What Does It Take to Run a Virtual Team?

33 Comments

As more and more companies and teams are going strictly virtual, there are a whole new set of issues to consider and challenges to address. Using my own virtual social media marketing team as an example, I’ve identified a number of needs that require some kind of technology solution, but at the moment, we are “patchwork quilting” our tech infrastructure to accommodate all of our needs.

Here are some needs virtual teams face daily:

Communications Management Archiving Interaction
Conference Calls
Video Conferencing
Virtual screen demos
Virtual meetings
Virtual PBX
Project Overviews
Task Assignments
Time Tracking
Scheduling
Correspondence
Document drafts
Small files
Large files
Knowledge Base
Document Collaboration
Team Member Integration
Status Updates
Watercooler Socializing

Here is a diagram of what we’re currently using as our solutions and which issues and needs each solution addresses. The software we currently use is in orange. Yellow designates the software we are considering.

conversifyvirtual

Where do we go from here?

It seems that Socialtext and GoToMeeting are the next solutions we should integrate. However, how many more SaaS products will we need to cobble together with our current infrastructure in order to meet immediate and upcoming needs as our team continues to grow? I think it’s better to go with solutions that can meet multiple technology needs. When each solution we adopt only tackles one or two functions, there seems to be no way to avoid a technology patchwork quilt. Is there even a system out there — that we just don’t know about — that can provide us with a completely integrated solution. And if so, can we afford it?

In my mind, adding Socialtext and GoToMeeting will certainly meet some immediate needs, but integrating it will take two things that go beyond me simply adopting and paying for the services:

  1. We’ll need to define how the new software fits into our overall process and multiple solutions;
  2. We need to somehow encourage adoption from the team.

The latter is a key problem. With all of these disparate solutions brought together to make up our tech infrastructure, we are all suffering information overload. Learning and adopting yet another app seems unbearable.

Next on our plate is a virtual PBX system that can accommodate international team members or at least some stitched together work-around to keep a PBX system affordable for a far-flung team.

What systems and software do you have in place to run your virtual team? What other issues are you facing where you still haven’t found an appropriate solution?

33 Comments

Tim Nixon

I’m glad to see you added backup into the mix. I’m currently trialing SugarSync and I’m very, very impressed so far. I could see this as becoming a type of collaboration tool especially as you can rollback to up to 5 previous versions of a file. Plus if two people open the same doc, SugarSync will save a new version tagged with the users name, so no real concern of overwriting. My major concern at the moment is if SygarSync will work behind my clients corporate firewall. It seems for it to work properly an app must be installed on the local machine. I currently use a VPN connection to manage files on and off the clients server. I don’t think my clients IT department is going to entertain the idea of installing an app just for me on their server.

Sibilla

Hello, my name is Sibilla and I am a DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) student from Germany. My thesis is going to be about virtual teams…but the exact issue/ topic is still unclear. Since a DBA is a practitioners Doctor my topic should be of very high interest to the “real business world”. Therefore, I think this is exact the right place to ask all of you:
Can you think of a topic within the area of Virtual Teams that is of high interest to industry and needs further reseach???

About any kind of ideas/ support/ help or even an offer for a cooperation* would be of high interest to me!

*cooperation: You have a virtual team that runs a project shortly? Or a problem in a Virtual team and you want an analysis to find a solution?
From these information I can create a case study for my thesis and you will get the results/ outcome of it!

Thanks in advance,
Sibilla

BK

You can group the tools into two areas:
1) Those that are good for inside the same company (employees using the same set of tools).
2) Virtual teams that form and disburse often (like a team of independant contractors or freelancers)

If you are among a group of freelancers, trying to get everyone to switch to your favorite collaboration tools is not easy. That’s why I think the list needs to be based on tools that everyone has easy access to, and may already be using. Google Calendar, Google Docs, and Skype are great examples. Almost everyone uses those. Basecamp is popular too, but may not be the preferred mode of operation for some. I like the list of tools that found at Automate My Small Business has.

If you find freelancers on oDesk.com a lot, you can use the time tracking application built in. A great way to “watch” screenshots of your hired team members.

Sibilla

Hello, my name is Sibilla and I am a DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) student from Germany. My thesis is going to be about virtual teams…but the exact issue/ topic is still unclear. Since a DBA is a practitioners Doctor my topic should be of very high interest to the “real business world”. Therefore, I think this is exact the right place to ask all of you: Can you think of a topic within the area of Virtual Teams that is of high interest to industry and needs further reseach???

