Rolling Your Own Online Office

I’ve done a lot of telecommuting in my life. My first real writing gig came when I was 16 as a freelancer for a computer magazine whose offices were 3,000 miles from my house, and since then I’ve worked for a number of blogs, web startups, and computer game companies in an online, virtual office environment. During that time I’ve found that the key to a successful distributed team is communication. The difference between the ventures that failed and those that succeeded was how well set up the communication structure was for the team.

We all love Basecamp, which I think is an invaluable app for distributed teams (we use it here at Read/WriteWeb). It’s a superb way to communicate and keep track of every facet of your project. But back when I started telecommuting, there was no Basecamp, so we had to cobble together our own solution, mostly from opensource software. These days, there are is even more great software available to teams who want to assemble their own virtual office. Below are some of the tools every team needs to create their own Fakecamp.

Email

We already tend to think of email as an antiquated form of communication. In the age of text messages and IM, email seems so… slow. But it’s still a great way for teams to communicate. It commands attention (who doesn’t read everything not in their spam folder?), it’s personal, versatile, and it is asynchronous (meaning not everyone has to be there at once for it to work).

Forum

Taking asynchronous communication to another level, forums usually command a starring role in any groupware solution (the ‘Messages’ feature that anchors the communication tools in Basecamp, for example). Forums let team members hash out ideas and plan projects in an organized manner. The great advantage of forums over email is that there is a searchable record of everything you write and you’ll never waste time by accidentally cutting a team member out of the loop. Simple Machines Forum is one of the most fully developed open source forum systems, with a built-in calendar and a large community of developers supporting it via addons and plugins. It is a good choice for any team.

Don’t like Simple Machines Forum? Try phpBB, MyBB, PunBB, vBulletin, or Invision Power Board

Wiki

In the early part of this decade I worked for a computer game company that had team members spread across the US, Germany, Sweden, and Australia. We made extensive use of wikis to keep our design and planning documents in order. Our wiki let us write and edit documents as a team, easily and without fear that someone would accidentally overwrite something important. MediaWiki is a good choice of wiki software, but there are literally hundreds of wiki variants to choose from (we actually used WackoWiki), so find whichever appeals to you and your team.

Chat

Sometimes you just need say it out loud. Skype lets you conduct a conference call with the programmer in Frankfurt, the designer in Sydney, and the copy writer in Chicago — for free. It also supports text chat/instant messaging and file transfer. Forums just don’t facilitate speedy communication, and let’s face it, sometimes you don’t want to wait for a reply; real-time, one-to-one chat over an instant messaging network is a great tool to have in your team’s arsenal.

Don’t like Skpe? Try AIM, MSN/Live, Yahoo, ICQ, Google, or FreeConferenceCalls.com (low-tech, but no computer required)

Document Sharing

Sometimes teams need to easily share and edit formatted documents, which means forums and wikis aren’t ideal. You could pass documents back and forth across email, but that can get messy very quickly. A better alternative is to use Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Just the other day Richard shared an Excel spreadsheet via Google Docs & Spreadsheets with myself and other Read/WriteWeb writers. It was great to be able to sign in to Google, know I was seeing exactly what Richard wanted me to see, and edit right there if I wanted to.

Don’t like Google Docs & Spreadsheets? Try Zoho, gOFFICE or ThinkFree

Flowcharting

Online mind-mapping tools are great. Being able to sit down with another team member and map out a database, or the page structure for a website, or the levels for a game, etc. is invaluable. None of these tools existed when I first started, but they’re great to take advantage of now. Thinkature is one such tool, and also supports voice chat so you can talk through your flowcharting.

Don’t like Thinkature? Try MindMeister, Gliffy, Kayuda, Bubbl.us, Mindomo, Flowchart.com, Comapping, or Mind42

Files

Sometimes you just need to send a file quickly and easily that too big for email or forum attachments. When that happens, I turn to Senduit, which lets me upload files up to 100mb and send them off to colleagues. Senduit is far from the only file sending service, it just happens to be my favorite (YouSendIt, zUpload, DropSend and LeapFILE are some others). You should find the one that works well for your team.

Conclusion

So you’re probably thinking, why would I do all this when I could just use Basecamp or one of its competitors? Well, you might not. But maybe you want to exercise more control over how you set up your virtual office by building from the ground up using online tools. Rolling your own online office means you control what features go into it. The above services and applications will help you to successfully craft an online workspace for your distributed team that will facilitate the communication necessary to succeed.

What else would you include in your online office? Any services we missed? Anything critical you can’t get to work without? Leave a note in the comments.

Note: I chose not to include a separate category for calendars since many of the mentioned forum systems have them built in.

Also remember to vote in this week’s R/WW poll about which online collaboration tool you use, keeping in mind that for some teams it might be best to assemble your own.

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