Think Globally, App Locally: Techie Tools for a Virtual Team
When did calling a simple team meeting become an exercise in cat herding? When everybody wore hats and ties, drove to work in a yacht-sized car, and called it a day at 5 PM, gathering your team into a conference room in the late afternoon wasn’t a big deal. Needless to say, things are different now. Your project manager may work from home on Tuesdays, the marketing manager may be part of a virtual team in a different time zone, and your developers may be in Bangalore.
The number of non-self-employed workers that work at home has doubled since 2005, as businesses increasingly recognize productivity and cost-saving benefits from telecommuting. However, the benefits of this more flexible work environment does not come without its challenges. Globalization will continue to stretch teams across time zones and borders. As such, if you think that coordinating with your team now is a challenge, coordination is likely to become even more challenging in the future.
While your workplace likely has the basics for working remotely—such as cloud-based file sharing, email, and conference calling—these tools are just a starting point. Email and voice offer limited functionality for coordinating a team. Fortunately, there are a number of tools that can make managing a team of remote workers easier.
Email isn’t always the quickest or most efficient way to communicate with someone, especially if they’re not checking their inbox constantly. If you need to get in touch with someone on your team right away or just need to ask him a short and simple question, instant messaging and chat apps are the way to go. Here are some chat applications with particularly useful features for business.
Slack is a group chat popular amongst remote workers. Instead of sending emails to one another, users drop messages in a room or share documents for everyone to review when they come online. If one group chat becomes too cluttered or full of off-topic remarks, users can make use of Slack’s channels, which allow you to section off rooms into topics like “marketing,” “coding,” or “water cooler.”
Designed for mobile devices as well as Mac, Linux, or Windows, HipChat offers a central location to talk to individual people as well as to entire teams, and users can share files and images. If everyone on a remote team is logged in to HipChat during the work day, it acts as a real time news feed of what is going on with each team and member, which is useful for catching up or keeping up.
Videoconferencing and Screen Sharing
The video chat software that many of us use in our personal lives, like Google Hangouts and Skype, can be useful for collaborating with your team too. Both applications support up to nine different people on a conference call at once and allow for text messages as well as file sharing. However, sometimes your collaboration needs are different.If your meeting is a brainstorming session, you may want to sketch out ideas on a whiteboard or refer to documents in the course of the meeting. In other instances, it’s not your colleague you want to see, it’s their screen. For example, you may want to help a team member solve a software issue by directly having access to his computer.Here are some options for facilitating this sort of collaboration:
Join.me is a popular screen sharing and video conferencing service. For screen sharing, join.me is free and easy to use.Just go to the website, create a session and share the session code with your team member. It’s super quick and simple.Join.me also has videoconference features in which you can share files and record sessions forlater use.
ClickMeeting also offers both videoconferencing and screen sharing, but with a unique blend of features. It allows users to brand their meeting rooms by adding logos, graphics, and brand colors to “meeting rooms” and “waiting rooms.” ClickMeeting offers both moderated chat functionality and simultaneous translations of conversations via Google translation. ClickMeeting offers some attractive screen sharing features as well.Users can share their entire screen or just part of it, and can use a drawing tool to support presentations.
Screenhero focuses on screen sharing and adds a nice functionality not offered by Join.me or ClickMeeting: multiple cursors so that users don’t need to fight over control of the screen.In addition, Screenhero allows for voice chat so that you can discuss any issues while you screen share.
Tracking the progress of your team can be difficult if members are dispersed in time and space. Thankfully, there are a number of project management tools to help facilitate organization and oversight.
Trello is a web-based project management app that works like a shared bulletin board with Post-it notes. You can track private lists as well as shared daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual projects. Trello allows users to create milestones as well as lists for one-time projects that can be assigned to a team or individual worker. The app has a zoom-in function for users to see the specific details of a project and a zoom-out function to see a bird’s eye view, which helps prevent missing any details as well as missing a company’s bigger picture or long-term goals. Trello’s drag-and-drop interface is simple and visually appealing, making it a favorite among many remote teams.
iDoneThis is a popular team- and project-tracking tool that provides a central location for team members to document their achievements, recap a day’s events, or track personal projects. Used in tandem with Trello or Slack, iDoneThis can track short-term plans for individuals and entire departments. Users make a list of the items they plan to work on and then, as the day or week progresses, they log the projects (and project details) that have been completed.
Amazingly, finding a time when members of your team are available can still be a challenge in a world supersaturated with calendar apps. The problem here may be different, non-syncing calendars or collaboration with team members that are not part of your organization, such as business partners or contractors. Doodle andFantastical are two apps that can cut through the clutter.
Doodle is useful for quickly determining days and times that are mutually convenient for an in-person meeting without back and forth email chains. The app connects to your calendar as well as the calendars of other coworkers through a desktop or mobile device and shows when everyone is available and how they want to be contacted.
Increasingly, workers keep separate calendars for both business and personal use, and events can often get lost if someone only checks one calendar frequently. If you only check your business calendar for scheduling conflicts, it may show that you have free time whereas your personal calendar has an event planned. Fantastical allows you to aggregate your calendars and to switch between different calendars easily to avoid any confusion, so you won’t ever have to worry about scheduling a meeting with investors at the same time as your semi-annual dental appointment.
Other Useful Apps
World Time Buddy
If your team or workers are scattered amongst different time zones, World Time Buddy can help by showing you all the current times for those locations. The best function of the app, however, is that it allows you to enter a number of specific locations and find overlapping times to schedule calls or meetings. If a client lives in Newport, Rhode Island, you are traveling to St. Petersburg, Russia, and your coworker is in Denver, World Time Buddy will show you the best overlapping time for a meeting in all three time zones.
Some remote workers prefer to work in a café, coffee shop, library, or locations other than their home office. Workfrom is a website that offers recommendations within major cities to help people find places that offer free WiFi and allow patrons to sit and do work.
Not all of this technology is for every team.Some teams can really benefit from the sort of visual project management offered by Trello; others less so. If your team extends outside the organization, Doodle might be a time-saver; if your team is entirely within your organization and everybody uses an Outlook calendar, it might be less useful.Pick and choose what is useful to you.
Best of all, there is little reason not to experiment with multiple software platforms to see which works best for your team. Much of the technology discussed in this post is affordable and easy to use, so you don’t need to spend time allocating a budget or begging your IT department for their time.
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