What Tech Does a Remote Team Really Need?

Last Updated Aug 27, 2010 12:07 PM EDT

It seems that every day we're told about some new tool that's supposed to make teamwork easier. So exactly how much tech does a remote or virtual project team really need?

I'm a firm believer in using the minimum amount of technology to accomplish the maximum amount of work. What you actually use will depend on your team's comfort with technology and whether they have worked together well for a while (if it ain't broke, you don't need to fix much) or you're starting from scratch and trying to get them off to a flying start.

Basically, I break tools into two types: synchronous (everyone involved is using the same tool at the same time) and asynchronous (people use it when they can and want to). Here is what I consider some of the basics and a couple of nice-to-haves.

Synchronous Tools:

  • Telephone- for one on one calls and teleconferences. Many people seem to think the telephone is unnecessary these days, but for immediacy and richness of communication, if you can't be there it's pretty darned handy. And with cell phones pretty much everyone on the team is reachable if you need them (whether they want to be or not). They're also easy to use. if you have an able-bodied team member who doesn't know how to use a telephone, it's time to reconsider your hiring practices.
  • Instant Messaging- For quick answers to easy questions it's hard to beat IM. Type a question, get an answer and move on in seconds. These can be enterprise tools like Yammer or free, consumer tools like Skype, Yahoo Messenger or whatever IT will actually let you use.
  • A Webmeeting platform of some kind- somewhere between being in the same room and just being on the phone is this solution. It can be as robust as a million dollar Telepresence videoconferencing service or as down and dirty as Skype or Dimdim but something that allows you to meet online is great for training and sharing both visual and verbal information with the whole team at the same time.
  • Webcams- are a nice to have. They don't have to be expensive, but when you can't get together, the ability to put a human face to a voice is invaluable to creating productive relationships. some webmeeting platforms integrate webcams easily others don't so this might be a separate item on your list.
  • Collaboration software is nice but often is more trouble than it's worth (until you relaly learn to use it well). It allows you to brainstorm, capture ideas and really work together productively. Via3 has a nice collaboration toolset mixed in with its webmeeting platform, and brainstorming tools like Mindjet are getting less complicated so even mere mortals can use them.
Asynchronous tools:
  • Email- understand something, email is a lousy synchronous tool. It's clunkier than Instant Messaging and leads to all kinds of dysfunction like long email threads, lost information and hurt feelings because of misunderstood tone. If it's too long for an Instant Message, it's worth spending time on and waiting for a thoughtful answer. If you're using email to go back and forth more than three times, you probably need to pick up the darned phone or fire up a webcam and actually, you know, talk to the person.
  • File sharing- teams spend a ridiculous amount of time in rework due to lost file attachments and not being able to find the right version of whatever they're working on. By centralizing where the information is kept, you can create easily accessible data bases that reduce rework and institute version control. This can be as simple and cheap as a Google Docs site for your team or as robust as Microsoft's SharePoint, but if you're not using these tools you're probably working too hard.
  • A team website, blog or wiki. Again this can be as ridiculously simple or robust as your team will actually use. the nice thing about a robust site like Ning or Facebook (or something serverbased if your IT people are having heart palpitations) is that it can truly leverage the personal connections on your team. This is a nice to have but probably the most important team tool you can add to the mix right away.
  • Screen capture software is another nice to have for training purposes, recording things to reduce rework (if they miss the meeting, just view the recording) and capturing best practices to speed up training is a great way for team's to truly leverage each other's mental powers and create that elusive "synergy" HR always talks about. These are tools like Camtasia, Brainshark, Slideshare, Bloomfire and about a hundred others.
Depending on the size of your team, your budget and how willing people are to adopt new tools, some version of these will give you a pretty complete tool kit to accomplish the project work or task at hand.

What tools are YOU using? What works and what doesn't.... let the commenting and shameless flaming begin!

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photo by flickr user procsilas CC 2.0