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Our recommendations for working on proposals remotely

It's not better. Or worse. But it is different.

I'll let you in on a little secret. Nobody has found a way to make working remotely be like working colocated. I recommend that you don't even try. Treat it as an opportunity to reengineer the way you do things. You’re probably overdue anyway.

This is a good time to think about what people need to complete their proposal goals. It’s not just about incorporating some new tools. Note, I did not say what people need to complete their assignments. Since you can’t just make a little change and get it right, you should start from the big picture. What information do people need? Where will they get it? How will that information be formatted and delivered? What communications need to happen along the way? 

Then figure out ways to make these things happen when people can’t gather in a room together, talk around the water cooler, or otherwise colocate. To be effective, you’ll need some tools, some conventions, new ways to collaborate, and some process changes. There are an overwhelming number of options and very few best practices, even though people have their preferences.

It’s not about the tools, even though they play a role

See also:
Proposal Management

I’m tool agnostic. I’ll use whatever a company a has available and make it win. I have my preferences, but I don’t force my preferences on other people. This article is no different. I’d prefer to focus on what needs to be done than get into a [deleted] contest over whether Slack, Teams, Zoom, Gotomeeting, Webex, Microsoft, or Google is the better toolset for the job. If there was one tool to rule them all I’d let you know. There isn’t. Instead, there are many ways to do the same things, and just as many tradeoffs. Let your own preferences, or your IT department’s preferences, guide you.

The big challenge to keep in mind

The biggest challenge is keeping people from feeling isolated and making sure information gets to where it needs to be. When working remotely it’s a lot easier to overlook things and have that impact people’s work (or lack thereof) in a way that hurts the proposal effort. You don’t want problems to fester or people sitting around under-utilized against a deadline. Instead of getting everyone in a room or creating a step-by-step process, try thinking about creating an environment where everyone is remote but no one is isolated. Instead of looking for tools to solve this problem, try getting involved. 

Old habits die hard

For me, it’s a big problem that there are no whiteboards or good ways to share them remotely. I’ve been tempted to set up a whiteboard in my home office and put a webcam on it. For others, it’s a big problem that they can’t put the proposal up on the walls or manage by walking around. 

Throw out all of your physical collaboration tools, techniques, and habits and rethink them all. Think about how and why you collaborate the way you do, but instead of concluding that colocated is “better” or “easier” dig deeper. What information needs to get where? Is there another way to make that happen. Don’t try to do the same thing online. Do something different that achieves the same goals. 

Using whiteboards as an example, the real need is to put ad hoc information in front of people easily. You can share ad hoc notes and status information online. For example, you can have a shared Microsoft OneNote. It’s pretty slick when it’s integrated into SharePoint. But if you track everything in tables, a shared spreadsheet file might work better for you. Or if you don’t have or know how to use anything, a shared Microsoft Word or Google Docs file can get the job done.

I like to use whiteboards to track the “Single Version of The Truth,” assignments, deadlines, file status, phone numbers, doodles, and whatever ad hoc mention comes up that I want to share and not forget. All of that can be done in OneNote, Keep, Evernote, etc. Or even just Excel or Word. It works best if you can keep them one click away and update them in real time. Encourage people to keep it open in a browser tab. If possible, use it to exchange questions and issues as they come up. Think of it like a physical bulletin board for the proposal and leave notes for people.

Instead of lamenting that you can’t put the proposal up on the walls, focus on how to quickly assess your content strategy. Instead of relying on people being around a table to brainstorm or review, think about how to organize the discussion to facilitate it online. Or even whether it should be verbal discussion at all. Maybe some things should move to a group chat tool like Teams or Slack.

Some people like holding daily “standup meetings.” You can do this as a teleconference. But consider doing it in Teams or Slack to accelerate reporting status and issues. You can still schedule it. If you want to make sure people aren’t feeling isolated, consider dropping the meeting and having everyone available for an hour each morning. And then give them all a quick 5-minute call to check in. If there’s anything you can’t cover in 5 minutes, you can schedule a follow-up. 

