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Insight Community Case: How Can Digital Nomads Stay Connected With Coworkers?

As we just mentioned, some Insight Community cases will now start appearing on Techdirt. Here is the first one. If you're already a member, click through to take part. If you're not a member, click through to sign up

We're looking to get insights into how individuals and the workplace are changing due to an increasingly "mobile" workforce -- thanks to things like widespread laptop and mobile device usage, as well as wireless connectivity. These days, "working" no longer means "being in the office." People and employees have truly become "Digital Nomads."  We're hosting a series of cases exploring different aspects related to this new mobile workforce. Dell is sponsoring the conversations here, and the best results will be placed on a site sponsored by Dell: http://whitepaper.digitalnomads.com/. The content may later also be added to a whitepaper and a wiki on the subject. While Dell is sponsoring the conversation, the content is vendor neutral. Just provide your insights on the question at hand.

One of the biggest challenges a digital nomad faces is keeping in touch with coworkers, team members or partners, when the group is not in the same physical space most of the time.  These days, many rely on tools like instant messaging, wikis, collaborative workspaces, email and other tools to keep everyone on the same page.  What are some tips and tricks that you've found for keeping a group of digital nomads working together well?  What were some of the downsides and challenges?  How were those overcome or minimized?

24 Insights

 


Two things I find essential for remote collaboration: - Shared Calendar - Shared Messenger Sharing calendars is essential for keeping up with what is going on with your friends, family and colleagues. Unfortunately, it isn't always practical or even technically feasible to view the schedule for each person I deal with. [Not everyone uses Outlook.] I synchronize my work calendar with my primary Google calendar using Google Calendar Synch then I share the calendar with whomever needs the information. I encourage all my contacts to do the same. Google makes it very easy combine many calendars in one view so you can get snapshot of everyone's schedule. You can even be selective about who sees what events on your calendar, color code each person's calendar, or hide your calendar entirely from others. I also combine public calendars like US Holidays or Sporting Events so I don't have to manage updates to them each year. Shared Messenger: Nearly everyone I work or socialize with uses one instant messenger or another. I have several accounts myself but I found maintaining multiple conversations across multiple messenger platforms to be cumbersome. MEEBO.com simplifies messaging by allowing me to message across every major IM network in one place. T Power Another big challenge I face when on the road is keeping everything charged so I can stay in communication. Travel enough and you will inevitably find yourself with a phone or laptop redlining on power and no outlet in sight. Three things I always carry with me can help you recharge: 1. Coiled Extension Cord - http://www.acehardware.com/product/index.jsp?productId=1286132 2. Outlet adapter - http://www.smarthome.com/44031/3-Outlet-Adapter-with-Nightlight-28-10048700324/p .aspx 3. In-car AC adapter - http://www.powersystemsdirect.com/Whistler/200_Watt_12V_Power_Inverter_PI200W_14 63.php Coiled Extension Cord: Finding an outlet in public space is one thing but stretching your PC's AC power cord to reach it is quite another. I carry a coiled extension cord to give me extra reach so I can work comfortably without having to perch over an outlet. Most store owners don't mind hooking you up behind the counter if you ask nicely. The only drawback is the occasional questioning I get from overly cautious TSA officials when I go through airport security. Outlet adopter: How often have you wondered through an airport or convention center looking for a power outlet only to find someone already using it? Carry a 3-outlet adapter with so you can offer to share the plug space. It is a simple way to spread the wealth and maybe strike up a conversation. In-car AC Adapter: I pack an In-Car AC Adapter in my luggage. This little gizmo turns any car into a power station for all the gadgets I carry with me: phone, iPod, laptop. It is must if you know you will spend time in the car.

This insight is a personal passion of mine because I've been a Digital Nomad (Road Warrior variety) for years, and I've also spent a good chunk of my career leading multi-media communications solution development.  

A well structured Unified Communications (UC) toolset is a big help and a good starting point.  This includes integrated IM, presence, file xfer, voice/video telephony, and whiteboarding.  The integration of the independent functions adds value over a collection of independent applications and an enterprise-grade UC solution is likely a lot more secure than public apps like Yahoo Messenger or Skype.  But none of this is really insightful as the big players like Cisco and Microsoft have been pushing these ideas at businesses for years now.  It's important to recognize that UC solutions, email, Wikis, etc. are just tools.  These tools 'enable' the connection between employees, but they do little to create the connection or develop it.

It's been my experience that the secret to keeping Digital Nomads connected with coworkers is to replace the concept of Unified 'Communications' with one of Unified 'Community'.  Communications implies information flow.  Community implies a group of people with shared interests and a sense of belonging.  That is what the traditional office environment has and that is what you want to extend to include the Digital Nomads connecting from the online worlds.

There are some really great tools that have recently become available that make the challenge of creating a Unified Community a lot easier.  Customized social networks are fantastic for this purpose.  They provide for sharing of information across the group, they're designed for active dialog and debate, and they allow users to maintain their personalities in an online environment (very important).  In addition, online social networks support a structure to prevent chaos and can be very easily setup to reflect the organization.  Think manager = moderator.  I think we've used social networks as large online playgrounds up until now and hardly anyone has caught on to how powerful a concept it is when applied to a business context.  Think about it - every Facebook or MySpace member is, to some degree, a Digital Nomad.  And look at the sense of community and 'connection' that these networks have achieved!  

Another more recent tool worth mentioning is Twitter.  Twitter can be a distraction and a waste of time.  But with a little process-design effort, it can be a useful addition to the online workplace.  Not as an email replacement and not for intellectual dialog, but for simple and quick real time updates, i.e., Tweets like "Before I forget...", "Meeting cancelled...", "Flight delayed..."  The advantage is that you don't have to think about who to send these messages to each time.  Any of your coworkers who need to know will already be following your tweets.

Bottom line:  To keep Digital Nomads connected with coworkers, focus on extending the workplace *community* to the online world.  Use MySpace and Facebook as working examples.  Any challenge you come up with has likely already been solved in these environments.  You just need to look for the solution and apply it to your workplace context.

  

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James Durbin
Thu Oct 16 10:13am
I like Twitter, but not for communication with groups. I'd prefer closed channels instead of the more open ones.

The big advantage to Twitter, and Facebook, is that you can usually get a response with a DM or Facebook email. Some studies say as many as 25% of Facebook users use it for primary communication instead of email.

And a Twitter DM will get my attention before an email will.
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James Durbin
Fri Oct 17 12:10pm
Gordon,

The real problem with pitching community is that companies aren't set up to run like this, and even Digital Nomads with extensive social media experience don't work well with these softwares.

Companies are buying these solutions, but they're really just intranets on steroids, and about as effective.

I disagree that cusomtized social networks (like Ning) are good tools for business collaboration. They're good for spontaneous collaboration in specific industry groups, but organized projects are better managed through controlled environments like Sharepoint or blogs.

It sounds nice, but the reason it's not been done is workers aren't angels, and digital nomads are no exception. Communities grow organically. They're good for making connections, but they're really hard to drive in a distinct direction. They also tend to be dominated by a small number of people who do the bulk of the writing/responding/uploading. The 1-10-90 rule works in large groups, but not so well in remote teams.

Online Communities also benefit from equality. Everyone has to prove their worth through merit. Workers in a project aren't equal, which hampers their ability to contribute, get validation, or be rewarded. The pharmaceutical companies are working on a lot of this, but what they are finding is that effective communities can't be organized from the top down. The massive value in creatively mixing departments is a lot harder to create than they thought.

It's better to pick communication tools that have a narrow purpose, and move communications online so they can be tracked. Digital Nomads join online communities for their own reasons. It's doubtful that they'll bring that same spirit to a company social network.
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Gordon Quinn
Tue Oct 21 8:47am
James - I understand some of what you're saying and have a few comments.

You say - "I disagree that cusomtized social networks (like Ning) are good tools for business collaboration. They're good for spontaneous collaboration in specific industry groups, but organized projects are better managed through controlled environments like Sharepoint or blogs."

