Tips and Tools for Virtual Collaboration

conference call best practices

Thanks to modern technology, this world is more connected than ever. Now, it’s common for people to easily and swiftly collaborate on projects while residing on different continents, but just a couple of decades ago, such a feat would have been challenging to say the least.

However, there’s definitely a fine art to collaborating with colleagues who are distant while making it seem like they’re merely within an arm’s length away. Keep reading to get some ideas to virtually connect with others like a seasoned pro.

Use a Project Management Interface

Keeping everyone organized and on the same page can be tough enough when everyone’s geographically close, and it’s naturally harder when there’s distance involved. However, you can make everything much simpler for everyone by using a project management tool that allows you to set milestones, assign tasks and give due dates everyone can see — not just the people working on a certain task.

Basecamp is arguably one of the most well-known interfaces for project management needs, but there are also tools that offer a slightly different take on project management. For example, there’s Trello, which organizes tasks into cards and allows you to have an unlimited number of tasks per card. Within each task, you can make comments, clarify deadlines, add attachments and more.

There are also project management tasks designed for certain industries. CoSchedule is one that’s geared toward bloggers. It has sections related to marketing timelines and social media schedules, plus it’s compatible with other apps you may already be using, like Evernote.

Be Mindful of Time Zone Differences

You might be all excited to share a new idea with a colleague but feel deflated once you realize it’s just after midnight in her area of the world. You’ve caused her to stumble out of bed and reach for her phone with annoyance to see who’s trying to get in touch at such an odd hour. This scenario is relatively common with virtual collaboration, but you can handily avoid it by using time zone converters.

Your options range from straightforward to advanced. You could go with the aptly named Every Time Zone, which features a cool slider feature so you can see how a certain time in one location corresponds to the times in others. It’s really handy for calculating how lots of different time zones differ, especially if you’re tired of trying to juggle the differences through mental calculation alone.

Alternatively, go with Miranda. It’s an iOS app that features an interactive world map. Miranda does more than just show you what time it is in certain areas of the world, too. It lets you schedule meetings and send out invitations to your team, all directly through the tool.

Listen to Team Feedback About the Tools You Use

According to a survey conducted by WorldCom, 90 percent of respondents felt virtual collaboration tools improved their time management efforts and helped their companies save money. However, you’re not likely to see such positive results if you choose the tools your team members use without taking their feedback into account.

For example, maybe a certain highly recommended app acts sluggishly and crashes often on particular operating systems. Such input given by one or two people might not be reason enough to can the app altogether, but it should make you at least think seriously about how to help the affected individuals so they can use the app with less stress. If you ignore the challenges they’re facing, you might end up with a morale problem that’s hard to turn around and is ultimately toxic to the team.

Plan Face Time When Possible

It’s easy for virtual teams to lose sight of the overall vision and feel like they’re not part of a mutual effort when there’s great distance involved. That’s why it’s a good idea to figure out ways for people to meet face-to-face as much as possible, even if that means only doing so twice a year. Such group gatherings foster a stronger team spirit and let people get to know each other in more in-depth ways than technology alone might allow.

If you don’t have a physical office space, do research and see if your area offers co-working spaces for rent. Then, you have the opportunity to temporarily use dedicated areas that have Wi-Fi, restrooms and maybe even kitchens stocked with snacks.

There may be cases where it’s just not feasible to bring teams together for face-to-face time often enough. In those instances, do the next best thing by using videoconferencing apps. That way, even if people aren’t physically together, they can at least notice things like each other’s expressions or even show off stylish new outfits to colleagues from afar.

It’s worth getting up to date on some of the leading video conferencing options and thoroughly trying them out with the team before committing to a specific one. You’ve probably heard of options like Skype and GoToMeeting, but solutions like AnyMeeting and Fring may also fit your needs.

Harness Collective Knowledge

Initially, it may seem like the distance spanning between your team members makes it difficult or impossible to re-create the common office scene of a meeting room full of people sitting in front of a whiteboard and bouncing ideas off of each other. Fortunately though, there are many online brainstorming tools to make the process a lot easier than you imagined.

Try HipChat, which allows you to share your desktop with other participants and save chat transcripts so any ideas generated are kept in a more user-friendly format than notes scribbled down on notebook paper. Also, Mural offers a giant virtual canvas where everyone can add ideas in real time. A voting feature allows you to quickly pick out the possibilities that won over the majority.

Consider how distance may actually work to your advantage when brainstorming. Naturally, people who live in different places will have alternative perspectives about things like:

  • Cultural norms
  • Societal trends
  • Breaking news
  • Customer habits
  • The most misunderstood things about your products

Their take on things could help your company have a more well-rounded worldview. As a result, your business will be in a stronger position to impress clients, cause customer loyalty and grow your brand.

Although it’s true virtual collaboration is tricky at times, hopefully these pointers and products help you manage teams more smoothly. If you start feeling frazzled, try to remain upbeat by remembering the greater collaboration options that now exist because it’s no longer necessary for people to either work in the same location or only be able to chat with each other by phone.

Images:  Skype     Irish Typepad        Times Zones  Sarah Dillon

Sarah Landrum

After graduating from Penn State with degrees in Marketing and PR, Sarah moved to Harrisburg to start her career as a Digital Media Specialist and a writer. She later founded Punched Clocks, a site dedicated to helping young professionals navigate the work world and find happiness and success in their careers.

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