New techniques and conventions to try

Setting expectations is always good and may be even more important for working remotely. For example, set an expectation that between certain hours, for example 10am-2pm, everyone should be available for ad hoc calls and video sessions so anybody with a question or something to pass on can get instant gratification. 

Take some of the mystery out of communicating remotely. Decide what communication channels your team will use: text, email, phone, video conferencing, etc. Or let people set their own preferences but state them on the team contact list. Have everybody put everybody in their cell phone contacts list so they can see who is calling. If you want to be accommodating, set a convention that dogs, kids, eating, deliveries, etc. during a video call are acceptable and then no one has to worry about it. How about a convention to simply ignore the background in a video call? Or location? Don’t ask, don’t tell?

Technology does help, but just a little

Technology is not going to make working remotely the same as being colocated. It’s not going to be better. Or worse. But it will be different. So you might as well embrace it. Go ahead and get creative with technology. 

Regardless of what platform you select, make sure you communicate which tools to use and where files, including ad hoc files, should be stored. 

If you are using collaborative editing, you may need to adjust some procedures. But I'd encourage it. Collaborative editing is not without its challenges, like how to ensure improper changes aren’t made when multiple people are editing over top of each other. You may need conventions for who decides which changes get made, or talking through changes before making them. But the time gained from being able to work in parallel instead of one at a time can be huge. It’s nice when you can control access to the files so you can lock people out of collaborative editing when you need to. 

The way a lot of companies conduct their proposal reviews involves stopping work to produce a draft, that people spend time reading only to report that it’s incomplete, and then finally writing can begin again. With collaborative editing, work can continue even during the review! This makes the review a bit of a moving target. But for some reviews that is the better side of the trade-off. And being able to conduct reviews with everyone on the phone while simultaneously agreeing to and making final changes can be both painful and wonderful at the same time.

With the higher dependency on technology, consider making someone, maybe someone in production, the dedicated IT liaison, configurator, problem solver, facilitator, and explainer. You don’t want anyone with lower tech skills or difficulty feeling isolated.

Security is better than the alternative

Sometimes we can’t have the toys or use them the way we want because of security. And while I believe that for most companies, proposal security is quite a bit over-done, it’s better safe than sorry. These days you may have more to fear from malware than you do from competitors trying to steal your secrets. But either way, security is a concern. And if your proposals involve work for DoD or certain other 3-letter acronyms, you have to worry about nation-state threats. If this is you, you’ve got an IT department with security specialists who know more about this topic than you or I do, and who can advise you on securely using your technology.

Don’t forget your teaming partners and consultants
Sometimes you need to be able to work on proposals with people outside your own company. Allow for this in your tool selection and security procedures. Think it through on the front end, because it can really mess things up on the back end if you don’t.

Hybrid solutions don’t help much

Weekly or other occasional meetings will not help much. Holding a planning session or review debrief live and in person can be nicely interactive. But the benefit to the proposal may be minimal. Doing this doesn’t eliminate the need to be able to accomplish nearly all the work virtually. You still need to think remote working through. 

Focus on what people need access to in order to write a winning proposal

Remember that the goals are the same whether working colocated or remotely...  Everyone on the team should know or be able to look up the status of everything and deadlines without having to ask someone else. And do it quickly and easily. In person or remote.

Everyone on the team needs easy access to guidance regarding how to do things. In person or remote.

Everyone on the team needs to know the single version of the truth and conventions (tools, locations, filenames, deadline, etc.). In person or remote.

And everyone needs to know everything without getting overwhelmed. Use the fewest number of tools, single points of contact, and single files with everything they need to know wherever possible. In person or remote.

Working remotely feels like a lot more work because you can’t rely on established ways of doing things, most based on colocation, and have to figure out new ways to do things that you were used to. But let’s be honest, the old proposal habits weren’t that great. So whether you like working remotely or hate it, maybe this really is an opportunity to create better habits.

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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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