The social network construct can be as controlled or uncontrolled as the leadership desires. The same kind of discipline that is applied to a live workspace can be applied to an online community. Digital Nomads don't report in to companies, they report in to departments or workgroups. The structure of a social network is very well suited to enable this small working 'community' to extend into the online world. Of course there will be other tools that are used as well on an as-needed basis, but my point is that the solution for keeping Digital Nomads connected with co-workers requires a 'community wrapper' around whatever collection of tools is used. The reason that I think social network platforms provide benefit is that they exist, the new generation of worker is already used to the concept, and social network platforms integrate a lot of the tools that workgroups require including discussion blogs, member profiles (which can be used to reflect roles & responsibilities, priorities, as well as personalities), group bulletins, video recordings of key meetings, etc..

You write - "It's better to pick communication tools that have a narrow purpose, and move communications online so they can be tracked. Digital Nomads join online communities for their own reasons. It's doubtful that they'll bring that same spirit to a company social network."

I don't understand the logic in picking disparate single-purpose tools. All online tools can be tracked. I do agree that the spirit of a department social network would be different than that of MySpace, just as a persons at-work and away-from-work focus and behaviors often vary.

I believe the environment I describe is inevitable. Social network constructs applied to business contexts offers huge value.

LinkedIn is a visible example of a social network designed for networking. The example I used in my post here is a social network designed to create an online working community for the benefit of a nomadic workgroup. In a big multi-function company environment, the social network structure could be applied to major functions, e.g., the CTO function that is distributed across business units, providing an online forum of information sharing and dialog that all involved can see. Like a blog but much more powerful.

The effort to put in place a workspace environment such as I describe using available tools (Ning is one example) is a couple of days work to think through the desired structure and then a couple of days work to implement.

The traditional work environment is on the edge of some big changes and I sure like what I see. The pieces of the puzzle are all available on the table. All it takes now is visionary leadership to put the pieces together and it's starting to happen.

Nomads, by definition, have a limited contact role from within a business group.  They provide a critical and timely service to a company, group, or team.  However, their integration into the team can be difficult without:

  • Common expectations
    What are they supposed to contribute? A specific goal and known expecatations are critical to ensuring good rapport and results.  Goals can be established through email, video conferences, telephone conferences with common documentation, or any combination of the above.
  • Clear timelines for Deliverables
    Because of their "remote" status, it is critical that nomads deliver to the team on time and under budget.  Business confidence in their capabilities, personal relationships formed through text and voice communications, and team-building are all tied to delivering "top-of-the-line" deliverables that meet specifications.
  • Common communication channels
    Both old-style (message boards, email, newsgroups) and new-style (internet video, web meetings, common community boards such as whiteboards and writing environments) can be used to provide this commonality.  The key to success in this area is to define one for communications, one for deliverables, and a last one for just-in-time (JIT) communications.  Both parties, team and nomad, need to know what to use and how to use it.

Nomads are different from vendors in that they are inside the team, rather than an adjunct to the team.  With clear communications and an understanding of what should be delivered, they can greatly increase the productivity of a business group.

Before any meaningful communications model can be established for a mobile workforce, the requirements for that workforce must be clearly established. Not all mobile workers are created equally, nor do all workers in a given team always have the same requirements. Not everyone needs a laptop or a BlackBerry or even a cell phone.

Once the real needs of a given workforce have been established, then the planning really begins in the form of designing the back-end infrastructure that will support the mobile workforce. Many companies or government agencies seem to fail to (or refuse to) understand that removing employees physically from the workplace does not reduce their need for infrastructure, it simply redirects it.

A cube is replaced with some amount of resources on a VPN box, Citrix server, etc. Connectivity issues take on a whole new level of complexity when a user's home network and ISP are thrown into the mix. Mail still requires as much administration and as many resources for a user in Timbuktu as it does for a user sitting just outside the NOC door. Security models change drastically when they are expanded to include communication on untrusted networks from untrusted computers.

An infrastructure for any mobile workforce has several key requirements:

 

1) Ease of use and understanding

It is a simple truth that people will not use systems that are too complex or cumbersome. The most reliable way to develop a disgruntled and hostile workforce is to foist a difficult to use system upon them.

Systems and processes that are comprehensible and consistent are the ones that will work for your workforce and, in the long run, make everyone's life a bit easier and more productive.

 

2) Security

In the corporate world, the security of one's data is everything. Ill-considered or neglected security models will result in data breaches. It's always a matter of time before it happens. If "an ouce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" was ever applicable anywhere, it's here.

And no, super Anti-Virus Man is not going to swoop in and save you. It takes more than current definitions to keep everything secured.

 

3) Ease of administration

Often overlooked, but very critical is the ease of administration of the systems that connect the mobile workforce. All systems break, no matter what vendors say. The real question is not "how often does this break," but "how quickly can my IT staff fix this when it breaks?"

 

4) Sameness

The process for the mobile user should be as similar to that of the office-based user as possible. Not only does it make understanding and training for the users easier, it takes a heavy burden from the shoulders of the IT staff. Excepting the connection process, the user experience should be as similar as possible, no matter where the user is located.

Running a mobile office is substantially different than keeping a group of mobile workers together.  I'll address each topic separately. 

Running A Mobile Office:

The key is organization.   Power cords for phone and moible.  Planned WiFi access that works.  Picking a spot that has enough traffic to give you the buzz of people without having distractions.  And learning not to move to much.  There are substantial amounts of time taken in packing and moving, not to mention the time it takes to get in a groove to work. 

Tips and tricks to the mobile office:

1) Pick small tasks you can easily accomplish.  If the mobility is temporary, stick to small tasks (checking e-mail, doing research, editing, social media) you can accomplish. You will have disruption, so pick tasks that you can easily start and stop.

2) Start working first.  If you're at a coffee shop or gym, start working immediately.  Wait to get that first cup or snack until you've accomplished something.  This minimizes the time up and down.

3) Try to work on off hours.  It's difficult to get space and a plug at a lot of places, and free wifi etiquette is to not have you there during busy times.  Find someplace you can work that you won't get dirty looks, as it will affect your quality and focus.

4) Make the best use of the tools you have. I've started checking resumes sent by candidates using my iPhone, and using Text and Twitter to stay in touch with them when on the road.  The iPhone is faster than pulling out the laptop, and if I'm just skimming, I can do it in line, on the train, or in time that would normally be lost.  This counts as mobile, and frees me up to do more substantial knowledge worker actions back at the office.

5) Sync all your calendars and accounts.  This is a must.  Nothing is worse than having to drive back out to the office to check an appointment.  Sync contacts, calendars, spreadsheets, and have an extra e-mail where you forward important documents.

Commit to the mobile lifestyle.  Like all endeavors, successful mobility is really a matter of organization and habits.  If you can practice habits that maximize the time on the road, you can make full use of the time "in-between" the office and home.

Working With Mobile Groups:

The key to working with mobile groups is set-up and expectations.

1) Create a new calendar for the project, or if you're working internally, sync your calendars.  Know when people can meet and when they are working.  Taking the time to set up calendars limits the need to check in with people to see if they are available.  Be diligent in making sure people use their calendars.  google Calendars or iCal on the Mac work great for this.

2) Instead of e-mails, consider using a blog.

Basecamp has some advantages, but it's actually too complex for mobile projects.  A simple blog, with guest permissions for each person, allows you to send e-mails to everyone, leave comments, keep it simple, and track when and where conversations took place.

Blogs can be made private, and files can be added.  You can access ist from anywhere. Date and time stamps label everything, and you can break the blog into categories that are easily searched.  Speaking of search, blogs are easy to search. This eliminates forwards, cc's, and long e-mails.  To Do lists can be updated.  At the end, you have a record of the project and who did what.  And everyone can use a blog.  For the record, I recommend Typepad. 

Blogs are superior to almost every other kind of platform precisely because they're simple.  Each category, comment, or the blog itself has an RSS feed which can be uploaded to readers and mobile devices, making the blog a higher priority to read instead of going through 300 emails.

*advanced note - don't tell the users it's a blog if there is resistance.  It's a project management content system.   - A PMCS.  Total Cost:  $135 a year for unlimited blogs. 

3) Skype Video.  Skype is free, and if your users are set up for it, can call and video conference each other for free.  I use this with candidates, clients, developers, and even to call my wife at home and look at my child.  iChat has the same functions, and it costs nothing.

