Working with Virtual Teams and Saving Money Without Travel
by Barbara Stuhlemmer
Working with virtual teams is becoming more and more commonplace. 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 for working with virtual teams of 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.
When 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.
If you work from home on a virtual team 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.
Cell phones are the most expensive of all telephone options, but they are very important in order to stay connected while traveling. My cell phone is like a traveling 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 traveling 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.
Tip: Get call-forwarding so you can take cell calls on a cheaper line.
Often, our virtual team projects require connecting more than two people simultaneously. For conference calling, we use our VoIP service (OneConnect). It allows the initiator to dial and connect up to five participants.
Our office suite uses OneConnect on all their IP Phones. This way, we can hold a meeting in the boardroom for local participants, and conference in the others over the hands-free phone.
Collaboration in Virtual Teams
When more that one person will be handling documents in a project, it is a challenge to keep track of conversations, requests, instructions, changes, accepted material, reviews, update, and permissions. Depending on the project’s scope and size, handling the dynamic of all the communications can be overwhelming for one person. Often, poorly managed communications can result in contradictions and misunderstandings that can increase overall delivery time and costs. Now add in the fact that two or more people working on this project will likely not be in the same room with each other for the project’s duration.
We have tried several products that have helped us keep track of project tasks.
ClearComm has worked on projects using both MS SharePoint and FlowThink. We useSharePoint when the client has it implemented. FlowThink is our free, open source option. Both accommodate discussions and file sharing, allowing us to track specific instructions, conversations, questions, and changes. Because these tools are browser-based, they make it easy to build a team or group and start discussions immediately.
If your client is using a Content Management System (CMS), this can be a great way to keep track of the entire project. A CMS will offer revision control, audit-trail or rollback functions, permissions-based authoring, and review-process control. Some systems can even provide reports for workflow, document lifecycle, and project metrics.
ClearComm has worked with Bluestream’s XDocs, a simple DITA-compatible XML CMS. It allowed our authors to check in/out documents from anywhere using their browser, lock documents they were working on, and provide feedback via metadata. It also helped with the review process, file relations, and conditional publishing.
E-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 virtual team 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.
Presenting to and Training Virtual Teams
When working with virtual teams, it becomes necessary to train new writers and contractors over the Internet. There are tons of tools for creating training videos and online help systems. But for custom work, which is what each of our projects entail, it becomes laborious to create something new each time. We start with a simple procedure written in FrameMaker or Word, then present the process using a web conferencing application, best known as a webinar or web seminar.
Sharing a desktop
ClearComm has used several applications. We have tried WebEx, MeetingToGo, and Adobe Connect. We use them to train contractors, demonstrate processes with the client, or to simply present services. All three are functional, easy to implement, and come with a yearly cost. They have slightly different features (like the number of participants allowed per license level), so check your needs.
We settled on Yuuguu, which is free for up to 30 participants. It is not as feature-rich as the three applications mentioned above, but it does offer additional collaboration tools and provides the basic functions we required to demonstrate a procedure or train a process.
These are just a few products that help us manage the communications in our virtual team projects. There are tens, hundreds, or even thousands of choices for some of these applications. Some are free and some are not. Some are mature, stable, and have great features adding tremendous value to a project. Some are simple and functional, meeting a specific need or requirement.
You may be asking why it sounds like we don’t have just one product that we use for every project. Usually, our choice is determined by our client’s needs. If they are already using a specific application like SharePoint, then we will use their system and tool to work with their documentation. Typically, if they have nothing in place, we use a free tool that meets our needs.
About the Author
Barbara Stuhlemmer is the President and CEO of ClearComm Information Design, a company she developed to support growth and add value to her clients’ businesses through effective information management and outsourced documentation support. Barbara’s company provides technical writing and communications for high-tech manufacturers, focusing on the medical device industry.
With over 20 years experience in a variety of high-tech industries, Barbara brings core competencies in all levels of business and a high-level expertise in the communications aspect of project process. Recently, Barbara has been appointed as the Technology Manager for Content Management Professionals. She also volunteers company time for the International Business Program through Georgian College, is the Regional B2B Ambassador for BNI, and is on the Leadership Team of the Business Retention and Expansion program for the City of Barrie.