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Essential Tools for Great Collaboration

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You’re leading a brand new global project team. The best and brightest, representing a cross-section of functions from all over the world, will be collaborating over a very compressed period of time to pull off what many claim is a near-impossible feat. Never one to be daunted by naysayers, you are confident that with the right motivation, energy, passion, and tools, this terrific team is up to the task.

As a successful leader of virtual teams, you know you have what it takes to keep the team motivated and focused. Choosing the best combination of tools to enable this team to collaborate and communicate in lockstep – that’s your greatest challenge. Fortunately, your company has invested heavily in collaboration tools over the last few years. If anything, your options feel overwhelming. Your team needs to determine which tools will work best, under what conditions, to achieve these ambitious goals, from afar.

For this edition of Communiqué, I interviewed Michael Frenette, Project Manager for Sierra Systems, whose LinkedIn posting on essential virtual collaboration tools caught my eye. Here’s a “short list” of “must have” tools for geographically dispersed teams, or for any type of team that relies on virtual collaboration tools to get work done.

  • A virtual shared work area (a.k.a. team portal or collaboration site) gives people one place where they can post and access team documents. Members can save hours of time they otherwise might spend chasing down documents buried in their inboxes or sitting somewhere on a server. Properly used, a team portal can also safeguard against unintentional duplicates or old versions of important documents. (No more guessing which email attachment has the latest revision, since documents are no longer transported via email!) Teams can store other vital content in this shared area; such as, a definitive contact list, status reports and announcements. Many tools make it easy to set up asynchronous discussions and surveys, enabling members to provide input, generate ideas or make decisions more quickly. Automatic subscription alerts notify members of new or modified content on their favorite areas of the site. Try sending out site links with “teasers” via email – and stop sending attachments! Think of your shared work area as your own “FaceBook for business.”
  • Desktop-sharing tools allow team members to view another desktop or share theirs. Dozens of such tools are available, from fairly pricey and robust options to simple and inexpensive (or even free) solutions. Popular examples include Go to Meeting, Office Communicator and WebEx. If you’re sharing your desktop, make sure to close down all other apps, especially those that might pop up without warning, such as an email or an IM. If you are recording your meeting, specify what elements to record, such as presentation materials, comments, or questions. Many such tools have an ability to annotate items on the screen, and some allow everyone on the call to collaborate on a document concurrently.
  • Tools that integrate teleconferencing and desktop sharing can increase the effectiveness and efficiency of virtual meetings dramatically. This way, team members can dial in and connect their call to their presence within the web meeting, allowing others to see who is speaking, whose hand is up, whose line may be muted, etc. Standalone teleconferencing programs are becoming more sophisticated, giving people the ability to form audio breakouts, conduct simple polling, etc.
  • VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) – Some teleconferencing tools simply don’t work in some locations, which can leave some team members out in the cold. In this case, consider moving the entire team to a VOIP solution like Skype, Google Call or others. Although it won’t be integrated with your desktop-sharing tool, it will have the ability to accommodate all team members equally. Occasional disadvantages include overall call quality and the number of allowable participants. However, given the cost (in most cases, nothing!), VOIP teleconferences can provide great value. Note that it’s best to have members either all dial in or all use VOIP. That’s because with VOIP, there can be slight delays which are not the case for those who dial in, causing some people to unintentionally cut each other off. In addition, speaker phones that are half-duplex vs. full duplex sometimes make it impossible to jump in when someone else is talking, which can let someone continue droning on for a frustratingly long time.
  • Email is still an essential way to send messages for most teams. (After all, how would people get subscription alerts?!) Unfortunately, it can be easy to abuse email, clogging up in-boxes and chipping away at peoples’ time unnecessarily. Consider banning the act of sending files as attachments when you could be posting them in your portal or somewhere in the “cloud” and sending a link via email – a great way to encourage greater use of the portal. It’s almost never okay to hit “Reply All,” which can easily spawn dozens or even hundreds of return emails (many of them “replying all,” scolding the original sender for doing the same.) If you really want to hear responses from everyone, start a discussion thread on your team portal and invite everyone to join the conversation, allowing everyone to see all responses when and if they desire. As a team, establish principles governing the acceptable use of email. Email is for messaging, not for collaboration! You may need to give each other friendly reminders along the way as the use of a team portal and other options catches on.
  • Chatting is a great way to make instantaneous contact with a colleague, whether it’s to say hi, ask a question, or just check in. Many chat tools (e.g. Skype) let you choose the way you make contact with your friend (or several friends at once) – whether by typing, calling via VOIP or making a video call. If you’re not available for chatting, either log off, or post a message letting people know when you’ll be available. Otherwise, if you don’t reply instantly, your colleagues may feel snubbed, or your boss miffed. If you’re running a meeting or otherwise need to participate fully on the task at hand, set limits on the number and types of chats you will accept. If your chat function is embedded into your web meeting tool (e.g. WebEx), make sure you don’t mistakenly send a public chat when you intended to send a private one.
  • Video cameras can add a much-needed human dimension to your virtual communications. Use video cameras as part of a desktop sharing or web meeting tool, or as part of a web-based communication platform like Skype. Using video cameras is especially helpful when you’ve never met many people on your team, or when a tough decision needs to be made or complex problem resolved. When used excessively, though, they can be more of a distraction than a help. The quality of video technology varies widely. When things work well, video can integrate the people in the room and those participating remotely, creating a feeling of togetherness. When you need to work together on a shared document or action plan, using a desk-top sharing application will probably help you be more productive than using video.
  • Personal contact is the most essential “tool” of all, and one that’s used less and less, even for those who work in close proximity. A one-on-one phone call to get to know your team members, to see if they need help or to share ideas will do wonders for a feeling of team inclusion, good morale and just plain friendliness. You can accomplish more in a five-minute call when it comes to creating a trusting relationship than 50 emails. (Imagine what a face-to-face meeting can help you do if you can manage it! This is, of course, the best collaboration tool of all, but then, this article is about virtual collaboration.)

It’s true that nothing beats face-to-face communication or a 1:1 call when it comes to building the kind of relationships that can accelerate collaboration. But when that’s not possible, there are some essential tools that can make collaboration considerably faster, easier and far more painless, whether the teams work together or far apart.

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Michael Frenette is a Principal in the Halifax office of Sierra Systems Group Inc., headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia. Sierra Systems provides management consulting, systems integration and application support services tailored to the unique needs of multiple industries.

Collaboration portals worth checking out: SharePoint, DotNetNuke, Joomla and Drupal

See our related Communiqués: Great Virtual Collaboration Takes More Than Tools, Ten Must-Know Email Tips to Make an Impact and Get Results, and Speed Virtual Connections, Strengthen Collaboration with the Right Social Networking Tools.