Online Collaboration: Tips and Tools for Working on a Virtual World

John Smith? No idea what he looks like but we collaborated on a paper with him. He’s on twitter at @JohnAwesome_Smith…

Working with people that you have never meet in person (and maybe never will) has become increasingly commonplace. Thanks to improved technology, better internet connections, less time for travel, social media and global organizations, our professional networks, industry and world have become global. This worldwide network presents great opportunities to collaborate with people you may not have been able to work with twenty years ago. Okay thats a bit of a stretch of the truth – you would have been able to collaborate, but it would have taken so long to get anything done that it would have driven you postal.

In an effort to save you from the project destroying, nervous breakdown inducing never-ending email trail I’m going to dedicate this post to online collaboration tools. But before I go into the web-based collaboration tools available at the moment I am also going to give a bit of a public-service reminder on the dos and donts of online collaboration.

Online collaboration is a tough thing to get right. We have all had those projects where someone was bossy, another person did not pull their weight, you stayed up till 3 AM to finish the work and did not get the credit its all happened. To help you minimise these ‘challenges’, get that project done, and have a computer thats not at risk of being thrown out the window, here are a few things to remember when collaborating online:

Don’t slack off, maintain the project management methodology.
Whilst sometimes it can feel like just a lot of documentation, maintaining the project management methodology especially in the early stages of the project helps to establish expectations and direction for a project.

Be careful what you type.
What you say can be interpreted a number of different ways. For the sake of a smooth running project – take care!

If you can have regular video meetings.
Having a few video meetings can help make sure everyone is on the same page and boost morale. Its a simple thing and can help everyone to feel more connected as a group.

In the free (or freemium) budget range there isn’t a tool that ticks all the boxes. Generally there are three types of tools available:

file sharing tools
tools to move forward and get things done, and
those tools to make those all important virtual meetings happen.

Tools to help you collaborate: Sharing files

1. DropBox
2. Google Drive

When it comes to sharing files it is no real surprise that DropBox and Google Drive are the way to go. They both make it easy to store and share files with a group. In the vital statistics – Google Drive gives you 15 gigabytes for free. These 15GBs are a combined allocation for Drive, Gmail and Google Photos. On Dropbox the initial quota is 2GB. However, by doing some shameless promotion (sharing Dropbox with your friends etc.), you can ‘earn’ up to 15 GBs of additional storage.

Personally I do lean towards Google Drive because of the additional functionality created through two other staples in the Google suite – Gmail and Google Docs.

The combination of Google Drive, Gmail and Google Docs serves to create an online environment where you can communicate, create new documents and seamlessly store and share content with others. This will work to prevent that often experienced headache only experienced when one currently AWOL person is the only one with access to that vital document that you needed 10 minutes ago. I do have one caveat for my recommendation – be sure to look at the privacy policy. Take a look at my column from September 2014 for more on being alert but not alarmed about privacy policies.

Tools to help you collaborate: Moving forward and getting things done

1. Trello (https://trello.com)
I have only just come across Trello and I have to admit I am pretty (and nerdily) excited. The easiest way to describe Trello is like this – Pinterest and a wiki had a baby and named it (you guessed it!) Trello.

Trello has a clean interface providing with you a quick overview of your project as well as quick and easy access to the nitty gritty details. The interface is based around ‘boards’ which you can fill with lists. These lists are populated with ‘cards’. The cards are where the collaborative functionality really shines. Within each card you can add comments, upload files and images, create checklists, set due dates and label all the content to keep it ‘library’. To keep track of all the discussion on your boards you can also set up alerts.

2.Do (https://do.com/)
With Do the focus is firmly upon meetings: when they are scheduled, what the agenda is, what the outcomes of the meeting were, what is the status of those outcomes. This functionality is clearly and cleverly displayed through a simple timeline structure. Defaulting to todays date you can scroll through past and future meetings as well as quickly check the status of followup tasks and outcomes of meetings.

Do doesn’t forget your meeting planning either. With every meeting you can create agenda items, attach files, and create notes, which can then be categorised into outcomes or follow up items.

3. Wunderlist (https://www.wunderlist.com/)
Wunderlist is for those short or straightforward collaboration projects. Like the name implies, Wunderlist is simply a wonderful little app to help you make lists which you can share with others.

The lists can be sorted by when its due or as a whole (for example shopping list). An added advantage of Wunderlist is its transportability – available in web based and app formats.

Tools to help you collaborate: Virtual meetings

2. Google Hangout (http://www.google.com/+/learnmore/hangouts/)
My two recommendations for virtual meetings are Skype and Google Hangout. They both provide video calling and instant messaging as standard along with SMS and calling functionality at additional cost.

In my experience the two are both relatively easy to use and the only real difference is that on your desktop computer or laptop Skype requires downloading and program installation whereas the web-based Google Hangout is ready to go as soon as you have a Gmail account. If you are using a mobile device on either – the app is recommended/required.

Because of the very equal weighting between the two the only real consideration I would make is with respect of ease use. If all of your other project tools are based in Google products then the more obvious choice is Hangout but if they aren’t its really up to you.

So those are my recommendations for web based online collaboration. May your collaboration go smoothly!

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