For 10 of the last 12 years, I have had the privilege of working remotely and with teams that have many remote workers. The most important thing I’ve learned about having people spread out across the world is that successfully completing projects always hinges on how well you communicate with others on your team. It’s amazing how fast a good project can go bad if people don’t understand what’s going on. There are thousands of tools out there that are built to help people work together. In my experience, most of them suck.
So, how do you figure out which ones to use? You stop being a chicken, sign up for some free trials, and play with the tools. Don’t worry about wasting time or resources by trying something out and really putting it to use to see how it fits into your workflow. A few hours or days lost to finding the right tool for your needs will pay off dramatically in the long run. If you need a good place to start, I’ve put together a list of the top tools I use for collaboration and communication. It’s not a long list because there’s no reason you should need 20 different tools. That just leads to overload and having your system be too fragmented.
Skype isn’t just for making free calls to your grandmother so she’ll keep sending you birthday money. It’s an awesome tool for having group chats, conference calls, and file sharing. There have been times where I needed to have a conference call with colleagues in Romania, India, and Germany all at the same time and it cost nothing to do. As long as everyone has a decent connection, it’s a piece of cake to do this. Maybe you’re working with a designer on some design tweaks and they want to quickly send you a comp to look at. There’s no reason to switch to a different program or go grab an attachment in an email, just have them send it through Skype.
Early on, I actually hated Basecamp. It was too simple. I wanted more bells and whistles. 6 years later, it’s probably my favorite tool for working together on projects. It still doesn’t have a massive set of features, but what it does have is really all you need. Use it for project management, brainstorming, note taking, collaborating with clients, or even manage your life with it. You can even use it to build a race car.
Sharing Excel spreadsheets and Word docs between groups of people can be very annoying. There really isn’t a good way to collaborate on these without some kind of conflict. Google docs fixes that problem. You can work in pretty much real time along side other people within the same document or spreadsheet. Having a meeting with a group of people spread all over the globe and editing a shared spreadsheet for people to see as the meeting progresses is really pretty amazing.
For a long time, I looked at Dropbox as nothing more than just a place to store files if I moved from computer to computer. Over the past few months, my use of Dropbox has grown to include sharing files with clients, partners, and contractors. Using the desktop app, I have been able to integrate Dropbox seamlessly into my workflow. If I’m working on a project with someone and we’re sharing files, those files stay in sync without any manual intervention. It even keeps previous versions of files in case someone I’m working with screws them up because at some point they will and thanks to Dropbox I won’t have to go postal.
I love Evernote. There are so many great uses for it, many of which help immensely with collaboration. My favorite way of using it is to have someone do research using the Web Clipper, compile a notebook with all of the information that’s needed for a project, and then pass it on to a writer. You can easily create a gallery of images for someone to view and give feedback on, share meeting or conference notes, and share a shopping list with your spouse so that you don’t have to do it because grocery shopping sucks.
What tools do you use for collaboration?