Communicating, sharing and staying organized in the virtual work environment
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
Working from home can be a mixed blessing. For the most part it’s great. Your commute is measured in steps rather than miles saving probably an hour a day, not to mention the price of gas and wear and tear on your car. You can work in your pajamas if you’d like (assuming you don’t use video conferencing in which case you probably should put on a nicer shirt and make sure your hair is combed).
On the down side you’re all alone at home. It’s easy to get distracted with chores around the house. But most of all, for me at least, is a sense of isolation. You can’t yell across the cubicle wall when you have a question.
These days our work requires new tools to be able to e able to collaborate effectively with others, especially if you’re working from home or working in a distributed environment. We’ll take a look at some of the best tools that I’ve found for communication, sharing and organization and hopefully start a discussion about other great tools.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
— George Bernard Shaw
One of the first things we need is a way to talk to people. You can of course use a regular phone for this, which works well if you need to talk to one person. There are other online solutions that provide other features such as conference calling and better call management. My current favorite services for voice calls are Skype and Google Voice.
Voice & Video
This is usually my first choice for making calls while working on my computer these days. It’s really convenient to be able to plug-in my headset and have my hands free to work. Calls to other Skype subscribers are always free. There is a charge to call regular phone numbers but for about $30/year you can get unlimited calls to all phones in the US and Canada.
One of the nicest features of Skype is the ability to have conference calls with up to 25 people. This comes in really handy for daily or weekly check-in calls with clients or co-workers.
Overall I’ve never been too impress with Google Voice for making calls as it lacks the conferencing abilities of Skype. One great feature though is the being able to get a phone number for your account, which can then be forwarded to your cell phone or a land line and provides a powerful tool for managing your calls.
You can setup rules for how and when the forwarding will happen. For instance, you might want your Google number to be forwarded to your cell phone during work hours, say 9 to 5, and to your land line during non-work hours. You can even setup up rules based on who’s calling so that only calls from your co-workers will ring through to your land-line after hours. Other calls can be set to be sent straight to voicemail. You can also have the call on your phone giving you the opportunity listen in on the message being left and decide if you want to pickup the call.
Since I tend to use Skype most of the time for voice calls and it’s usually open on my computer I also tend to use it for sending instant messages. Most of the time this is usually to ping someone to see if they’re available for a voice call.
This is another very popular instant messaging system. I use it on rare occasions when someone else I’m working with uses it.
I haven’t used this except to test it to see if it worked (which it did). This is one of the services I use only when I’m working with someone else who happens to prefer it.
Windows Live Messenger
I’ve used this in the past but have convinced most of the people who were using this to get a Skype account.
If you have a need to use multiple instant messaging systems there are programs that will help consolidate these so you don’t have to have multiple messaging programs open. Since I’m on a Mac I tend to use Adium for any IM tasks other than Skype. Pidgin is also very popular and is cross platform.
Online Conference Rooms
Last year I had a opportunity to work with Automattic Inc. (the people who run WordPress.com) for a couple of months. It was a really interesting experience as Automattic is a complexly distributed company. They don’t have a real office and people in the company are spread out all over the world. They have developed a number of ways to facilitate communications using, email , Skype, P2 blogs (which we’ll talk about in a minute) but most of the daily communication took place in private IRC chat rooms. This provides a capability similar to being able to yell over the cubicle walls in an office. The big advantage of using IRC was that you could just log into a chat room, see and send messages from anyone else in the room and leave when you wanted. There’s no setup like a conference call. The “room” is always there ready and waiting.
The disadvantage of IRC is that it’s not very user friendly and can be a bit intimidating when you first start using it. IRC is a text-based protocol. Commands are all given via a command line interface and are rather complex. For this reason I’d probably recommend looking for a more user-friendly private chat room environment. There are a couple that I’ve found that seem pretty good.
Campfire, run by the folks at 37 Signals (the creators of BaseCamp), provides a very nice private chat environment that’s easy to use. Cost for this service starts at $12/month.
Always on the lookout for a free alternative, I came across another service named Chatzy that provides private chat rooms for free. I tried it out a bit and while not quite as polished at Campfire it gets the job done.
If email is dead how come my inbox is full every morning? Despite all the newer forms of communication such as IM, text messages, VOIP we still tend to depend on good old email for much of our work.
Setting up email for you domain used to be a bit of a problem. You could either setup your own email server or find some email provider that charged too much for too little. That all changed when Google started offering Google Apps. Now you can point the email for your domain at their servers and be able to access your email via POP, IMAP or the Gmail web client. It free for up to 50 email accounts that should accommodate most small companies. It also includes Google Docs, Calendar, and a number of other services. It’s also possible to setup email services for free through domain registrars and hosting services such as GoDaddy and Dreamhost but given the features offered by Google it’s hard to pass up Google Apps.