4) Sharing Desktops.  GoToMeeting and WebEx, if you have accounts, are fantastic tools for sharing desktops and training.  This is good for meetings and webinars, but it's also useful if you're working with a developer and need him to see screen shots, examples, or user flow diagrams.  GotoMeeting is a monthly fee, allowing you to access it as much as you want, and share it with others.  You can show your own desktop, or allow the others to use it.  Great, great tool.  It also eliminates the "Where are you" questions in remote meetings.

5) Meebo:  Meebo chat rooms give you the ability to create quick, private chats.  While you can set people up using the same Yahoo Messenger or AIM accounts, if everyone has a different account, you can use Meebo to speak to everyone.  It works very well when you can't speak, such as at conferences, or when you need some privacy (say a meeting when one of your people is waiting at the airport).

6) Keeping everyone together.  The challenges have always been setting up a system and agreeing to it.  Every failure we've had has been setting up an account on Basecamp, or a blog, or an IM client, and then not getting everyone on the same page from the beginning.  I would suggest finding out what people use, and then picking the one that most people are comfortable with.

7) When using outside consultants, there is the question of billing.  Too many consultants sit on conference calls not doing anything but billing, waiting for their turn to speak. Creating a decentralized system of listing your work is an effective way to limit phone meetings to check status.  That can save you 10-20% on labor costs.

 

 

 

 

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Gordon Quinn
Thu Oct 16 10:56pm
To me, this reads like a how-to for making Digital Nomads effective, not a recipe to make the Digital Nomad feel connected to the rest of the workspace.

Both are important but different, and that was my point.
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James Durbin
Fri Oct 17 11:58am
Gordon, I addressed the overall theme of mobile workers first, then listed the ways you can stay in touch with co-workers.

The first response is what enables the second, as learning how to work well while Bedouin (I like that term better than digital nomad) allows you to focus on getting work done, and the major fear of working with a remote group is that so many people aren't effective working in that manner.

I then listed five specific communication tools that digital nomads can use to stay in touch, but they don't work if 1) the worker isn't effective, and 2) the group isn't committed to using the tool.

In my line of work (construction based engineering) there are always job site demands that must be met AND multiple job sites running at the same time. Two things have been pivotal for the increased mobility of my department: 1) a secure FTP site & 2) mobile broadband.

With constant colaboration on CAD files (which never seem to be smaller than 3MB) having an easily accessible and secure ftp site made it much easier to deal with the multiple job site element to my job, which also leads to near constant travel. Also, with the mobile broadband device, I can connect to the internet (nearly) anywhere in order to access my ftp site.

Unfortunately for my line of work, using a blackberry or an iphone is simply not practical. Blueprints are never smaller than 11"x17", with most common sizes being 24"x36" - imagine that on a 3-4" screen - it's not very effective. Which, again, is why having my laptop connected at all times is so important.

I do demand of myself that I make it back to the office once a day when I'm in town, but that's not to say that I actually have to. As long as I have my laptop, a wall outlet, and a flat surface, I can do my work virtually anywhere. Although, when I'm away from my office too long, I start to miss my 36" LCD monitor.

Many people will jump to technology solutions when talking about tele-working, off-site contractors, or these "Digital Nomads." But taking a step back, lets try to think more about why this is a problem. In most offices I have worked in, and from others I have heard about, actual work related face to face meeting is not done on a significant scale. If the person is not in ear shot, virtually everyone will email, IM or phone someone else that is in the office. So how does this position the nomad differently? Looking at the other suggestions, they all recommend solutions such as blogs, Sharepoint, IM, etc, things that probably could, or should, be used in your normal office environment regardless of remote employees.

So back to the question: Why do we always feel uneasy about people who work out of office?

The answer is almost in the question. The reason why contractors or sales teams are sent on site to another office is the very reason we feel uneasy about not having them in our office. There are 3 primary reasons:

1. For fast, clear, and effective communication, nothing will beat out a face to face talk.
Being able to see someone's facial expressions, hand gestures, vocal changes, etc is something that is simply a staple of human communication now. That feel is lost over text so IM and email do not convey these things directly. This is why sales teams will almost always, given the option, choose to present in person; it's easy to convey your ideas and understand other people's reaction to them. Short of video conferencing, nothing comes close to being able to replace this.

2. The idea that you CAN have a face to face talk is comforting.
When some fatal error happens on your website, do you walk over to your desk, write up a clear email outlining all the steps you did to find the error, and then send it to hosting? Or do you run like an olympic sprinter into the hosting guy's office and drag him into the server room to fix the problem as you talk it through? The idea of being able to walk into someone's office, not have to wait or be in an email queue, and get your urgent matters addressed right away is comforting.

3. There is a reassuring feeling of knowing someone is working if they are in the office with you.
Sadly, this is the case for almost anyone you will ask. Even if your most reliable employee is working from home, and he sends in his work quickly and correctly, there is still an increase in the feeling that he may simply be slacking off.

Unfortunately, I have no answers in this insight. As one who has worked from home, and as one who currently is in the office today working with tele-workers, there is no 100% solution. When I have to assign a task to someone who is working in office or to someone who is working remotely, I instinctually prefer the one who I can see in the office and have to deliberately remind myself to even things out. The paradox is that I communicate with that individual the same way I do with the person off site; other than some water cooler talk and passing each other in the halls, almost all of the work communication is done via our ticketing system, IM and email.

In conclusion, tele-working is not a business issue as much as a human one; we crave that tangible person in the cube next to us instead of anonymous text on a screen. The work can be just as good, done just as fast, but we have an innate preference for someone in the office. There have also been studies to show tele-workers are less likely to be promoted, and I am certain this is a contributing factor. As long as we are social creatures, remote working will always be less preferred or "different" to working in the office.

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Jerad Andersen
Tue Oct 21 3:51pm
While I agree with your points about the comfort of face-to-face interactions, I would think that often times digital nomads come to be out of necessity rather than preference. Some businesses require you to travel to multiple places in order to satisfy customers or clients. Being a digital nomad is all about staying in touch with your work community while being on the go.
I do realize that some people work from home out of preference, but I think in the scope of our discussions, that is a smaller percentage than the "executives-on-the-go" that we've been hearing from. I would define a digital nomad as someone who performs work from any location, rather than someone who performs work at a single location away from the office.
I do apologize in advance if I have taken any of your statements out of context, I just thought your insight (while well written and interesting) was a little misaligned with the proposed question.
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Ben Matthews
Wed Oct 22 7:20am
Jerad,
I completely see what you are saying, and how my answer can be seen as misaligned with the question. To shed more light on what I meant, I was more trying to frame the situation for people who have previously commented. The other insights, while well written and on target for what they address, I feel don't really understand the root of why a Digital Nomad is something that requires discussion.

While all the insights provided good information, james was my favorite for taking a look at things from a higher level view, in my opinion, and making them practical. But even then, it feels as though we assume a Digital Nomad is crippled by being away from the office due to lack of communication and thus an inability to be effective; I tried to show that I think it's not a technology issue as much as a social one.

Thank you for pointing out where there may have been confusion!

For a few years, I've been developing and operating a website with a group of people from around the world. Not even one of us has physically met everyone else on the team, and a couple of us haven't physically met anyone at all.

On top of this, we're geographically all over the place, including a person in the UK (GMT+0) and a person in New Zealand (GMT+12) - literally opposite ends of the globe, and opposite times of day.

A project like this runs into a lot of problems that simply don't exist in a standard office environment, but the benefits of being able to work with people around the world, with everyone working whenever they want makes it very much worth it. The key is to make sure you understand the unique challenges of remote work, and how to work on a nomadic team.

Here are some major tips to avoid a lot of the usual pitfalls:

1. Keep a current list of everyone's time zone, contact info, preferred methods of contact, and roughly when they tend to be available.

Ideally, put it somewhere that everyone on the list can edit it if their info changes - a forum post in a hidden forum tends to be best for this, as you probably don't want to leave a list of email addresses where a spambot can grab it. This is a simple step, but it's often overlooked, and not having it can cause problems ranging from the annoying (phone calls at 5AM from someone who has no idea where you live) to the far more problematic (something goes horribly wrong and you have no idea who you can work with to fix it quickly.)