About any kind of ideas/ support/ help or even an offer for a cooperation* would be of high interest to me!

*cooperation: You have a virtual team that runs a project shortly? Or a problem in a Virtual team and you want an analysis to find a solution? From these information I can create a case study for my thesis and you will get the results/ outcome of it!

Thanks in advance, Sibilla

Sergio

I agree that all this features are needed for virtual teams. Personally, I tried to reduce synchronic communications (like conference calls) as much as possible in a project. But a daily scrum chat is a must.

However, I do not agree about using all this much services. I agree to search for the “best of breed” tools in each area. But you need to centralize your communication, to be able to search for a team message in just one place. For this I recommend project tools like Assembla. They solve most of the issues and for the rest they provide ways to integrate them. Specially, allowing remote tools to be feed and to feed events to the system.

I use Assembla as my main collaboration tool and as an EVENT HUB for all my tools.

Pankaj

Great article. Great conceptualization of what virtual teams need for work. We have been laying great emphasis on the need for “integrated solutions” – which cater to most of the productivity needs which exist in an organization, rather than opting for multiple tools. Apart from convenience, synergies can also be harnessed when data can freely flow between different tools.

The biggies also seem to be following this philosophy – Google Apps integrates email and collaboration. Microsoft BPOS integrates email, collaboration and conferencing. We also tout the integratedness of our suite as it integrates email, collaboration and online meetings.

Jen Udan

Hi,

I represent http://www.PBXCompare.com, a website that compares and reviews the top Basic, Mid-Level, Corporate and Business VoIP PBX solutions. If you’re looking for a Virtual PBX with international capabilities, OneBox International is a great option that connects you to Europe and Hong Kong. Check out PBXCompare.com to read our review of the service.

I enjoyed your article, which points out some very useful apps and services for a functional virtual office. If you’re looking for other startup software solutions, like online fax services, email marketing software and tax software, check out ChooseWhat.com.

Thanks!

Greg

I’m glad you found 5pm useful.

About demos – we use here GotToMeeting. Works great, though the pricing is not flexible. Skype recently released the screen sharing feature – you may want to try it.

John

We rely heavily on Skype and GoToMeeting for conferencing with team members and customers. Especially Skype. Without it we’d be stuck with Instant Messenger. But for all of our time tracking, task management, and project management, we use on app called Intervals.

Joel

There are plenty of tools out there to get the job done. GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting work quite well from my experience.

I think the major issue is the maintaining the team cohesiveness w/o the direct “watercooler” social contact. Every once in a while you need to get together for beers, even if it entails hopping on a plane to meet the rest of your crew.

Meri Walker

What a terrific post! These challenges have been ongoing for the last decade and while some of the aggregators seem to work for some folks, there’s enough need for different approaches to keep lots of innovation fueled.

Before you jump ship into the licensed service realm for full-featured web conferencing, though, you might really want to take a look at DimDim.com. You might need all the stuff in GoToMeeting. Then again, lots of folks are getting what they need in DimDim.

Thanks for the thoughtful diagrams and charts!

Jim Willis

Great article. The company where I work uses a similar setup for our internal needs, with a couple of differences. I use Checkvist (www.checkvist.com) instead of a more formal solution like 5pm, to manage projects in a hierarchy. Also, we use Yammer instead of Socialtext. Not as feature-rich as Socialtext, but for quick status updates it does the trick.

Again, great article!

Michael Kieran

As you mentioned, “We need to somehow encourage adoption from the team.”

This is, I believe, the key issue in enterprise social software deployments.

I work in the Professional Services group at Socialtext, and agree that, without the appropriate skills and tools it can be very difficult to get people to actually use a new piece of software, even one that can significantly improve their productivity.

We’ve had to devote significant resources to building and sharing tools, templates, training content, and other adoption best practices, and even then widespread adoption is not guaranteed. This is an area where there’s room for significant innovation.

Phil Montero

This is an excellent post and I agree that in most cases you do need to tie together many different technologies to address all your needs. I don’t know that there will ever be one program or service that will address all the needs of a virtual team – especially because each team or organization is different in how they work and collaborate. You were also dead on with saying that “encouraging adoption” from the team is often the hardest part. I see many teams that get a great new tool but unfortunately no one uses it and it falls by the wayside.