Screen Sharing & Remote Control
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words and that’s certainly true when you’re trying to help someone with a computer problem over the phone. Being able to see the other persons screen or showing your screen can make work go much faster. For simple one-to-one screen sharing you can use the handy new feature built into Skype that will show your screen to the person you’re chatting with. Other times when you need to share your screen with more that one person or take control of someone’s screen (or give them control of yours) other services such as GotoMeeting, WebEx and Abobe Connect come in really handy. I’m most familiar with GotoMeeting myself and have found that it works really well. The cost for this service is $50/month for an unlimited number of conferences with up to 15 participants. It’s not cheap but it can pay for itself with the time saved if you don’t have to drive out to a client’s site a couple of times a month.
“Our best thoughts come from others.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are always files, images, and other miscellaneous that need to be shared when working on projects. Luckily, there are some pretty easy ways to either transfer the files or, better yet, provide a collaborative workspace where everyone can work.
Dropbox provides a quick and easy way to transfer files to others. You setup your account and you can get 2GB of space for free (you can get more free space if you get other people to sign up). That should be enough for most files. If you need more space they have paid plans to give you 50GB or 100GB of storage. They have a small application that once installed on your system (Windows, Mac, or Linux) presents your Dropbox space as if it was another drive on your system. You can set folders to be public, private or shared. You then just send the URL of the file or folder to who you want to share it with and your set.
Google Docs is a great place to create and edit shared documents. Multiple people can edit a document simultaneously. It also keeps track of revisions to your files so you can always go back to a previous version. Once again this is a free service and you get 1GB of space to store uploaded files and unlimited space for Google Docs files. It’s also possible to upload any document type (Word, Excel, PDF, etc.) and either store the file or convert it to a Google Docs format.
I’ve been a fan of Evernote for a few years now. I was always looking for a place to store various bits and pieces of information and notes and this fit the bill perfectly. Now whenever I have something that I don’t want to forget it goes into Evernote. They have apps for mobile devices as well so you can access your information wherever you are. You can also access your stored information via their website. One new feature that they’ve recently added is the ability to share notebooks (everything is stored in “notebooks” on Evernote). You can either make a notebook public so anyone can see it or select who you want to share with.
When working with Automattic I was introduced to the P2 blog theme and was pretty amazed at how it works. It’s kind of like Twitter meets the blog. There’s a “post” box at the top of the page. You type in what you want and it’s instantly published. People can reply to your posts and the replies are instantly published as well. P2 is simply a WordPress theme that you can use on any WordPress installation. It’s even available on WordPress.com so you can quickly setup a P2 site for a project and be posting in minutes. Matt Mullenweg wrote a good article explaining How P2 changed Automattic.
“Don’t agonize, organize.”
— Florynce R. Kennedy
It used to be that if you wanted to have any sort of decent calendar you needed to setup a Microsft Exhange server and use Outlook. There just weren’t many choices out there for shared calendars. Google has come to the rescue once again with Google Calendar. You can create multiple calendars, share them, send invitations to meetings and events, and track RSVP’s. You can even sync with your desktop calendar if you’d rather work with a local app. It’s a great application for keeping everyone’s schedule synced.
This is a great tool for tracking all the tasks associated with a project. It allows you to break up a project into “user stories” and then schedule when and by whom these stories will be done. It was born out of the Agile Software Development movement (you can read more about Agile Development here) and provides a great way to organize, assign, and keep track of project tasks. It used to be completely free but they just started charging for the service. They do have a couple of free levels that may be suitable to some projects.
This is kind of the Swiss army knife of project organizers. It has facilities for communication, file sharing and to-do lists all in one place. It also integrates with their Campfire product mentioned earlier. Pricing starts at $49 per month.
Keeping track of the money end of things was never something that I like about doing contract work. Freshbooks makes this much easier to do. It handles invoicing, time tracking, estimates, and expenses among other things. The web-based interface is easy to use. You can get started with up to 3 clients for free. If you need more than that they have plans starting at $19.95 per month.
Other Helpful Tools
“If you can dream it, then you can achieve it. You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”
— Zig Ziglar
When working with people spread out across the globe I found it hard to keep track of what time it was. The TimeScroller widget (only available for Mac and iPhone, sorry) really helped.
Another Mac and iPhone only utility but one I find immensely useful. You start up the app and it puts an icon in the menu bar. You can then drop any file on the icon(I use it mainly for sending screenshots) and it will upload that file and create a link that is placed in your clipboard. You can then send that link to someone via email or IM and they can access the file. Quick and easy.