2. Use the right communication tool for the job.

It's very easy to get frustrated at the inefficiency of some online conversations, but in almost every case this happens, look at the medium used, and you'll find that was a huge part of - and possibly even the entire cause of - the problem. Here's some methods and their pros and cons:

Forum threads: A post made to a forum is usually well-reasoned, proofread, and carefully thought out. This makes it ideal for initial development of ideas, and also makes it a great tool for debating when there isn't a consensus on how to accomplish a major task. Additionally, forum discussions are automatically permanently saved, and it's usually very easy to find an old discussion, even months or years after the fact. The main weakness of forum threads, however, is speed. Most people check forums no more than daily, and many only check in 2-3 times/week. Even when people are actively watching a thread, since posts tend to be fairly large, there's little opportunity for quick messages and replies. Forums are therefore best used for important and detailed, but non-urgent discussion.

Wiki articles: The biggest advantage of these is also the biggest disadvantage - anyone can edit them. This can be a great way to produce a collaborative work, especially when it's one that involves people who have an interest in your project, but don't actually work on it (users, customers, etc.) However, there's often a constant need for reversion due to unwanted edits, both accidental (edit collisions - where 2 people edit an article within seconds of each other and the first edit is discarded) and intentional (vandalism, etc.) These are best used when the goal is to have many people work on the same document, and the need for careful monitoring isn't enough of a problem to be a serious deterrent.

Instant Messages: The main benefit of these is the "instant" part. In many cases you need a quick answer to a simple question, or you need to discuss something with regular, back and forth conversation, and IMs excel in both of these functions. Most IM programs also allow you to quickly send a file to the person you're talking to, and this is a great use for them as well. The main disadvantage is IMs only work when someone is actually there to receive them. They also tend to be more distracting than most other forms of online communication. Especially when you know the person is working on something that requires full concentration, if it can wait, email tends to be the beter answer.

Email: Email's main advantage is that it tends to be both personal (as opposed to something like a forum where many are involved) and relatively permanent. This makes it ideal when you need to send something to a specific person, and it either doesn't need an immediate reply, or it's going to someone that you can't directly contact due to time zone issues. Email is especially useful for people involved in a minor role in your project - they probably don't check your project's site daily, but they'll check their inbox at least once regardless of what they're mainly working on. Like forum posts, the main downside to email is the reply speed, though email also adds an extra level of frustration in that spam filters occasionally discard valid messages. Because of this, if you know the person will check a forum, consider using a forum's private messaging function for the same results, minus the chance of losing your message to a filter.

Voice Chat: This is probably the closest thing you'll get online to a face to face meeting, and a lot of the traditional problems with online communication (like not hearing tone of voice, and slower typers having a hard time keeping up with a conversation) can be completely avoided. However, since people have to be both physically there and speaking, voice chat is impractical with large time zone gaps, and isn't always an option for people who may simply not be somewhere they can talk easily. Also, even if you run into neither of these issues, voice chats generally have to be scheduled in advance, so it's best to save them for more important conversations.

Text chat: Text chat loses the personal touch of voice chat, but also loses most of the drawbacks, while gaining the ability to be easily logged and reviewed later. Like with voice chat, the main issue is that you usually have to schedule this in advance, so you need something sufficiently important to justify this.

3. Use meetings sparingly.

When everyone's in the same building, it generally isn't terribly difficult to get a group of people to agree to be in the same room at the same time. When everyone is remote, however, this task ranges from difficult (long commutes, very little overlap in schedules) to just plain impossible (no one is in the same country, and the costs of getting flights for people in several different countries would be astronomical.)

Of course, there's a variety of software to handle meetings online, ranging from voice conferencing to regular chat rooms. However, the time zone gap and the fact that people not attached to an office tend to have weird schedules still makes it much harder to actually arrange a meeting. In many cases, they involve someone being there at 4AM, and understandably, if the meeting turns out to be unnessary, they aren't going to appreciate being there at that hour (to say the least.) The 2 big questions to ask are:
-Is the benefit of the group collaboration sufficient to justify extreme inconvience on the part of people not in the country?
-Will the meeting accomplish anything that a forum thread wouldn't, and if no, is the time saved important enough to justify a meeting over a discussion thread?
If you answer no to both of those questions, it's usually a bad idea to call a meeting.

4. Read text carefully, and don't be afraid to ask for clarification.

Sarcasm is usually obvious when it's face to face, but when you're communicating purely in text, it's much easier to miss, and much easier to accidentally offend someone. Additionally, many statements have more than one meaning, and while body language and tone of voice tend to make it obvious what the intended meaning is, text alone does not. If in doubt, don't be afraid to simply ask for clarification. Also, when typing, if you realize you're about to say something that can be taken more than one way, you may want to choose different words, or simply use an emoticon to make it clear you're speaking in jest.

5. Make sure there's a central source of important information - and make sure everyone actually uses it.

There's few things more frustrating than writing 1000 lines of code, drawing up a huge schematic, or writing a long article only to realize after the fact that a) the work was already done by someone else or b) you just built something completely useless because someone found a better way to do it, and it doesn't use what you just made.

This is easily avoided by making sure everyone knows what's needed, and who is currently doing what. Depending on the size of the project, you may want to use a full project management system with to do lists, the ability to "check out" tasks, etc, or you may find that all you really need is an up to date forum post. Regardless of the method chosen though, there needs to be some way that everyone can instantly get an overview of the status of the project.

6. Identify conflicts quickly

In a traditional office setting, conflicting ideas usually become apparent very quickly, and personal conflicts even more so. This generally allows for reasonably quick resolutions. Online, where people often go days with no contact with each other - and months with no direct contact, conflicting ideas can result in half of two completely different approaches being built, and a personal fight between two members of a team can go unnoticed for so long that it finally explodes - usually at worst possible time.

Idea conflicts are easy to solve - get everyone to agree that if there's a major disagreement on how to accompish something, the main person raising the objection should make a full forum post explaining his idea and why he thinks it's the better answer, and that he should then notify the people directly affected by email. In this way, a full discussion will result, and in most cases, one of the idea will emerge as superior.

Personal conflicts are a bit harder to deal with, but again, the key is for people to agree to post that there is in fact a conflict. In this way, a nuetral party can try to mediate before the situation gets far worse.

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Zack Miller
Tue Oct 28 1:27pm
Nice job Chris. Good organization.

 We have offices in 3 different geographic regions. Our principals alternate every 2-3 days between each of them. In addition our sales and tech staff are frequently on the road traveling.

I like many of the technological suggestions included here, we also use VOIP, a variety of instant message tools, a company tikiwiki website, the forums included therein, and Google calendar. The only other technological tool I would suggest is that we record our video conferenced meetings and training sessions.

We store these recordings on our website to allow people that were unable to attend, or people that were not even employees at the time to be able to catch up on the give and take in the discussion that has formed our standards and practices.

It is critical for everyone in the organization to not only understand what we are doing but what forces and facts went in to the decision to do things a particular way.

I think another of the things we do differently that helps us operate as a cohesive unit, is at least three times a year we take a couple days off as a group and get together with the employees and families to celebrate and have fun.

Obviously there are a lot of business discussions that go on during these events but this is not the focus, there is a significant cost for the travel and lodging, but we feel that it really helps us connect as a group.

We are an ESOP company and we work hard to make sure that everyone is doing the work that they want to and that we are providing all of the tools that we each need to succeed.

We've got plenty of collaborative technologies to empower remote teams.  Some of these technologies function as beefed-up intranets while others offer more targeted functionality.  While I'm not a luddite, I do think that in the case of keeping digital nomads connected, we have an abundance of technology.  The most pressing issue is preparing our teams to effectively communicate.  We've moved beyond empowering communications; we're overwhelmed with email, twits, facebooks.  We need protocols to help us sort out our pressing tasks and prioritize our responses to clients and peers.  We also need to consolidate and keep focused.

I'm not a purist -- while in a best case scenario, technology should merely service the needs of its users but in the case of digital nomads, we frequently need to work around the technologies and optimize our processes via the software because we lack the resources and time to develop these tools from the ground up.

