Saving Money with Virtual Teams and Working at a Distance Without Travel
by Barbara Stuhlemmer
Telecommuters are becoming a larger part of a company’s human resource equation. Also, there is an increasing trend to outsource parts of projects, like risk management, product validation, safety testing, documentation, and even manufacturing. To ensure the consistency and quality of any product or deliverable, it is imperative that teams are able to communicate throughout a project – especially when teams include non-employees. This is an ongoing effort when everyone is sitting face-to-face, but it’s a challenge when we are thousands of miles apart.In this article, I will identify some of the tools we have used to bring together contractors, writers, and clients for our projects. Often, to determine a tool’s value, I will use a trial version. Some tools are very valuable but cost more, while others are functional and free. Although I cannot recommend which tools are best for your organization, I do recommend trying those tools that might fit your needs.First, let me describe my business, as this will help you understand why we have chosen certain tools. ClearComm Information Design is a sole proprietorship. Usually, our projects are staffed by one or more contractors who live in different locations around Canada and the world. Like my contractors, I work out of my home office as well as a part-time shared workspace in a high-tech, office-hotelling suite.Most of our clients are in Canada, but we have worked with some companies in the USA, too. When we initially meet our clients, it is often at their offices. Sometimes we meet in the boardroom at our office suite, and sometimes we meet strictly over the web. Usually, when we work on a project, we complete almost everything in a virtual environment. As a result, good communication management has become a very important part of our process during every project.
E-mailE-mail is a big part of every project. If your client has an enterprise content management system, they may be able to track conversations within a project. I use MS Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager. It keeps a history log of the e-mails sent and received by all the people in a project.Tip: Require your contractors to format their e-mails to always include the original message. This way, you do not have to hunt down earlier messages to determine the entire conversation. It also reduces misunderstanding when conversations are sent without context.
Making CallsWhen working virtually, one of the first things you realize is that your phone bill is going to be astronomical if you don’t secure a good long-distance plan – not just for your business phone line, but also for your cell phone. Using a few simple techniques, we save money and still feel comfortable with our phone bill.
Home PhoneIf you work from home and do not have a business line, make sure you have a nationwide (or North American) long-distance plan. This way, you can call anywhere, anytime for the same price. Better yet, get a plan that offers an unlimited or large number of minutes.I recommend getting a second number on your home line that will ring differently than your personal calls. This way, if you forward calls to your home line while working at home, you can tell which calls are business related and which are personal. Bell calls this feature ‘Ident-A-Call’ and it costs about $7/month. I’m sure other carriers offer similar products.Tip: Do not use your home line to make business calls unless you start with *67. Ideally, you do not want your clients, suppliers, employees, or contractors using your home number. If they call you back on your home line and someone other than yourself answers, your professionalism could be compromised.
VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol)We have our business number through a service called OneConnect. My service includes unlimited free calling anywhere in North America. Depending on the Internet connection, the service quality ranges from ‘clear-as-a-bell’ to ‘Mt. Everest poor’ (lots of echoes). This service is part of our office suite package but can be purchased directly from OneConnector other similar VoIP providers.
The CellCell phones are the most expensive of all telephone options, but they are very important in order to stay connected while travelling. My cell phone is like a travelling computer, with all my contacts, call history, MS applications, etc. It is very difficult to avoid using the cell phone when you are on the road, but there are a couple things you can do to reduce the costs of long-distance calls.
- Most hotels have free Internet. If you are staying overnight, make sure you are travelling with your computer so you can take advantage of the VoIP service. When I am in a hotel, I forward my cell phone to my business line, which rings on my computer. This way, there are no long-distance charges to your phone for incoming or outgoing calls.
- Unless you are expecting a call, let all incoming calls go to your voicemail. My cell provider gives me a toll-free number to access my voicemail for free. I try to return all incoming calls from my office or my hotel room unless they are urgent.
- While in your office, forward your cell calls to you business or home line to save on minutes.