There is no question that being in the same room, at the same time, and looking at the same monitor is the best way to collaborate effectively. Barring that, there are tools and technologies that help working together over time and space. Also, there are things that masquerade as remote-work enablers, that actually steal away productive time and energy while delivering little value. And then there are helpers that could be useful in some situations, but not others.
Great tools to bridge time and space
- Phone or VoIP technology. Dialing a team member should be a one-click (or close to it) endeavor. Skype and Lync work well, so do smart phone systems (mobile or landline). Traditional phone that requires a 10+ digits to get anywhere is not in this category.
- Desktop-sharing technology. One picture is worth a lot of words, and to collaborate successfully it is important to be able to share the view. Old Remote Desktop still works, so does Lync. Skype used to be able to do that, but newer versions lost that functionality. I also put screen capture tools in that category, because they help share a view, albeit a static view. Windows’ Sniping tool is great, because it makes it easy to draw on the picture, to direct attention to a particular portion of the image.
- Online workflow tools. Teams work better when using a visual Agile Board, and a distributed team will benefit from having access to a similar visual tool as well. There are several solutions on the market, including Rally, VersionOne, and tools by Atlassian. The choice is rarely clear, but it is important to pick one tool and keep all work in it, so that there is a single comprehensive view of work flowing through.
- Remote meeting technology. Again, there are plenty of choices available, not all created equal. Lync and Skype allow to create group conversations with online chat and audio. Lync also permits to add screen sharing and transfer control between participants. Add a good-quality speaker/mic, and distributed team meeting is off to a great start.
Tools and technologies that promise to help, but don’t
- Traditional phone conference lines. There is usually a complicated dial up scenario - up to 20+ digits, up to a minute of listening to the automatic prompts, exacerbated by random drop-offs which require the dial-up procedure to be repeated. These conferences require a clearly defined host, who starts and ends the call, which goes against the concept of a self-organizing team with shared responsibility for success.
- Remote meeting technology that works similar to traditional phone conferences. WebEx takes a lot of tinkering to set up, so does GoToMeeting. They also require a clearly defined host who starts and must remain through the meeting.
- Speakers on traditional phones. The quality tends to be fairly low, with a lot of noise, and small range of pickup.
Technologies that can be tremendously helpful (but only if your team uses them properly)
- The top one is email. It is at everyone’s fingertips, it’s easy, so it is tempting to use – a lot. But mailboxes are hard to search, emails are hard to categorize, and information tends to get lost.
- Wiki, FAQ, online postings are great – if you are going to have the discipline to maintain them, remove irrelevant and outdated postings, make sure the terminology stays consistent across articles. Out-of-date and incorrect Wikis and FAQs can be harmful, and not knowing which articles can be trusted and which cannot will cost your team dearly.