I work for http://www.couchsurfing.org and we are 100% remote with no central office. We have 30 full time contributors spread over 15 time zones in every contenant but Antartica and have been working this way for over a year.
Our critical toolset consists of:
- Basecamp: Project collaboration and task management. This has proven to be a valuable assest as it allows for file sharing, to-do lists, collaboration, and time tracking. Since not everyone is online at one time, we can work in batches, then pass tasks on to the next time zone when we log off.http://www.basecamphq.com
- Google Apps: Document creation in Google Docs allows for multiple people to work on the same file at the same time and share ideas. It also amkes spreadsheets and sharing presentations simple. Gmail takes care of email and makes it easy to create and manage new and old email addresses. Google Talk / Chat allows us to communicate with each other via voice and text while working on projects. http://www.google.com/a
- Skype: Good for impromptu discussions and voice chat one on one, but fails with larger numbers of people. Keeps a long chat history with searchable text, which is useful. Also has screen sharing, but not screen control.http://www.skype.com
- TeamSpeak: Group voice chat software with push to talk functionality to limit bandwidth use. Allows setting up different “rooms” for virtual conferences with different encryption and bandwidth levels. We use it for company wide meetings of over 24 people (Skype’s current max user count).http://www.teamspeak.com/
- Campfire: 37signals based web chat that integrates with Basecamp, but can also be a standalone. When used with fluid app for mac, it becomes a powerful chat client that can do inline image and code display. We use it for visual mockups and idea creation. http://www.campfirenow.com
- Dropbox: Used for sharing files, backing up work, and keeping documents secure. We can remove documents form someone’s folder if they no longer need access and it keeps everyone up to date. http://www.dropbox.com
- Freshbooks: Allows us to easily manage contractor’s billing, hours, and work. Each contractor sends invoices in via freshbooks and we can automatically pay them and keep track. http://www.freshbooks.com
- TrackRecord: A Basecamp plugin that allows individuals to record time spent on tasks and easily update their time online. http://trackrecordapp.com/
- Email: This is changing, as we move to more group discussion on Basecamp – but email is still the go to tool for one-one communication if we are not on a chat client together.
One the Tech Side we utilize:
- SVN / GIT: Keep our file system up to date and maintain the code base
- VMware / virtualbox: Virtual machines allow us to keep running identical copies of our system on everyone’s computers. One update and we all migrate to the newest version.
Habits and Strategies:
Good training and a solid understanding of remote work best practices will serve you better than many tools.
- Communication: Prompt response to incoming alerts and empathetic communication between team members is important since misunderstandings can occur easily via online mediums. Especially if your team is made up of people from many different cultures and languages.
Ensuring that people have the chance to at least meet once virtually via video chat or voice is important so that they can feel each other out and learn who they are talking to. This keeps the human element intact.
- Email Etiquette: Keep subjects short, and to the point. Think about AP style here. If the rest of the message doesn’t make it, can the recipient get the gist from the subject? This allows people to prioritize, and respond in kind.
Finish emails with options. Because of the time delay in remote work companies, a single question can lead to a day or more of down time. End emails with:
If Option A is correct, please do project 1, if Option B is applicable, then do project 2… ect…
- Time Zones: Prioritize tasks based on time zones. If something needs to happen first in an early time zone, get it to the person responsible there. Good timing can make a project literally zip around the globe with work being completed 24 hours a day.
- Meetings: We have a bi-monthly full company meeting to make sure we all know we still exist. You may not need to do this, but for us it is good to hear voices we may not interact with on a daily basis.
We have one-on-one meetings, conversations and project management meetings to keep everyone on task, but people are generally on a “do your own work” basis. This allows for long periods of uninterrupted work time.
When we do have to have meetings, we rotate the times so that they are not at odd hours for an individual every week.
- Connection: We have a company conference every 6 months to ensure face time and personal connection. This is critical as it allows us to understand who we are working with. Few people like to be isolated all the time!
We are still learning and constantly try new programs to see what works for us, but these allow us to maintain a location independent workforce with minimal delay in communication.