Choking on communication volume

Trying to manage all my various communication channels has become an impossible task.  My team's messages get lost in the flood of everything else I'm receiving. Here are a couple of field-proven techniques we use to help sort out the clutter.traffic volume

  1. Use a separate email address to communicate with your team than you use on social networks/twitter/etc.  This ensures that important work messages don't get swallowed up in the sheer volume of total pings we receive. 
  2. Be precise with subject lines in email.  If things are urgent, make sure that that's know to the recipient of the email right away.  Being concise and targeted with email subject lines is kind to your team and allows for easier searching through emails for retrieval purposes.
  3. If things are really important, pick up the phone.  It may sound obvious but emails get lost, ignored or just swallowed up.  Nuances get misread via email.  The tone of a short email blasted off a BlackBerry may sound overly curt.  Pressing or personal issues can be cleared up quicker and easier over the phone.  Teams frequently fall back on an overuse of email and issues fester or aren't sufficiently addressed. 

Hosted Apps

I've used Salesforce.com frequently on small sales/marketing teams and it's extremely powerful and cost effective.  For a small team of reps, though, I've stopped using it.  It's overkill -- it may sound ridiculous but for a variety of vertical applications, we've backed out of using such hosted software and have cut down on the headache of merely managing the software.

  1. It may sound silly but shared Google Apps like Spreadsheet and Docs work really well in certain cases.  For a sales team, instead of collaborating over Salesforce and getting sucked in, we input data into our shared, hosted spreadsheet and collaborate on that document.  You can easily see revised versions of the doc to see first derivative-type info.
  2. While we've opted out of most other hosted apps (save Google Docs), I like much of what 37Signals is doing.  From Basecamp to Highrise, the software is so simple to use that it's been a winner for keeping track of projects or contacts for the team or just chatting.  Google Chat has been a winner for us to communicate over chat.  Make sure you have the "Save chat history" function turned on.  It allows you to store chat transcripts in the Gmail GUI which makes retrieving an old conversation a snap.  We stopped using Skype which has a very nice conference function on chat but the software proved to be to big and clunky to use with everything else we're working on.

Face Time is underated (sometimes)people meeting together doing facetime

It's great to be untethered most of the time.  I've worked with people for years whom I've never met.  In fact, I'd describe these people as friends.  Close ones, too.  There is no substitute, though, for some good face time.  If teams are local, get together over lunch once a month.  If teams are scattered, try to get together once a year.  It builds morale and lowers barriers and puts a face behing the chat window.

Summary

While the software industry continues to churn out very useable and affordable software to help empower teamwork for digital nomads, virtual teams still struggle with implementing work processes to enable them to truly use such software.  In turn, the software isn't fully implemented and frequently becomes "just another" thing to manage.  Future teams must figure out how best to communicate working either via or around existing technology packages.  We'll figure it out but ultimately, nothing truly changes.  Pick up the phone once in a while.

Keeping a dispersed workforce on the same page relies on multiple tools.  There is an array of technology available to businesses, however if its not the right tool for the job then, rather than enhancing productivity and communication, it frustrates and impairs the effectiveness of a dispersed workforce.

It is imperative that managers and employees identify what they are seeking to accomplish, and defining the best method for achieving that end.  The first step in this process is identifying clear goals and targets for the employee, identifying milestones, deliverables, and time lines.  In this process, different steps or aspects of the work are going to require different methods to keep employees on the same page.

There are many tools available, and each has it's own strengths and weaknesses depending on the task being attempted.  Too many times e-mail is seen as the way to communicate with a distributed workforce.  Too much time is spent reading long chains and multiple responses to an e-mail, or trying to sort out a draft of a document that has been circulating.  A hammer is a great tool for pounding nails, but useless to cut a board.  Its about using the right tool for the job. Start with the task you need to accomplish and match the tool to the task. 

Resource questions, brief updates or short answers are well suited to e-mail, as is a notice that doesn't require feedback you want to get to field staff immediately.  E-mail should be intentional communication rather than generalized information.  It should have a clear purpose and be directed at the recipient.  However, despite its usefullness, e-mail is not well suited to conversations. 

Short conversations between two people can be had using text messaging, while longer ones are suited to direct communication using cell phones or video conferencing.  With groups, video conferencing can be useful, especially when topics are more amorphous.  Another alternative is message boards where information can be posted and responded to. The structure of message boards allows employees to follow a clear flow of the conversation and responses.  Where as e-mail allows immediate connection,  message boards allow people to go to the information when they have the time to dedicate to it and provide thoughtful feedback.  Separating the use of e-mail and message boards in this way allows employees to triage what needs their immediate attention, and this is a way for us to help them do this.

Group project work may benefit from the use of message boards for discussion on the project, but having this as part of a shared workspace can be invaluable.  This workspace may include working documents, shared calendars, goal and target monitoring, and message and bulletin boards.  These virtual spaces can keep project teams on the same page by keeping all the materials in one place which avoids duplication and loss of important information, reduces the load on e-mail, and can serve as a way for teams to stay connected.

Staying on the same page does not always mean direct communication between two or more people. At times, communication is being able to share the same information, such as when evaluating or tracking productivity. Having already defined what productivity looks like, you are able to identify how to measure it.  If productivity means sales or billable hours, then being able to generate a report of these may be important. Reviewing that report as a team may be in a meeting, but just being able to access and view accurate mectrics helps people stay on the same page regarding achieving identified targets and goals that are quantifiable. 

Ultimately, keeping teams on the same page is challenging at the best of times, even when they're not digital nomads.  It starts with having a shared understanding of project goals, milestones and targets.  By evaluating what we need to accomplish from our communication allows us to choose the right method for that communication.  Being intentional about how we are sharing information allows us to sort information better and achieve better outcomes more efficiently.

 

Distance might make the heart grow fonder but it does nothing to help people work together.  How many times do you find yourself sitting on the edge of the desk of your colleague discussing a problem or opportunity? what about the opportunistic discussion in the kitchen? the natural separation of digital nomads is the greatest obstacle to good team work.

This is the challenge facing todays mobile work force, so how do we enable an equivalent environment?

Many would say that the internet becomes the office, IM becomes the water cooler/kitchen or the quick discussion with a colleague, wikis become the filing cabinet or network drive.  These all work with varying degrees of success but some of the key elements for me are missing.

Where is the whiteboard where you can scratch out some ideas? how do we enable small team theory to work, how/when do we form --> storm --> norm --> perform?

There are lots of IM's that enable many-to-many conversations (Yahoo, Skype IM, MSN).  For teams that are not yet standadrised Meebo is a valuable alterntaive that creates a bridge between the common IM's (both SIP and Jabber based).  IM's give one significant advantage, that of presence, that allows team to work more effectively by minimizing interruptions.  However they do not meet the basic requirement of personal discovery; the forming stage of team development.

Large group discussions are the foundation of good teams, an environment where the team gets to know each other on the individual level.  This is best done face-to-face but where geography doesn't allow video conferences are the next best option.  A free service that allows multi-party video conferencing seems like a good solution.  The value of such a service is multiplied when this can be enabled from inside MSN and Skype combining a close facsimile to face-to-face with the bnefits of presence.

Forming is further aided by the use of LinkedIn.  This niche social networking site allows for a business profile of the team members that acts as a yellow pages of team members.  So often it's not what the member knows but who that is the biggest asset to the distributed team.  This is the value add of LinkedIn as the three degrees of separation that the tool shows provides some sound insight on stakeholders.

The storming stage needs to be facilitated through organic growth and discussion.  Wiki sites and collaborative tools like Sharepoint are natural resources for this task.  The structure of these tools allows for a framework for discussion but can become an overhead to manage.  More versatile, disposable aggregators can be much more applicable to these early stages.  Idea generation needs to be an organic process where new branches can be added and the "bunny trails" closed down quickly.  Jeteye allows weblinks, video and IM messages (from Meebo) to be grouped into a shareable repository.  These are accessiblle from the cloud as no client tools are required, just an internet connection will suffice.  These Jetpacks can be public or controlled access, which ever best suits the teams.  The ability to easily make them available to a client is a real bonus.

Norming is wher the team starts to use common standards, best made tangible through templates and document standards.  The virtual filing cabinet both supports a common documentation set and collaborative review and editing features.  Online services such as GoogleDocs or Zoho are more preferable than Wikis as the output is more easily consumed by the client.

With the foundation in place performing should now be possible.  It is also good to know who is doing what and when so a shared calendar forms the core of the technology.  Again Google is a good fit as the price means that nomadic teams can quickly and cheaply form, collaborate and disperse with minimal transitional effort.  Other online services such as Basecamp and Lighthouse offer the same functionality but with more cost in terms of setup and portability.

