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Summary:

Last August, I blogged about how my business partner and I were working through some processes to improve the way my virtual company works. We’ve continued to improve our processes, so I thought I would write an update to let you know how things have changed.

Last August, I blogged about how my business partner and I were working through some processes to improve the way my virtual company works. We’ve continued to refine and improve those processes, so I thought I would write an update to let you know how things have changed.

In my previous post, I examined the specific needs our team: communications, management, archiving and interaction. Then I identified the processes that fall under each of those needs. Here’s an updated diagram illustrating this:

Also in my previous post, I identified the software solutions — all cloud-based — that my company was testing out or using to fulfill these needs. Here’s how I illustrated the disparate applications that we cobbled together to try to create the illusion of a seamless solution.

One of the main things this diagram shows is that there we were using many applications in an attempt attempt to mimic the experience of working in a single physical location. Our virtual team has the fundamental need to keep everything in the cloud, because we don’t have the ability to pop our head into the cubicle next to us to ask a question, or walk down the hall to access a shared filing cabinet to retrieve important documents, or gather by the water cooler to get to know one another better.

But how do you pare down these multiple online solutions to be able to use fewer applications and yet get more functionality? We’re finding that, over time, developers are contemplating these same needs and processes and coming up with more integrated solutions. For example, in just nine months since I wrote my last post about virtual teams, a new cloud-based workspace solution called Glasscubes has come onto the scene that seems to take a different approach to distributed work and project management.

Glasscubes starts with the premise that virtual teams need a “space” in which to work and that all of the functionality should then reside within each space. In most cases, cloud- based apps seem to come from the standpoint of their specific function — such as “project management” or “task management” or “time tracking” — and then work to solve that problem. In the cases of some services — such as 5pm – the app’s “environment” derives from its functions.

But when you fundamentally begin with the “environment” — such as with Glasscubes — it appears to me that you end up with a solution that is better at fulfilling our need for a “place” or “space” for working in the cloud. Because of the more integrated feature set in Glasscubes, much of what we’ve been using prior to it is quickly becoming redundant. Here’s a diagram that shows the changes in our process distribution, thanks to Glasscubes’ more complete virtual workspace solution.

As you can see, we’re still having to use other solutions, because even Glasscubes doesn’t cover all of our processes. However, now many even seemingly disparate needs are fulfilled with a single solution.

The Adoption Quandry

As our team grows, we continue to struggle with the problem of adopting new software solutions that each team member can embrace. Because of our different personalities, we’re each comfortable with some, but not all, of the different solutions we’ve been testing out to improve work processes. That’s why, for example, we’ve never adopted SugarSync for file syncing, sharing and archiving for example even though, in theory, it could be an amazing and seamless solution for us. It’s also why never did adopt Socialtext, even though I personally can see the tremendous functionality of that product to integrated distributed teams.

Glasscubes, however, took me seconds to begin using and, more importantly, to understand how it worked and how I could use it. And even though I had the benefit of a personal demo from the company’s founder, every team member who I brought into the Glasscubes system took to it straight away. When our most creative team members and our most linear team members both felt comfortable within a single solution, I knew we were on to something.

Cost Considerations

One problem with having to piece together multiple solutions can be cost. As a boutique agency, we don’t have massive budgets for technology and while many of the applications we are using have both paid/premium and free versions, we have to pick and choose which ones we can afford to purchase.. Luckily, many of the freemium applications offer a good amount of features for free.

Right now, we are paying $125/month for a professional account with Glasscubes. This is more than we were paying for 5pm, but with the new addition of time tracking on Glasscubes and the overall comfort level everyone on the team has with the solution, we’re feeling the extra expense is worth it. We are still having to pay a minimum of $18/month for 5pm at the moment as we try to figure out how to get our archived files, content and conversations off of that system in an organized fashion.

What are your team’s needs and processes? What are the solutions you are using and how adequate are they?

