Last week I spoke with someone whose house was buried in four feet of snow outside Boston. A day later I joined a group discussing our creative approach for a financial literacy program for kids. The only commonality between these meetings was that they both took place over Skype. Like me, individuals focused on social impact work are doing more remotely than ever before and leveraging technology to collaborate with teams in the field. How do we maximize these remote collaborations with great tools, while respecting the role of in-person convenings?
Data vary on what percentage of workers are untethered from traditional work settings, but nonprofit human resources association WorldatWork's 2013 Survey on Workforce Flexibility shows 88% of employers offer telework in some form.
Nonprofits and social good organizations with global missions, in particular, can benefit from a distributed team strategy, which can reduce costs associated with maintaining traditional office settings and provide access to workers unbound by geography and with hard-to-find skillsets. For example, CauseLabs staff traveled over 250,000 miles last year, and our tools helped us stay connected even when we were away from our native environments.
Building a successful distributed team means leveraging the best, most affordable communication and collaboration tools to foster a productive and healthy culture. That culture helps our team tackle hairy software problems and have fun doing it - regardless of whether we are in person or remote.
We rely on a collage of free and cheap technology tools to stay in touch with any number of our team members who are traveling to far-flung corners of the world at any given time to help design and implement tools for social good.
Here are seven of our favorite apps that just about any distributed team can use to its benefit:
Connectivity isn't always perfect, but Skype remains a top option as a primary instant messaging, calling, and video-conferencing tool.
Our 17-member team uses Skype daily for video huddles, which help us check in on projects and generally get to know each other better over time. It's like a morning coffee break. We have a lot of fun with our virtual gathering by asking questions like, "What movie are you most looking forward to seeing this year?" or "Find your childhood home on Google Maps and share with the team." Skype also allows us to have team and project video calls, as well as talk with partners on the other side of the world just as easily as team members in Denver.
While Skype is our current choice, we are constantly searching for better offerings, and Slack, which recently acquired ScreenHero, is on our radar.
If an organization finds GoToMeeting and WebEx too expensive, join.me is a great option for web conferencing. Join.me offers simple per-user pricing at basic (free), pro ($15 a month), and enterprise ($19 a month). For our shop, join.me enables us to share screens and record company town hall meetings.
3. Google Apps
Google Apps is an inexpensive workhorse that makes working with anyone, anywhere possible through linked mail, files and calendars. We pay about $100 a month for the enterprise solution.
Google Docs, for example, is a great tool for live, real-time collaboration on documents and spreadsheets. Google Calendars makes scheduling easy when you subscribe to the calendars of each member on your distributed team. It's also nice that many other tools are allowing single sign-on with a Google account, which helps our tools be more interconnected.
Dropbox is an affordable and easy replacement for the shared office file cabinet.
It solves the frustrations of document sharing and storage, and keeps files safe in the cloud. When designers are iterating a design and need to sync each other's work quickly, Dropbox is the way to do it. Dropbox also has great mobile apps that make it easy to keep things accessible and shareable when you're on the go.
Trello replaces the office whiteboard or post-it note wall. Most organizations rely on these old-school tools to capture and manage their ideas, and Trello is a free and easy solution for setting up new-school - or virtual - shared boards and idea cards.
Passpack is a password manager that allows our team to share encrypted passwords. It makes collaboration easy when we use the same tools and the same company accounts. The plans start at free and scale up at very reasonable costs.
7. Amazon Wishlists
One of the biggest challenges of a distributed team is nurturing a shared culture without being physically together to socialize, celebrate successes and support one another professionally and personally. Amazon Wishlists is one way to build culture through rewards and get-togethers.
We use Amazon Wishlists to send out "Release Boxes," which are small gifts of appreciation to our team members when they've finished a project. Using our company Amazon Prime account, we get free shipping to all of our team members easily and quickly.
While we don't get to enjoy happy hour together after a big release, we do gather on Skype and open the Release Boxes together in a celebration of our success.
There will never be a substitute for face-to-face interactions, but the combination of new and constantly improving tools for instant messaging, video conferencing and shared desk spaces is making distributed teams for social good organizations more effective than ever before. If done right, a strategic use of remote communications can attract great talent for great purposes, making you a more nimble and sustainable organization in the long run.
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