Where does all of this converge into one virtual office.  Most of the tools mentioned thus far are competing and do not easily fit together into one platform.  With the rollout of LinkedIn applications Huddle seems to fill the platform gap in many ways.  The basic toolset includes calendar management, presence, file sharing, online whiteboards and member biographies.  The integration with LinkedIn gives you access to the team's network.  One of the links on the member's profile could also be the MeBeam video conference room.

Tools mentioned:

If you are a mobile worker, there are three ways you need to keep up with your colleauges: Social, current work or project, and knowlege. They are not isolated - you need the social aspect to work in a project, and which projects you participate in determines what you need to learn, based on what you already know. And how nice a person you are.

Keeping up with colleauges, when there is no water cooler, no office parties, no coffe breaks with cake or cubicles where you can hang over the wall? The social aspect of keeping up is probably the most difficult for any mobile worker. If you are in a completely different time zone, you will not be able to take phone calls, and those only help when you are in a one-to-one relationship with the person. Many people prefer this method of communication, and apart from personal meetings it is the only way to provide an emotional context (video conferencing works too, but as it is now, it is no better than phone conferences). But it is hard when you are in different time zones, and it creates interruptions which disturb the work. You can use low-key methods, such as blogs and status pages in a social network system, to keep others informed about what you are doing - and you can find out about them the same way. Not being intrusive is  the most important premise for mobile work.

This goes hand in hand with the third aspect - the learning. Everyone needs to learn new things all the time, and when the project group is not in the same office, and not even the same city, the learning has to be distributed. And nowadays, the best source for everything can be found on the Internet (the Internet itself is not the best source). So it makes sense to divide the knowledge creation needed for the project. This means keeping others informed about what you know. That means either that there is a huge knowledge base in the company, or that everyone makes a blog and tells what they are working on. Project managers can then determine what the project members should study - and what they should focus on learning. And how they should document it, apart from in the work that the project does.

The final way is the project pages. Making sure that only the most current project pages are visible solves another problem: You do not only want to keep track of the current project members, you often need to find someone who worked on a project a long time ago - on something completely different than what they work on today. Keeping all project pages (this, of course, means projects have to have home pages) and making them accessible to everyone in the company (marked, of course, in a way that it becomes visible when they took place) kills two birds with one stone: It becomes easiy to follow people through the projects - and to figure out if someone has solved the same problem before. And who.

Forming social contacts, however, is not that easy online as it is to keep up with others. The company needs to organize ways for people who can be useful to each other to meet. Courses is one such way, sales meetings another, internal technical conferences another. Different from phone meetings, blogs, and project pages, this requires quite a bit of resources. Someone has to pay for the airline tickets for all these people.

So by the simple means of logging project work in a company publicly accessible way, keeping blogs of what everyone does, and of course adding a search engine to the mix, it becomes easy to keep track of colleauges, both current and past. You can then call them if you like, if they happen to be in the same time zone. Keeping up in a non-intrusive way becomes easy. But keeping up with people does not work if you did not have a relationship in the first place.

Hope this helps

//Johan

Intridea, Inc. employs 20 individuals but has no office. We work from our homes in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco, Maine, Michigan, and more. Despite our distance, as a company we are able to move and communicate quickly between each other due in a large part to the suite of online collaboration and Software-as-a-Service communications tools we use. Each tool serves a specific purpose but more importantly fits into a larger fabric of interconnectivity that allows us to have all of the needed information at our fingertips.

E-Mail

Of course the most basic form of communication is via e-mail. We use Google Apps for the domain to give us fast, reliable access to company e-mail from any computer on the planet as well as one of the most efficient and usable webmail clients around. While some group communication takes place through e-mail, it is mostly just the starting point for coversation, not the main hub.

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging serves as a loggable one-to-one communication for quick conversations. For the most part we prefer IM to calls because of the record-keeping ability and the ability to recall prior conversations with 100% accuracy. Additionally, IM tends to be less attention-requiring than phone calls, freeing people up to have multiple conversations simultaneously or while remaining productive on another task.

Phone calls are still necessary for outside-the-company communication such as with clients, customers and other outside contacts, but internally instant messaging is the preferred way to get in touch with one other co-worker.

Group Chat

Group chat applications such as Campfire or even IRC allow for real-time conversations to take place between people in many locations. Similar to instant messaging, these are useful due to their recall capabilities as well as rich media sharing such as links and file attachments.

Group chat is mainly used among members of a given project's team in order to keep them in touch with each other in a real-time way. We still have occasional conference calls to discuss projects, but most conversation again happens online.

Twitter for Business

We are the developers and avid proponents of Present.ly, an asynchronous micro-communications platform similar to Twitter but aimed squarely at business use. This has revolutionized our connectivity amongst each other for a number of reasons:

  1. With both web and mobile availability, it can be used even when travelling or away from a computer. It provides a level of awareness that far exceeds our previous capabilities.
  2. It allows employees to find answers to problems they encounter with incredible speed. The average turnaround time for a question sent out via e-mail was probably around half an hour to an hour. With Present.ly, most questions have answers within 30 seconds to a minute.
  3. It's dead simple to drop a document, image, or other attachment to the company or to a specific group using the attachments and groups functionality.
  4. It has completely eliminated the need for "status" meetings by providing a constant stream of updates so that employees already know what their colleagues are doing without requiring "reports."

Twitter for Business really was the missing piece in our communications network. Since we began utilizing Present.ly the general awareness in the company has increased drastically without requiring any additional time spent communicating. We expect this to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

Cloud Services

We utilize services such as Google Docs for document storing and sharing because of the simple and collaborative features offered by such platforms. This allows many people to work together to form a document without needing to physically sit down with each other.

The key to keeping in touch with digital nomads in the workforce is simply to properly leverage the right tools for the job in a way that is understood by all participants. It takes some time to work out the right system for your company, but it is entirely possible to keep a nomadic work force in touch, aware, and in good communication at all times.

Synchronizing telecommuters has a simple solution: regular meetings via in-person, internet meeting technologies, phone bridges, and a combination of internet and phone meetings. 

Without regular meetings, email, instant message and other asynchronous technologies have a way of causing forking in projects or divisions within teams.  Holding frequent and regular synchronous meetings using various technologies allow these divisions and forks to be merged gracefully, so that the entire team is back on the same trajectory. 

I further believe that in-person meetings are critical to a team's ongoing success, despite the fact that the team may not operate in the same city, state, or country.  Bringing everyone together allows people to learn how each team member reacts to information.  This type of high-context learning cannot take place over a computer, but it enhances one's ability to read into future electronic communications.  For example, after an in person meeting where I can understand people's body language directly, I may learn that when a particular person is agreeing to something, they are merely agreeing as a result of feeling pressured rather than feeling like they are backing up their agreement with a valid estimate.  For workers that are new to the difference between high-context culture and low-context culture, face-to-face meetings should help them learn how to address these differences in order to keep the business moving.

One of the biggest challenges a digital nomad faces is keeping in touch with coworkers, team members or partners, when the group is not in the same physical space most of the time.  These days, many rely on tools like instant messaging, wikis, collaborative workspaces, email and other tools to keep everyone on the same page.  What are some tips and tricks that you've found for keeping a group of digital nomads working together well?  What were some of the downsides and challenges?  How were those overcome or minimized?

The rules for keeping in touch with coworkers, IMHO, are the same as running your own business. I had my own business for five years, and was a digital nomad for more than three years.

1. Remember, TO THE MIDDLE! Don't be too close to coworkers (there are exceptions, but very rarely), and don't be remote. If you are too close, it will nearly always degenerate to an "us versus them" situation, as your coworkers (or you) experience/imagine some "situation". DON'T BE INVOLVED! And, even if you don't like the person, don't be remote - you may have to work with them at some time, and you don't need tension in the relationship.

2. Email, IM, wiki, whatever. You want people to know you exist. If possible, learn and remember "little things", birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Leave out vacations and other overly time-consuming matters, except for a "hope you had a good time!". With any contact, develop the ability to end the conversation on a positive note when it is taking too much time.

3. MAKE A POINT to meet at the office or at a "neutral" common point - NOT the home, or other "personal" space; work is not for socializing (once again, it degenerates into an "us versus them" problem.

4. Most of all, remember that you are at the disadvantage of not being fully visible. Don't resent it, you would act the same way in "their" situation, but take it into account, and try a little harder.

