Real Tools for Virtual Teams
Where's the best place for teams to work when their members are located in far-flung places? On the Web. Here are ratings of a collection of Web sites designed to make teams work virtually anywhere.BY Gina Imperato |
Figuring out how to "stay in touch" is one of the big challenges for colleagues who have to work together, even though most of them work in different places. And staying in touch doesn't just mean communicating -- it means sharing documents, organizing calendars, clarifying who's doing what by when.
How solid are Web-based tools that claim to address these and other teamwork challenges? Does using those tools require more work than they're worth? Fast Company spent time on four of the Web's most popular teamwork-oriented sites in order to explore these and other questions. We rated each site on a scale of one to five for its utility and its usability. Feel free to share our perspective with members of your team.
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Cost: Free for groups of up to 4 people; $100 per project per month for groups of up to 10 people; $295 per project per month for groups of up to 40 people.
ERoom takes the idea of project teams seriously. The service, which seems ideal to meet the needs of teams within companies (as opposed to, say, a group of free agents), is designed to help people who are working together on a specific project. Its digital workspace -- or, in the spirit of the company's name, its virtual room -- offers lots of useful features. Teams can share documents, compare schedules, or conduct threaded discussions. Even better, eRoom's tools are remarkably easy to use.
Let's say that you want to start a new aspect of a project. A pop-up window asks whether you'd like to create a folder, a list, a link, an email box, or a poll. To make things even easier, eRoom offers templates. If you want to create a list, you can select a contact-list template or a task-list template. To create a task list, you just add the appropriate details under predefined columns: task, owner, priority, due date, and status. Since eRoom is linked to desktop applications such as Microsoft Outlook, the task is automatically added to your computer's desktop To Do list.
ERoom also makes it easy to share files and folders that already exist on your computer's hard drive. Just drag and drop those items into your virtual room, and they're instantly available to any member of your group -- provided that you grant access to those members. ERoom does a nice job controlling access (who can see a document, who can only read one, who can read or edit one) and controlling versions (who changed what document and when).
Of course, there's more to teamwork than meetings and documents. There's the ability to share ideas -- which, in the best teams, happens frequently and informally. Here too eRoom can help. Not only does the site allow you to see which team members are online at any given time, but it allows you to summon those members to your virtual room for a chat using instant-messaging technology. Unfortunately, the site's conferencing system supports neither voice nor video. Put that on the To Do list for the project team at eRoom -- which is working on ways to make this good site even better.
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Usability: * * * * 1/2
Cost: Subscription prices range from free to $99.95 per month, depending on features.
A good virtual tool needs some sort of metaphor to help it make sense to the people who use it. The metaphor at eRoom is a room filled with members of a project team. The metaphor at Done.com is a trail of email, which is used to help teams assign tasks, manage progress, and schedule meetings. Of the services that we looked at, Done.com's was, without question, the fastest and easiest to get up and running.
Tasks are assigned in the form of an email. Just enter the addresses of the people to whom you're assigning a task, then enter a subject, a priority, a start date, a due date, and a brief description. You can also designate when and how to be notified of developments as a task progresses. For instance, you can be notified when a task is seen, when there's a problem, or when a task is overdue. Once a task has been assigned to a folder, all correspondence, discussions, decisions, issues, and meetings connected to that task get filed and saved to that folder.
Real Tools for Virtual Teams | Fast Company