In recent years we have seen a sea-change in attitudes towards working from home as the internet has become faster and all pervasive. Better productivity, increased creativity and a much wider pool of talent makes telecommuting extremely compelling to businesses around the world.
The only problem with working remotely as part of a team, or managing a virtual team, is the tools you use on a daily basis. It’s easy to forget that the telecommuting craze is a relatively recent affair, which means that the tools available to use are perhaps not as full-featured as their desktop equivalents.
Therefore, it is important to use the tools that are going to help your business rather than hinder it. Here are the tools you should be using to power your team.
If you are working online, then communication is going to be an essential part of your day, even more than if you were sitting in the desk. You will need to be able to contact people wherever you are and whenever you need it. So, what are the best phone and IM apps for working online?
- Best: Skype
This ubiquitous application can run natively on Windows, OS X and Linux, although development is significantly staggered. However, it offers solid chat and has a handy file transfer feature like most other communication applications. Skype allows computer-to-computer phone calls for free as well as cheap calls to landlines and mobiles around the world. It can also handle conference calls, a feature that is extremely useful for teams spread across countries. Don’t forget that Skype also handles video calls and now with Skype Prime you can get into consultation by charging calls to your customers for your expertise.
- Runner-up: Gizmo
While not as well known as Skype, the open source Gizmo Project is a fantastic runner-up that has a strong following. Gizmo has all the usual features including cross platform compatibility, chat, file transfer, free computer-to-computer calls, low cost calls to landlines and mobiles as well as conference call and voicemail capabilities. Gizmo also can call contacts on Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk or Windows Live Messenger.
- Alternatives: SightSpeed / iChat
Even if you don’t spend your working day plugged into the interwebs, you’re going to need email. If you are one of the new emerging Bedouin then email will play a crucial role in your everyday business.
You’ll use email to develop leads, send proposals, close deals and keep in touch with colleagues. You will need a solid performer, email that is always up and configurable. Even though I am a fan of Apple Mail, I made the decision a while back to move. Who did I choose and why?
- Best: Gmail
I needed omnipresent email, and that just meant it had to be Gmail. I was tired of using Mail at work, then using Horde after hours. It wasn’t easy to track discussions and as time went on I soon realised that this just wasn’t a scalable solution at all. Moving to Gmail meant I could login anytime, anywhere and keep the ball moving. I can tag conversations, I can keep my mail organised easily and I can get mail from other POP3 accounts. Perfect.
- Runner-up: Apple Mail
Apple’s Mail client is excellent; it just isn’t so good when you are desktop-bound during working hours, then moving to another desktop after work. Yes there is .Mac syncing, but that didn’t ever seem to work properly for me. As well as that, I found that Mail wasn’t as good as Gmail in terms of spam filtering. The Leopard version of mail looks like it will be better with it’s built-in to-do list, but I don’t need templates and some of the other more consumer oriented features.
- Alternatives: Yahoo! Mail
Working online often means collaborating with colleagues who are typically spread out. There is no physical place where you can meet face to face apart from the occasional trade show. So you need a virtual office space, a place where you can organise, prioritise and assign tasks.
Getting any project completed on time and on budget from a traditional office environment where your team is at hand is hard enough; doing it virtually is a much more difficult task. How do you know who is working on what? Can you track the time spent on any given task? Who manages upcoming tasks?
These are all fundamental to a functioning, collaborative team who get things done. So what should you be using?
- Best: Basecamp
Easy to use, affordable (from $24 p/m) and above all, reliable. Basecamp is the perfect scalable solution for managing the day to day tasks faced by every web-based team. You can create to-do lists, assign tasks, store files, take notes, collaborate via the writeboard and track time (with the Plus version). There’s no doubt about, Basecamp is where it’s at for online project management. And it looks great on OS X!
- Runner-up: ActiveCollab
Like Basecamp but can’t afford it / don’t want to pay for it? Then ActiveCollab is the solution for your team. This project is essentially a clone of Basecamp that can be downloaded and then installed on any LAMP server. It allows you to manage a project by designating tasks, tracking time, setup dynamic to-do lists etc. Oh yeah, did I say it’s free?
- Alternatives: QuickBase
If you want to get things done then you need to get your time organised. You’ll need to be able to plan out what to do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.
Managing a virtual team can be complex and highly involving. Virtual teams require flexibility and a hands-on approach, otherwise things don’t get done. If you are in a management position with team members spread out across various time zones then your task is especially challenging. So what should you be using?
- Best: Google Calendar
Organise tasks quickly and view them by day, week and month. The best thing about Google Calendar is the sharing feature, which is the ideal way to keep your team informed. Email notifications, mobile integration and good search combine to make this my top choice.
- Runner-up: 30 Boxes
This popular web-based calendaring application has a large following, and for good reason. 30 Boxes has a slick UI, it’s very fast, has sharing capability, tags and much more. Google Calendar is just a more rounded product.
- Alternatives: Yahoo! Calendar
You know the old saying; a problem shared is a problem halved. Quite often I find that all the emails and calls in the world don’t help a problem go away, you need to someone else to see it.
Screen sharing is important. You may not need to do a presentation every day, but there will come a time when you will require it. So, here is what you should use to share info (until the Leopard version of iChat with integrated screen sharing is released for all you Mac users out there).
- Best: GoToMeeting
Massively popular and for good reason, GoToMeeting is tried and trusted around the world. Share your screen, keyboard, mouse, change presenters on the fly, draw on the screen and Microsoft Office integration. It’s just a pity that Mac users can only attend and not present.
- Runner-up: Yugma
- Alternatives: WebEx
Simple, fast, compatible and reliable. Yugma will work on Windows and Mac OS X, which is a big plus in today’s world. I found that while Yugma did struggle a little with screen refresh, it did well considering it was sharing a 23″ Dell display.