KEEPING MOBILE WORKERS EFFECTIVELY CONNECTED WITH THEIR CO-WORKERS

 

In my opinion, in order to create and maintain a cohesive and productive work environment in an ever changing “mobile” workplace setting, it is vital to have the “mobile worker” initially work onsite for a  practical period of time.  By providing these “digital nomads” the opportunity to work with their fellow co-workers, it gives them the advantage of developing, as well as improving their working relationships.  It can also provide a means to better understand each other and allow the “mobile” worker to get to know their co-workers work habits.

Personal relationships should develop as a natural part of working alongside others.

Despite the vital improvements in technology that the “mobile” worker will utilize daily, (IM’s, laptops, emails, cell phones, etc...) these methods are not the same as working alongside someone in an office for a period of time before “embarking” on their telecommuting arrangement.  Communication between the onsite worker and the mobile worker can definitely be compromised in today’s ever-changing, widespread use of mobile tools unless meeting in real life takes place to provide an opportunity to gain a better understanding and perspective of: what each person is about, how they react to different situations, what type of personality do they regularly display, how can you connect effectively with the person, etc..

Actually seeing and hearing a co-worker talking with a certain style without a lot of descriptive words can help you better understand their emails as an example.  A “mobile” worker can realize they aren’t angry or upset – it’s just their style.

Developing and fostering positive working relationships is a “key” resource in keeping co-workers connected.

If management insists on personal relationships, this may only force people into pretending, which will in turn harbour resentment and hard feelings.

Positive working relationships play a vital role in increasing the chances of a positive work environment.  Co-workers do not have to be best friends with each other in order for the working relationship to work, but providing the basis for strong working relationships can increase and improve areas such as: team cohesion, idea sharing, increased work output effectiveness and a relaxed working atmosphere for co-workers to share and learn in.

Whenever possible, it is very important for management of “mobile” and “onsite” workers to arrange for them to meet with each other.  This is especially true when the co-workers have never met with each other.  Management may not be able to guarantee that everyone will become lifelong friends, but they may have provided the basis for strong working relationships.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

Greg Anstett

Retail Consultant/Freelance Writer

Ship1990@aol.com

 

Don't pressure digital nomads to stay hyperconnected

Ask almost anyone if it's important for them to stay in touch with their coworkers and they'll say "of course!" Digital nomads will respond the same way, and at surface level there are a variety of services available to keep in touch with peers. But before listing off a variety of trendy new web sites to visit with the latest twist on sending text and media to each other, it's important to stop for a moment to think about why people stay connected with their teammates in the first place.

Why should digital nomads stay connected with their team?

  • Team members can point out new problems they're encountering in the field with customers or business processes and share it with the greater group.
  • For leadership, it's important to regularly communicate with the team on what initiatives are the highest priorities, and share any changes to the strategic direction. It helps everyone continue to focus on what benefits the overall success of the company instead of tunneling into pet projects.
  • Whenever a team member shares a story about how they screwed up with a customer and what they did afterward, it's an immense payload for any company. People are drawn to problems, they're curious about situations that don't look squeaky clean and perfect. They're more likely to take the time to read a post about a problem, and if there isn't already a happy ending they may assist with working toward a good solution. In the end team members are learning from their peers' mistakes.
    • Sometimes it can also be effective to hear from customers directly and collaborate on solutions. Get Satisfaction does that very well, in a fun way.
  • Logistically, communicating helps to organize events like product launches, conferences and networking opportunities. It keeps schedules in sync.
    • There are a variety of solutions, but Google Calendar works well (installing Google Apps is even better). Backpack is another good option with lots of collaboration and project tracking built in.
  • Brainstorming is always the most effective with multiple people. For digital nomads that's difficult without an easy-to-use digital communication medium.
    • A great way to share ideas online is through digital whiteboards. That allows digital nomads to quickly sketch out ideas for discussion. Skrbl is a great example.
  • The web is big on mob wisdom right now, and it's no different for teams inside a company. Whenever a problem surfaces, exposing it to many viewpoints all at once will usually result in a pretty smart suggestion or decision.

Even with all of those advantages, there are times when it makes the most sense for digital nomads to work independently. Help point them toward effective communication tools but don't create an expectation of hyperconnectedness. That will add stress and detract from productivity.

Why is it important to preserve independence for digital nomads?

  • Sometimes people need space to experiment without fear of judgment. Working independently creates space to work with different ideas without the pressure of delivering an instant, ideal solution.
  • Independent exploration frequently yields more diverse idea sets. After creating those ideas digital nomads will be looking for ways to share and grow them with peers.
  • Too much collaboration can distract from individual goals.

Beyond the services listed above, a combination of phone, e-mail, instant messaging and a little Twittering usually takes care of the essential communications.

If you're a mobile worker, or digital nomad, it is important to keep the connections going. I have thought about this a lot, although I am not 100% digital nomad. I work either from home, from an office or from anywhere I can sit and have coffee. Usually I'll stick to home or offices, but I prefer to work from other places more (hotel bars are superb).

Besides a fast DSL connection from my home, I have a mobile internet connection (umts) that works perfectly, is fast and reliable. But I am considering getting a UMTS/GPRS/GSM - WIFI router that I can hook up in my car, so it connects to the internet over mobile networks and spreads the word over WIFI. As long as my car isn't too far away, I'll be able to work from my own network, which gives me more freedom.

Besides that, there is my blackberry. This sweet invention gives me instant email, IM, and mobile internet, perfect for twitter use. And I am waiting for my android 3G gadget to add to the collection.

I think I am fine. I just have to keep myself from answering tweets and IM's while driving, or hire an assistant..... 

Digital nomads have several distinct methods of communication with remote colleagues and partners:

  1. Email is best for organizing complex ideas and communicating them to one or more parties, such as a strategy outline. Email is also ideal for sharing documents as attachments.
  2. Skype IM is great for quick exchanges at random intervals throughout the workday, such as sending a URL.
  3. Phone (or Skype Call) is best for brainstorming ideas and engaging in real-time dialogue, such as a strategy meeting. Skype Call is also great for conference calls among several parties.
  4. SMS is good for brief exchanges when away from a computer, such as at a luncheon.
  5. Wikis (such as PB Wiki, which I like) are great for long-term brainstorms and managing task lists. These are also useful to keep a group informed on evolving plans. Most offer a handy 'alert' function that emails everyone on the list when any changes have been made.

One of the challenges I have faced with email is that sometimes good ideas get buried among old email and lots of junk mail. A good solution to this problem was to use the wiki for ongoing strategizing, as well as product testing and reporting.

Mobile phone usage costs money, so Skype has been great as a free alternative for voice calls. I would recommend using a hands-free headset to reduce feedback/ echoes. International calls on Skype cost some money, but very little compared to international telephony.

The most valuable asset many companies have is their workforce. They attract the best knowledge workers with higher salaries, amenities, and flexible working conditions, and expect them to travel and excel in front of customers. But there is one more thing they expect - contribution to the group knowledge base so everyone can share.

The key to encourage sharing of knowledge is to remove barriers and demonstrate value. Most content management and collaboration systems are somewhat difficult to use and access, especially for remote users, so they end up with low levels of participation. Happily, the Internet has a demonstrated successful solution to the problem of group-created shared knowledge: The wiki!

Hello, Wiki

Wikipedia is the most familiar example, a global encyclopedia created and maintained entirely by volunteer users. Anyone viewing an article is free to edit it, and users can also add new pages. In this way, Wikipedia has been able to harness the vast knowledge of literally millions of people, each contributing a tiny amount to an encyclopedic whole.

Under the covers, the wiki software provides critical support without being intrusive. It maintains a revision history, so other visitors can track and even revert unwanted changes. It also simplifies the creation of links between articles so users don't have to copy or type long addresses. The presentation of information is simplified as well, with easy markup replacing complex HTML code for formatting. Finally, the wiki software manages the organization of articles, creating an index, search, and categorization scheme as articles and links are added.

The Business End

When businesspeople think about wikis, they often jump to conclusions based on their experience with Wikipedia, however:

  • They may assume that wikis have to be anonymous, even though most wikis encourage or require users to create named accounts.
  • They could also jump to the conclusion that anything added to a business wiki would be open to the whole internet, though it is simple to control access to some or all of the pages of a wiki.
  • Finally, they might think a wiki is not suitable for rich content like tables, multimedia files, and documents, even though Wikipedia's companion Commons contains a massive multimedia database.

