by Carla Voorhees
As a member of the brand new Design MBA program at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco I’ve gotten a crash-course in how to work across miles, time-zones and emotions. While the school and most of my classmates are located in San Francisco and the rest of the bay area, I live just outside of Washington, DC and fly in to attend classes. As a result, 98% of our group work on projects is conducted virtually.
Working virtually is almost never easy, but it can be managed. More importantly it’s becoming a necessary tool in the businessperson’s arsenal. There are significant trends in business today towards cross-functional and multi-disciplinary teams, many of which are not physically located in the same office, city, state or even country. It is this trend that makes finding a way to work virtually that works for you so critical. Here are some tricks for making it work for you:
1. Choose the right project and the right team. Projects that are easily broken up into discrete blocks with little overlap are particularly good for this type of environment. Team members that are good at working independently can be great assets.
2. Schedule meetings far in advance. Once the scope of the project has been defined and the team assembled, block out once or twice weekly “sync-up” meetings for all members of the group, taking into account time zones and other factors.
3. Work asynchronously as much as possible. Independent workers and discrete portions of projects make this task much easier. If everyone owns a section of the project, focus can increase, stress decrease and meetings can be shorter.
4. Keep the lines of communication open. Post your work regularly for feedback where the group can see it, and make sure that you also give feedback to other members. Make sure that everyone is heard, and that you are present on every conference call. Really listen, pay attention and think about what everyone is saying and how you can incorporate it into your section of the project.
5. Set clear expectations. In addition to owning a section of the project, having clear expectations for each group member, and the group as a whole, I’ve found to be incredibly helpful. Knowing exactly what I’m expected to do helps me know when I need to ask for help or additional feedback.
6. Try not to overreact. It can be very easy to misinterpret an email message or other form of virtual communication without the benefit of body language and physical presence. Try to remain calm, and reread the message. Try not to take it personally, and ask for further clarification if need be. This would be a great time to start a videoconference if you need it.
7. The right tools make it easier. There are a multitude of tools available on the internet. Here is a quick survey of the arsenal that my team uses. The right tools have made working virtually something that I may have dreaded to something I actually look forward to.
Adobe ConnectNow (http://www.acrobat.com) is available in a free version that supports up to 3 users, or a paid version that supports up to 1,500 people. Adobe ConnectNow allows for video conferencing with sound, screen sharing, a virtual whiteboard, a chat module and a note taking feature. It is especially useful when you want to throw ideas around and share your computer screen with your team members.
Skype (http://www.skype.com) allows for free video chats between two people, or conference calls with up to 10 people. When my team meets, we almost always use Skype as it is mostly reliable, easy to use and suits our needs.
Mindmeister (http://www.mindmeister.com) is a collaborative mind-mapping tool. Mind-mapping can be a great way to brainstorm ideas and then later organize thoughts. We found Mindmeister incredibly useful early on in our group projects as an easy way to brainstorm both collaboratively (on a Skype call) and independently, sharing the maps with the rest of the group.
Backpack / BaseCamp:
Backpack (http://backpackit.com/) the lite version of BaseCamp (http://www.basecamphq.com/) has been one of our most important tools that we use as a team. Instead of emailing the group, our team members post on our team’s Backpack message board. All assets for our projects and presentations are divided up and stored on separate pages. Collaborative writing is done on the Writeboards. All meetings are scheduled and entered into the calendar. Our group stays organized using Backpack to hold all information regarding our project.
For those of you that have multiple projects to manage, you’ll want to look at BaseCamp which supports that and has a few extra features.
Google Docs (http://www.google.com/docs) has come quite a ways since it first launched. In addition to collaborative documents and spreadsheets, it now includes collaborative slide-show presentations. In business school, we have to make a lot of presentations, and being able to work on our slides without having to download and re-upload a file (and worry about potential merging problems) has been really helpful.
The newest version of iChat (on OS X 10.5) supports some of the screen sharing features that Adobe ConnectNow does, but only audio is available during screen sharing sessions. Regular video conferencing can support up to 4 people.
Of course there are some people for whom working virtually comes more naturally and feels more comfortable than others. Others may not know where to start, and that’s OK. My team has found a method that works for us. We meet twice per week on Skype for a synch up meeting of generally no longer than an hour and a half. The rest of our work is done independently and asynchronously. We share information back to the group constantly to keep everyone informed. This method works well for us. The trick to make working virtually work for you is to find the right balance of tools, independent working and collaborative meetings that suit your needs and the needs of the project.
MBA Design Strategy
California College of the Arts