, it’s really easy to setup and support a remote team with a small number of services and a relatively small budget — at our peak team size, this setup cost us about $750 CAD per month. If you have any questions or would like to discuss this with me in more detail, feel free to get in touch, request a meeting below, or use the chat widget to start a conversation!

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