10 Ways to Collaborate with Other Human Beings Without Actually Being There

Last month, five colleagues and I got together at a beautiful beach house in Delaware for a strategic retreat. We sat around a comfy living room surrounded by paper and munchies and together we planned out the next few years of work. When you work as part of a team, you are surrounding an idea from all sides and building something strong together. Nothing replaces that kind of face-to-face collaboration, but we do have technology to help fill in some of the gaps.

Email: Let’s start with the obvious. It’s a reflex. We all complain that it’s “broken” and that we’re slaves to it, but it’s still the first method we reach for group collaboration, limited only by how many addresses you can stick in the “To:” field. Email works because it’s a baseline. Everyone has it. You don’t have to worry about who is taking notes. By its very nature, it’s a paper trail record of the conversation. But email is slow and “noisy,” especially when there are a lot of people involved. Even if everyone else on your team is responding quickly, it can still take hours to reach a consensus that you know can be ironed out in a 10 minute face-to-face meeting.

Phone: Most land line phones offer 3-way calling for impromptu conference calls. Hit the “flash” or “on” button during a conversation, at the dial tone call up the 3rd party, hit “flash” or “on” again to bring the three of you together. Speaker phones or headsets are a must for taking notes and keeping your shoulder from cramping up on long calls. If your team is more than three people, then you should use an online service to schedule a conference call. There are many free conference call services which provide a phone number (usually long distance) and an access code for participants. Choices include Free Conference (my personal favorite), free audio conferencing, Totally Free Conference Calls, and FreeConferencing. Many services offer paid add-on options such as toll-free calls or call recording. For those, do some comparison shopping to get the best rates.

Text chat: Most IM clients have a group chat option, but you all have to be using the same network (AIM, Yahoo or MSN usually). Skype handles text chatting nicely. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) has been around since forever, but it’s still a viable option. Good IRC clients include mIRC for Windows or Colloquy for Mac OS X. ChatZilla allows IRC chatting within a Firefox window. You and your colleagues simply need to agree on the server and the chat room to meet. IRC is great if everyone on your team is Internet old-school, but the lack of a pretty interface tends to scare off the newbies who don’t know the lingo. It’s also difficult to follow threads of conversation if people are talking all at once. Web-based chat is not just for hooking up. Set up a private room with password access and go to it. The advantage is that there is no extra software to download and there aren’t those arcane commands to remember. You also have a text record of the conversation. Choices include Yahoo Chat, Campfire and Meebo.

VOIP: Phone conversations computer-to-computer. Skype is the leader here. Even without Skype, most IM clients offer audio capabilities now. Quality is dependent on a lot of factors, not the least of which is the upload speed offered by your modem and the sound capabilities of your computer. Laptops tend to have a lot of problems with echoing and drop-outs, so be prepared with a good quality headset microphone. Like with phone conference calls, the biggest disadvantage to collaborating this way is the lack of nonverbal communication. The speaker can’t hear you nodding in agreement.

Web Conferencing: Combined with audio conferencing, web conferencing software is a great way to get teams together looking at the same content. This used to be priced way out of the individual’s market, but over the last few years enterprise-quality web conferencing services have been more accessible to small teams. NetMeeting has long been available to Windows users, (now Windows Meeting Space in Vista) but the setup was complicated for entry-level users and it leaves Mac users out of the conversation. Services like GoToMeeting and WebEx’s MeetMeNow are easy enough to use, but still participants often complain about the initial download that may conflict with software already installed or their software firewall. Both are pricey at $39/month with an annual plan that allow you to set up unlimited meetings whenever the urge strikes.

Adobe has recently introduced Acrobat Connect, which used to be Macromedia Breeze. If you need to get people in a virtual meeting room on a regular basis and you have the budget, in many ways this is a better web conferencing alternative. It runs on Flash, which means easier setup for both host and participant. The interface is cleaner and more manageable. It’s priced at $39/month or $395/year for individual use of a single meeting room for up to 15 participants. I’ve had far less complaints from participants attending Acrobat Connect meetings than those I’ve hosted using WebEx or GoToMeeting.

Document collaboration: Okay, so maybe you don’t all have to be in the room at the same time but you have to agree on changes to a document. The last thing you want to do is email that file around. Even a Word file with “Track Changes” turned on can be a nightmare to manage if you don’t know which changes were the last made. Instead, use an online document collaboration service. Web-based options include Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Writeboard, ThinkFree and Zoho. If your team members are all running OS X, look at SubEthaEdit.

Group online document sharing: Repository-based collaboration. Keep the files you’re editing in one place, and keep track of the versions so you know what the latest edits are. Koral is rolling out their document collaboration service aimed at small teams that appears very promising so far, free for basic use. Koral uses AJAX for a beautiful web interface, and such features as RSS feeds and a desktop dropbox to make sure files are in sync across users. HyperOffice, WebOffice and Joyent are other options with varying price tags. Windows users might like live-documents.com which doesn’t actually upload the file to a central server. Instead, collaborative information is stored within the file itself on the users’ computer.

Wiki: Rather than a single document, link multiple pages of content together in a collaborative way, allowing team members to edit content. Some easy no-download-required choices include Wetpaint, JotSpot (when it’s taking new signups again through Google), pbwiki, and stikipad.

Shared calendars: Google Calendar, 30Boxes, and Airset are all examples of online calendars that allow small private groups to work together more efficiently. Sometimes just agreeing on the time of the meeting is half the battle.

Message forums: Create a private community at Yahoo Groups or Google Groups. These have advantages over straight email since they allow participants to choose whether they get messages via email or threaded online. Conversations can be archived. Be prepared to put up with ads, though.

Bonus…video chat: Thanks to Matsu for reminding me in the comments that I missed this method. Truthfully, it was in my original notes I just missed writing it up here. My bad! Anyway, Skype does it. AIM does it. Apple iChat does it very well. If you have a webcam, you’ll appear in buddy lists with a little video icon next to your name. With a fast connection (pay attention to upload speeds here) you can have a very smooth conversation. iChat allows for 3 people to have a video conversation together, so now you can see those heads nodding in agreement which makes a huge difference when collaborating.

There is no substitute for face-to-face collaboration, even if it’s just a table at a local Starbucks. But if that’s simply not possible, it’s amazing what people can get done together without eye contact or shoes. How do you collaborate with your virtual teams?

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