Thursday, October 31, 2013

No-Fuss Online Collaboration

Virtual TeamIf you're an independent business owner, you must be able to collaborate effectively online with clients, colleagues and close business associates. It’s no longer enough to keep them at arm’s length and work around the times you’re not available in person. Because so much work nowadays is done remotely, online collaboration needs to be part of your normal working day.

Let's look at the steps involved in working together online. You won't need all these steps every time, but it's useful to have them as a step-by-step checklist.

I'll mention a few tools and services along the way, just to give you an idea of what's available. However, these are just a small sample of what you can find, and new tools are cropping up every day. So use them as just a starting point for your own work.

Build up: Choose the initial work space and environment

You'll choose your collaboration space depending on the job you want done.

For simple jobs, a shared Dropbox folder might be all you need. Everybody can add, change and delete files from there; and as long as they understand what they are doing, they won't get in each other's way.

For bigger jobs, you might want to use something more structured, with better document control and more features for interaction between team members. For longer-term collaboration, you might even go as far as a Ning community for the project (like having a private Facebook page).

Team up: Choose your work team and plan the project flow

The next step is to form your team. Of course, you might have chosen them already, or them might have been chosen for you. However, if your team doesn’t have all the expertise required, the Internet makes it easy to find other providers. You can use general outsourcing sites like Elance and oDesk, crowdsourcing sites like 99 Designs, or specialised sites that offer specific services.

When working together, you also require a project planning tool, where people can check deadlines, deliverables, ‘To Do’ lists for the week, responsibilities for various tasks, and so on. An excellent tool for this is BasecampHQ.com, a project management service that allows you to set actions, due dates, calendars and the like.

Set up (meetings): Schedule meetings – internal or external

Meetings are important and inevitable in online collaboration, and the first step is scheduling them. Bringing a team together for a meeting seems like it should be an easy task, but it can be surprisingly challenging when working with a dispersed team. Fortunately, there are a number of scheduling tools you can use to simplify this process. Tungle.com and TimeBridge.com are two of the many options available.

Meet up: Come together at a set time to discuss issues

Having scheduled the meeting, the next challenge is to run the meeting. The simplest option is to conduct a meeting by telephone, using Skype, a teleconferencing service, or even just the plain old telephone system. Although this is fairly “low tech”, it’s still effective and reliable.

The next step in sophistication is to include screen sharing and/or video. I like GoToMeeting from Citrix, which provides both of these features, as well as other features for online meetings. A Google+ Hangout is another good option, and it's free.

Most of the online meeting tools have the capability to record the meeting, which means you can send the recording to participants afterwards, or get it transcribed for reference.

Chat up: Conduct informal conversations and discussions

Since you aren’t going to bump into colleagues in the corridor or around the water cooler, you’ll need online tools to conduct informal discussions. These tools fall into two categories: Deferred, where everybody doesn’t have to be there at the same time; and Immediate, which requires everybody to be present.

The deferred communication tools are more formal and considered, because people have the time to think about their responses before contributing. They include things like a discussion forum, bulletin board, and even a private LinkedIn group.

The immediate communication tools are less formal, but allow people to interact with each other in real time. These tools include online chat rooms, instant messaging services and Twitter.

Mark up: Share and edit documents together

Working together on a project isn’t only about meetings and conversations, of course (although it can sometimes seem that way). In between these conversations, team members work independently on their tasks – including collaborating on documents.

The tools you use depend on the work environment you set up initially. For example, if you use Google Drive for your work environment, it's already designed for people to collaborate on documents.

With other systems, this might not be the case, and you need to be careful about how people work together on documents.

Fix up: Track issues, actions, problems and concerns

Finally, you need some way of managing tasks and issues that crop up during the work.

A good issue tracking system (sometimes called a bug database or online help desk) lets you add all these issues to a database, and then team members update them as they work on them. At any time, anybody can log in to check on progress.

There are a variety of tools that will enable you to do this, including Bugzilla.org. They can either be installed on your company’s Web server or an external Web host. Either way, only you and your team have access to the database.

How can you use this in your work day?

Online collaboration is an increasing part of your professional life. Make it work for you, and learn to do it effectively and efficiently.


This article is an edited extract from our book Out of Office: Using the Internet for Greater Freedom in Your Work Life, by Chris Pudney and Gihan Perera. The book has an entire chapter about online collaboration, and includes more information about principles and tools to make it work for you.

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