Virtual Office Toolkit

Since my brick-and-mortar nonprofit org closed its doors, I have been working exclusively virtually, mostly with people who live on the opposite coast. I have a home office in a house I recently moved in to. It's got "vintage" 1975 five-color shag wall-to-wall carpeting (really—see pic to left; that's one of my co-workers, Sadie). But even before my org decided to close, we decided that if we got enough funding to keep our programs alive, we'd become a virtual office to save money, building on a fairly flexible office culture that had been evolving for years.

We were a small organization and most of us were parents. Our workplace culture was one in which we trusted each other to get our work done, even if it wasn't always between 9 and 5. The org made lots of space for people to take care of themselves during the work day—to go to doctor appointments or a kid's event—as long as we got our work done somehow. I telecommuted from time to time, sometimes for a couple months at a time, especially in the early days of parenting. It was a kind of informal flex time, which NPR reports is an increasing trend in some sectors and can allow for a better work-life balance. For me, working flexibly and virtually in this way has definitely improved my quality of life.

Since I work in tech—obviously a type of work conducive to the virtual/flex office—I am aware of more and more virtual orgs and companies as broadband becomes more ubiquitous, and as more people use telecommuting and flex time for various reasons. Some pros and cons...

Pros:
  • No commuting required. Ahh, so nice.
  • If you do advocacy work, or promote/cover events, you can use a virtual office setup to work and live blog/Tweet from the field. When appropriate, this can be a great way to promote your cause and engage constituents.
  • You can work in your pajamas, outside, in front of the fire, in your favorite cafe, or while you're waiting on the bench at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
  • My favorite pro: you can take breaks to exercise, walk, see a friend or your partner or child, take photographs, or make something. This requires some self-discipline, but the payoff is worth it.
  • You can work anytime of the day or night, not just 9 to 5.
Cons:
  • You can work anytime of the day or night, not just 9 to 5. Work and life boundaries can be hard to maintain if you're not really disciplined about it (I am not yet there, myself).
  • No face time and no spontaneous hall chats that lead to brilliant work-related insights (and fill the need we all have for socializing).
Here's my toolkit:
  • Laptop, smart phone, and broadband, obviously. I live in a rural area, so I don't take those last two for granted. The town next to mine has no broadband and no cell phone coverage, and a lot of people who work virtually in cafes and libraries as a result.
  • Telephone & web conference/meeting software: GoToMeeting or ReadyTalk are the two main ways that I have work meetings with my co-workers.
  • Jing and SnagIt for screen casting and screen shots, respectively. These helps me communicate in certain situations when I would otherwise call a co-worker or client over to look at my computer screen.
  • Collaboration Software: Basecamp, GoogleDocs, GoogleGroups, CentralDesktop (an alternative to Basecamp), Redmine (open-source ticketing and wiki collaboration software), Groupsite (fancier Ning; hosted social networking, document sharing and collaboration software). These are absolutely key for sharing files and communicating about and managing projects with a group of people.
  • Instant one-on-one or group communication: Twitter, IM, Yammer and Google Buzz for instant private group convos. Yammer is my new favorite; you can set up a private Twitter-like group, share documents and images, and communicate socially and about work, almost like a virtual watercooler. For me, IM, Yammer and Twitter can help replicate that missing co-worker hall-chat epiphany experience (and some of the socializing).
Are there other virtual office workers or telecommuters out there? If so, what are the best tools in your toolkit?

Comments

Dooster

 

Nice article, many thanks.  We wanted to work remotely more often but maintain cohesiveness and chose Dooster for this.  It's worked very wel.  We have about halved our time in the office and business is still growing.

Time Tracking Tools

Time tracking tools are also very effective it can help you manage your time efficiently this way you can divide work priorities and have a lot of time to do other work. Working from home is much flexible for we control our time but we cannot deny that we should also do other things besides working. If you are a parent and you are working from home you can’t avoid doing some simple chores like cooking and washing dishes. Time tracking tools and time management is a good combination when working from home. This blog discusses some time tracking tools that I personally use to track time effectively.

http://www.timedoctor.com/blog/2010/07/25/how-is-time-doctor-different-than-rescue-time

 

time tracking

Try Toggl.

Dropbox is quickly becoming essential

Johanna -

First of all - thanks for the fantastic piece. NTEN has three remote staff, and how we integrate them into the home office is a pretty frequent topic around here. On the organization side, we're all starting to quickly love DropBox, in addition to Google docs. We find the upload of offline doc formats to be too wonky still to be reliable, though we use Google docs extensively for other kinds of projects.

I would also say that we really work hard to incorporate the use of video into meetings. So Skype for groups and Google video chat for one on one conversations are also constantly in play. It really is nice to be able to look someone "in the eyes" when you are talking to them. We're also excited to see Google+ roll out to apps users. We think that will play a huge role in our office productivity.

Holly

Virtual Office

 

Enjoyed your information.   In our organisation we use Dooster.net which everyone has liked a lot.  A colleague is setting up to go solo when she follows husband to Europe and has been talking about this sort of thing.  She seems to want to stick with Dooster for the collaborative bit.  You make it sound so attractive.   I'm too scared to go solo.

Central Desktop

Hi all

I can recommend trying out Dooster a wonderful virtual office toolkit. 

It's a fantastic <a href="http://dooster.net/features.htm">central desktop</a> it has many great features including, of course, file sharing.  Plus the people permissions and priority settings are invaluable.