I offer training and workshops for virtual team leaders and I walk them through an analysis of their team workstyle to help them choose the “right technology”. We use a system I developed that we call our ICC Workflow Analysis – as it has them look at their needs and how they work in 3 key categories “Information, Communication, and Collaboration” (I recently posted a video about this on our blog). It is similar to the way you did the mindmap above determine which tools addresses which needs and is something I encourage all team leaders to do.

We use and recommend many of the tools you are currently using as well. I agree with Kristi that Central Desktop is a good intranet/web based virtual office suite – and it appears to just keep getting better.

I’m interested to know what people are using for shared contacts. I am using Google Apps tied to our Domain and am still shocked they don’t have a shared contact piece. I’ve recently started using Highrise from 37 Signals (http://37signals.com) and find it to be an excellent and very flexible tool for contact management. Nice tie in to Twitter too – letting you see recent Tweets by those contacts you add. A good way to stay connected and up on what they are doing/thinking.

I’ll be following these comments as I’m very interested to see what others are using. Thanks again for a great post!

Aliza Sherman

I just reviewed Google Apps for my podcast and although I’m not currently using this, Google Apps does seem to have a shared Contacts component. It is an option for me to add as a feature on my current Google Apps suite of tools, however, we’re looking at Salesforce (yes, another paid solution) at the moment for contacts.

Kristi

I echo what Phil says with “I don’t know that there will ever be one program or service that will address all the needs of a virtual team – especially because each team or organization is different in how they work and collaborate.”

The key is to try them out. Most of the paid platforms have a trial of some sort. Make a list of what you are hoping to accomplish, then see if each of the programs you are looking at can get it done. Do a pro-con type of list.

Kristi

You might consider Central Desktop – http://www.centraldesktop.com I use them to manage a team of virtual assistants, as well as an intranet portal for several clients.

I love it. It allows me to share files, to do web meetings, to set up milestones and task lists, to have discussions, and it is totally customizable.

Its a great program – you should check it out.

Sam

I am a team manager in a virtual team spread across USA and Asia.

We also use most of the apps that are mentioned here including GoToMeeting.

For our project management, source code repository we use unfuddle, which is great and the only drawback in it is the lack of a Gantt Chart to view the task dependencies.

Apps we dont use are SecondLife, 5PM and Dropbox.

Alan

If you go back to manymoon (you covered earlier) … there are several connections that can be incorporated … ie, the tasks, google calendar, tasks (both private and shared), documents (both google and from computer), scheduling, a twitter like what you’re doing … works pretty good as basic one stop dashboard

Dina

I don’t have the full all-in-one solution for all of those things, but if you use LiquidPlanner you would get a large percentage of your needs covered. I saw that you didn’t connect the “Project Mgmt” to any specific software, is there something you’re using for that?

LiquidPlanner will give you the assignments, time tracking & file archives that 5pm is giving you. It will give you scheduling that Google Calendar is giving you (via Gantt, not grid view like Google cal) and doc sharing that Google Docs is giving you. And, you could get creative and probably get your Day to Day and Knowledge base needs covered. LP has an excellent collaboration system, I was just using the rich text notes area and document uploads this morning and thinking about how much I like it more than a Wiki.

LP doesnt over video conferencing or it’s own email service, but there are many other great ways to collaborate on LP. I highly recommend checking it out. I agree, why pay for 4-5 different systems when you can use less!

Aliza Sherman

Actually, I forgot an arrow in my diagram & should correct that!

5pm is our project management tool and it offers much more than Basecamp (which we used to use) but probably a little less than LiquidPlanner which I’ve also tried. Not sure LP really replaces anything else on the chart. Not convinced it can handle the Calendar or Docs in the way Google Calendar does. Maybe differently but not necessarily better.

Mike

ive had a lot of success using trixbox as a virtual PBX, easy to use and setup, have multiple carriers, skype account hacks available. The biggest problem is ensuring all users have proper QoS in place for sip traffic, or have proper bandwidth. Even lets you run conferences, ring to all, voicemail to email.

Ian Landsman

What about help desk software? If you deal with customers at all you need that (you don’t use gmail for that do you ?!?). The product we make is used by hundreds of virtual companies to manage their customer support in remote groups.

Teresa

We use the SaaS hosted help desk software by Web Help Desk for customer support, as well as use the built in Knowledge Base for our customers to self-help.

Yeah, we tried just using email for customer support for as long as we could…can’t do it! WHD does automated email-to-ticket conversion too!!! :)

Excellent list of Cloud apps…thanks!

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