Editor’s note: If you’re interested in what makes the type of cloud working that Aliza describes in this post possible, check out our Structure conference in June.

By Aliza Sherman

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  1. Christopher Ross Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Wow. That just seems overly complicated. My team is spread across 3 states, 2 countries and several time zones. We are standardized on Microsoft Office, Skype, Zoho Meetings and BaseCamp. We will likely move to Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite in the coming months, which will replace Zoho, Skype and Basecamp and only cost me about $60/month for 5 users.

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    1. LOL. Not complicated at all but revealing the layers and levels of analysis. We have far more than 5 users PLUS we are international which plays into it. And it depends what you do as a company as well as your methodology, processes and quality standards.

      I’d never force my team to use any Microsoft product. The incompatibilities are too great and while they are “big,” their innovation is so slow that products by younger startups blow Microsoft out of the water every time.

      I’ll always go for the nimble companies and products that are in touch with and in tune with the needs of their customers vs. the Goliath that forces their antiquated and clunky ways on the rest of us.

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  2. Aliza

    Very interesting article.

    The product we use, and which is now commercially available, was initially built to help us run our own web software company (www.estatestoday.co.uk)

    We needed:

    Contact Management to:
    1. Manage many companies details
    2. Manage and interact with many contacts
    3. Track all comments, assign tasks and store documents relating to the above
    4. Create Task reports for sales meetings
    5. Be able to create good looking email newsletters
    6. Be able to send these newsletters to unlimited custom mailing lists
    7. Link companies to relevant projects
    8. Distribute contact details by vCards
    9. Keep abreast of what our clients were doing by enabling real-time searching across Twitter, Google News and Google Blogs.

    Project Management to:
    1. Create unlimited projects and link users to them
    2. Track and share comments
    3. Track and share tasks
    4. Track and share documents
    5. Have advanced search facilities across tasks and documents
    6. Have good quality reporting on project activity
    7. Keep everyone updated by email whenever any activity occurs
    8. Have all the above outputted to bespoke RSS feeds
    9. Link projects to companies and image galleries

    Image Management to:
    1. Store and share any number of image galleries for marketing, presentations, websites etc
    2. Add comments to images
    3. View metadata and licensing information of images
    4. Batch upload and edit images
    5. Create custom lightboxes
    6. View as slideshows
    7. Link galleries to projects and companies

    Instant Messaging to:
    Text chat and share documents in real time with a fellow user

    AND MOST IMPORTANTLY:
    1. Be able to view and keep track of all the above really easily
    2. Do it all with a system which is attractive and a pleasure to use.
    3. Be able to easily collaborate on all of this with our colleagues, clients and suppliers

    http://www.glasnost21.com does all of the above.

    If we need to screenshare (which we do a lot) we use Skype.
    If we need to have conference calls we use Powwownow and/or Skype.
    If we need to co-author documents (rare for us) we use Google Docs.

    We think the things we do are pretty commonplace amongst ‘knowledge workers’.

    Put together this solution is lightweight, efficient, lovely to use and scaleable up to hundreds of people with ease.

    More on our website, including a free trial version and a live demo.

    Regards

    Antony Slumbers

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  3. Great article Aliza. Sococo – reviewed here http://webworkerdaily.com/2009/12/22/web-conferencing-with-sococo-team-space/ is a great tool to help in Interactions and communications. Combines virtual meetings and water cooler interactions. Currently Free.Ideal for distributed teams.
    @christopher ross, Sococo might be a non-microsoft answer to your requirements.

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  4. When it comes to interact (whether it is virtual or in real live) I think you need a basic process which consists of: prepare, runing and following up a meeting i.e. a interaction (like described in the article above).
    So there is no magic with virtual teams besides they don’t meet in person. Even more it is necessary to keep written minutes of what is agreed upon. Perhaps a service like agreedo.com is a good choice here. For real or virtual teams.

    Best regards
    Hannes

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