Their website is www.dooster.net

 

virtual office telephone

Virtual office and virtual phone system works hand in hand to achieve  a more unified business communication system.

time zone friendly scheduler

 I have the same personal-work boundary problems. I imagine having an office that is physically detached from the rest of the house --separate floor or annex etc-- would also help (a hypothesis yet untested pending bigger house).  It's hard to not be reminded that duty calls when you walk past your office day and night. 

I work globally across time zones and have found DOODLE, an online meeting scheduler, fantastic for setting up conference calls. Each person enters and sees meeting times in his or her own time zone. 

Thanks!

 

Some more great tools...

I've been telecommuting for years and have also found GoogleDocs to be a total lifesaver. Here are some other GREAT tools to get what I need to get done...done:

DropBox: It's a free file-sharing program. You and your co-workers download it to your computers and can then have a virtual shared network - sharing any kind of docs back and forth by dropping them into your shared virtual folder. It's free, easy to set up and use, and hasn't failed me yet.  www.dropbox.com

GoogleWave: This is a new project management tool from Google, and I think it's still in testing stage, but really brilliant setup.  If you have about 7 minutes and 52 seconds, I highly recommend watching this little video about what it can do: www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6pgxLaDdQw

GoogleApps: I know I heard a lot of you mention GoogleDocs, but have you used GoogleApps for your whole organization? This may be common knowledge, but set up GoogleApps for your organization or company and you have yourself a virtual office, free of charge, using all of the Google platform that we're all so familiar with, in a centralized "hub" workspace. I've made amazing use of this tool for many projects. www.google.com/a

Skype: Also could be common knowledge here, but Skype is an excellent way to have teleconferences, meetings, etc., and keep in close contact with your co-workers in a casual way as well. It's free and the sound/video quality is great.

 

Though I come from a

Though I come from a different concept of virtual office (mostly for businesses), this is a good list for those working from home. When not at my office, I use some of the mentioned or similar tools.

Time Management Software

Hi Johanna,

Great post! I find that keeping track of my time on each project is the real challenge. I mocked up an Excel spread sheet and I keep one for each client, but remembering to write downt the time spent is the second challenge! Any suggestions for

1.) Remembering to enter the time spent on each project per client? 

2.) Software for tracking time per project?

Thanks,
Debra

Time Tracking

I thought that time tracking would be a waste of time until I starting using RescueTime.

It's been interesting.  I started noticing what I was spending my time on andpaying closer attention, knowing that I would have to account to myself at later date.  That by itself made the use of it worthwhile.

That benefit may fade away as I get used to the idea of being watched, and I haven't done a time-sheet recently (I have a practice of doing  one every week to see where my time goes) but thismay replace that activity.

We'll see -- but so far it's been a worthwhile experiment.  I doubt that I'm using it the way I'm supposedto, but so what?  As long as it serves my purposes, I'm happy so far.

Time-tracking software: Traxtime

Take a look at the terrific Traxtime from Spud City Software: http://www.spudcity.com/traxtime. You can set up several projects and then just click your mouse to switch among them, recording actual time worked. Then run a report to sum the time worked on each project for billing.

Time Tracking in Central Desktop

Central Desktop has a time tracking feature for just this purpose.  I recomend it overall

time tracking

Check out Freshbooks... 

Amen to Google Docs!

 Thanks for this, Johanna!  We also work with a ton of people we're not geographically close to, especially for reviewing and collaborating on articles, and I have to say that Google Docs has changed my life for getting and incorporating comments into articles.  It's fabulous to be able to put up a document online, let everyone comment online and see each other's comments -- and then go through the document once to incorporate.  Compared to getting back a thousand word documents, each with different but overlapping comments?  Argh!

Yes the virtual office is

Yes the virtual office is increasing in trend and is obviously now a thing of the modern world,there is so much more software and tools out there to help us now a days!!

Hi kerikeaindc,I am so glad!

Hi kerikeaindc,
I am so glad! The tools are out there and they are getting better and more accessible. I didn't even go into virtual phone systems, GoogleVoice, video conferencing, because those are beyond what I need right now, so I haven't used 'em much (and I prefer to write about what I know when possible). But many of these things are free or low-cost, too, which is extra handy when you're just getting on your feet as an independent consultant.

If you do come across something in your travels that you really like to add to the list, please do add it here, or email me about it -- I am sure I will be posting more on this topic in the future.

Great post!I wish I had some

Great post!

I wish I had some wonderful gizmo to add to your list, but the truth is that I've been looking for a list like this for months now! A recent freelancing and consulting nonprofiteer, I have been struggling with a "lack of place" or home base. These are just the kinds of tools I need!

"office space"

Having been in a virtual office for over 5 years now I find that even though I can (and do) wander the house and deck with my laptop its been really helpful to designate work areas in the house. Having a set area with a pretty decent ergonomic set up and some psychological/physical bounderies has helped me be more productive when I am working and to know when its time to quit for the day.

Being in a rural area where cell phones don't work, I also found that a great (landline) phone and reliable headset with good sound are key for conference calls and being able to work online while on the phone.

And less technical, but fairly crucial for me, is keeping the house stocked with quick handy healthy snacks like fresh fruit, nuts, chips and hummus etc. for when I am really on a role and not going to "stop for lunch". since stepping out for a quick bite is not really possible where I live.

Thanks for the post, the good list (and I second Google Docs and shared calendars) - reading blogs like this is one of my watercooler replacements.