Business wikis do not have to be anything like Wikipedia or the other wikis scattered throughout the Internet. They normally include user accounts and passwords to control access, and may be placed behind VPNs on corporate intranets for added security. Some even disguise their wiki underpinnings, appearing to the casual user as standard web sites. And wikis manage documents and multimedia files as objects, maintaining revision histories and simplifying linking and updates just like a content management system.

Leverage Openness

Business wikis exist primarily to leverage the same effects that built Wikipedia: Low barriers to contribution, simple markup, easy access, solid content control, and flexible organization and linking. And the nature of a wiki suits knowledge-based workforces since there is always a single latest revision of the whole that incorporates all of the latest thinking.

Although the Mediawiki software used by Wikipedia is free and open source, there are many other wiki packages to choose from. Some are more suited to businesses, with links to corporate authentication and access control systems and integration with email and calendaring software. These are also offered as pay-as-you-go managed services with corporate support contracts and services to get the whole thing started.

Regardless of which software is used, a corporate wiki can yield tremendous benefits, enabling collaboration and contribution of knowledge.

Stephen Foskett is a professional information technology consultant, providing vendor-independent strategic advice to assist Fortune 500 companies in aligning their storage and computing infrastructures with their business objectives. He has been recognized as a thought leader in the industry, authoring numerous articles for industry publications, and is a popular presenter at seminars and events. In 2008, he was awarded Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional (MVP) status in the area of File System Storage. He holds a bachelor of science in Society/Technology Studies, from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

As the mobile workforce expands and disperses we are entering an age where many workers are part of the a sort of Digital Worker Diaspora, where location has in some cases become mostly irrelevant to getting the job done.    Often a combination of remote contractors, mobile workers, and main office staff are used to complete even the most complex collaborative projects where in many cases the collaborators will never meet in person.

Thanks to the tools and techniques for a mobile workforce discusses in earlier posts and insights it has become easy - and I'm going to argue here perhaps too easy - for "over" collaboration to take place in a distributed work environment.

Obviously your mobile workers generally should be *communicating* with each other and with management on a regular basis to get initial instructions, to confirm the project tasks are of high quality and on time, and most importantly to address any collaboration needs.   However I think it has now actually become very easy to "overcommunicate" during a project.   I've personally found that this may take several forms:

The first "over communication challenge" has been workers who ignore simple email instructions and ask for phone calls or meetings or instant messaging instructions and confirmations.   Although this suits some work styles I have a huge preference for emails because they provide for relatively fast exchanges and for a history of communication.  Also, unlike phone calls or instant messaging, simple emails allow both the sender and receiver to  carefully consider the information they send and receive and allow us to do this at our own convenience.   However my preferences are not always shared by the group so tasks that I think we could handle with a few dozen mails can become a meeting and a series of phone calls - neither with adequate history or progress reporting.

A second form of "over communication challenge" comes when everybody agrees on the use of the mobile tool - usually emails and phone - but assume that because they are constantly in touch with each other and the office there is little need to carefully organize workflows and make sure progress is being made.  Thus a lot of the emails and phone calls are "wasted" while team members struggle to all get on the same page of the project.   Even with well archived emails I've found it's frustrating to have to reconstruct the exchanges when the worker has failed to pay close attention to the tasks I've given them via email.

Last is the most obvious - where workers use mobile collaborative tools mostly for socializing rather than work, although I have not found this to be nearly as much of a problem as socializing in an office environment, so I think "social networking = notworking" should not be of great concern when building a mobile workforce, especially when seasoned professionals are digital nomads.

 

 

Although I'm a huge fan of Wikipedia, I think it's an exception to the rule that Wikis are failing to establish effective collaborative environments.   Although I don't have extensive experience using Wikis for collaborative projects, I generally find even the good ones somewhat frustrating and rarely used as intended.

Few people, even code-crazed online folks, seem all that comfortable with Wikis. Many pretend to be but at conferences I've attended when it is time to collectively participate in a wiki for content I generally do not see them work well.  

I first noticed this challenge at MashupCamp 1 and 2.  This outstanding internet conference series in Silicon Valley feature programmers who showcase new mashup ideas.  In fact at the first camp even the *inventor* of the Wiki, Ward Cunningham, was there - a great Oregon fellow who invented the Wiki as a collaboration tool for on computer projects).    I wish I had time to follow up with him on this insight because he'd have much better insights than mine on this topic.

Also in attendance was Jotspot (later aquired by Google), so this was a group of people who are not intimidated by this type of collaboration...yet...even in the potentially Wiki-rich environment the lack of updating of the Mashup Camp Wiki was conspicuous.   Instead of the wiki blogs, Flickr, and huge sheets of paper were what kept people well informed during these intense and infoManiacal extravaganzas.

Another challenge in this instance was wiki spam which reappeared after I cleared it frustrating my attempts to keep things going.  This is unlikely to be a problem however in a company environment, though as a project become large password protection becomes another impediment to usefulness.

I absolutely agree that big Wiki projects like Wikipedia and the upcoming Wikimedia search have huge potential, largely because they constrain the organization of things such that the big project benefits from huge community participation. 

However as a small group collaboration tool I think wikis are not an answer for many tasks unless all participants are familiar with the approach and promise to use it well.

Am I wrong to be skeptical that Wikis are the right answer to “loose” forms of collaboration such as those found at conferences or within non-corporate interest groups with many different types of folks?

 

Wikis certainly work very well as envisioned by my fellow Oregonian Ward Cunningham who coined the term “Wiki” from, I think, a Hawaiian Bus stop sign, so I'm confident there are exceptions to my concerns.

For three years I worked in an office where everyone was a contractor. Except for a few managers, all the work was done by specialists flown in by the company from cities across America. We were working on an environmental remediation project on a decommissioned military base which brought even more challenges. Most of the buildings were abandoned several decades ago, and even the post office had discontinued service. There was no running water, and some of the streets literally did not have names.

We set up base in a rented trailer, and I learned a lot of tricks about coping with the mobile lifestyle. Rule #1: Everyone carries a cell phone. For redundancy, when people left the trailer, they also carried a short-range two-way radio. The important people even carried pagers. The truth is there's already plenty of ways to keep in constant communication. What's needed is a commitment to using them.

A lot of the work was done "in the field," usually abandoned buildings that dated to World War II. But our mobile workers were expected to maintain daily communication with their offices back home. The IT department kept their laptops up-to-date, making sure they had dial-up lines that were always secure to connect to the corporate network. From there they'd download their email, and important files were often circulated as email attachments but each region also had a file directory on the corporate network, where each worker received a subdirectory. This made it even easier to swap files from one desktop to another. (For bulkier hard copies, we'd still use Federal Express, but with our corporate network, it was easier to copy the file into a remote directory and let them print out their own copy!)

But best of all, when workers logged into the corporate network, the messaging application also detected their presence and updated their online status. People with questions would know when to seize the opportunity for a conversation -- and messaging allowed several real-time conversations at the same time. Needless to say, everyone also took their phone lists very seriously, and the secretaries were very diligent in keeping them up-to-date (including a date on the phone list to make sure no one had the old contact information). Email actually became a second choice, when messaging wasn't an option or a real-time response wasn't required. Again, it's a case where the technology exists for everyone to communicate, and what makes it work is a commitment from the workers in the field.

And all our workers were very serious about keeping their batteries charged...

But our on-site manager always tried to maintain a "human" connection, and scheduled a regular conference call every week. (Even if there was nothing to discuss, remote managers would dial-in so that everyone would receive the same status updates.) My next employer took this one step further, with web-based chat rooms. Using "presenter" software, they could share their screen view with everyone else in a conference call. (Messages could also be typed in a chat room below the window, but this was superfluous since we already had a voice connection). This was surprisingly useful, since the meeting "moderator" didn't need to prepare a full presentation. Since we were working on building web sites, they'd simply lead everyone through a "walkthrough" of the past and current pages while describing the key features that needed to be discussed. One worker even pointed a webcam at himself, creating a cheap and effective one-way teleconference!

The tools exists. All that's needed is a commitment to using them.

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