Posted on April 11, 2009 by

5 free tools for collaboration with remote teams

Technology has made it easier than ever to telecommute or work with remote teams. At b5media, we have people working from around the world, and have tried and used dozens of tools to make that work go smoother.

Everyday, there are new tools that show promise, but many are tried once and forgotten about. Some are clunky or get in the way of collaboration. Others are a solution in need of a problem. Here are some of the best ones that have gone past the trial, and turned into must-have tools that we use every day.

Cost: free
Skype is best known as a telephone replacement. Sure, being able to make free skype calls anywhere in the world is nice, but that isn’t the real killer app from a collaboration perspective. The best kept secret about Skype is its use in Instant Messaging. Just like Messenger, AIM, or Google Talk, you can create a text chat bewteen people. You can even create a group chat within your team. The one feature you won’t find elsewhere though, is the ability to bookmark these conversations. This means that if someone is offline, when they return they will see the entire conversation they have missed and are able to catch up. With a team spread over multiple timezones, this is really useful, and you never have to worry about being left out of the conversation because you happen to be offline at the time.

Cost: free
Video conference calls add that human touch to a remote team. If everyone has a webcam installed, Tokbox is a really elegant interface to show a “Brady Bunch” style display of your team during a meeting. We’ve used it with up to 6 people, but in theory, you could have many more. With folks scattered around the continent, being able to talk with them face-to-face makes a big difference! We don’t use this for every call, but from time to time it’s really nice to remind us all that we’re all people working as a team.

Cost: free
Skype is great for a short, purpose driven call, but Teamspeak turns voice chat into more of a virtual office. It is client/server software, which means you need hosting, but most Internet companies already have access to servers with extra capacity. Load up the server and you can now have a “push-to-talk” style conversation with your whole team. Have the team hanging out in a Teamspeak channel, and hitting a button is the virtual equivalent to poking your head over the cubicle wall for a quick question. It allows those quick, informal, water-cooler conversations to happen despite the distance. Since it’s a push-to-talk setup, you won’t be burning up bandwidth having a skype call active all day with mostly silence.

Cost: free
There are many desktop-sharing applications out there, but the good ones like WebEx or GoToMeeting cost a lot of money. Yugma is a free solution with all the features of the commercial solutions, including multiple viewers, and both Windows and Mac compatibility. A software download is only needed for the host, not for clients. Desktop sharing is useful for everything from viewing a powerpoint presentation to having several people doing a code review. One person hosts the meeting, and shares his screen, and everyone else can see, in real-time, what is on that screen. Combined with Teamspeak or a Skype call, and you can really see what we’re talking about.

Google docs
Cost: free
Google Docs are a great, free way of maintaining your documents or spreadsheets without using Microsoft Office, however there is also a huge advantage to having documents existing online in the cloud instead of within an application on one computer. Collaboration with Google Docs, specifically Google Spreadsheets, is as easy as inviting others to the document. If two (or 5.. or 50) people open a spreadsheet at the same time, they can all edit individual cells and others will see their changes immediately. If your team needs a common checklist, or you need to get information from many people, this is the easiest and most real-time way of setting this up. Google Documents can also have multiple people editing, but the experience isn’t as slick as the cell-locking based system in Spreadsheets.

These are the five that we use and have stuck with over time. There are many others that we have tried, and haven’t found as useful, but other organizations may. Which tools do you use within your work environment?