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“Presence” in a Virtual Office: Knowing You’re Not Alone

posted May 7, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in uncategorized

In George Orwell’s 1984 the two-way “telescreen” displays propaganda in everyone’s home and keeps tabs on what people are doing. It’s a disturbing presence intent on control. At the time of publication, in 1949, the telescreen was merely an imaginary tool of totalitarianism. Today we might shrug and say, “a monitor and a webcam.”

In a virtual office, where employees work in separate locations, “presence” can be more beneficent and comforting. Instead of working alone and having no idea if our colleagues are there, we can look at a program—Skype, Office Communicator, or something built into a larger application, such as Groove—to see if someone is at work. We can IM our coworkers, call them, or have a video conference, all from the same presence application. I have been working within a system of presence for some time now, and though I work alone most of the time, I no longer feel quite so alone.

communicator


Getting Stuff Done by Grooving Virtually

posted May 1, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in technology virtual offices

Imagine you work for a company where every employee is in a different location. You finally decide e-mail and phone calls aren’t enough to function as a team, and you choose a virtual office on the Internet. Now everyone shares the same file directories, calendars, and tasks lists. Things suddenly seem more connected and efficient. You’re happy.

Then one day your Internet connection is out of service, and you can’t connect to the virtual office. In fact, because all your company’s files are there, you can’t work. It’s as if the office lock has been changed, and you don’t have the key.

Or say you’re on a plane from New York to San Diego. It’s a long flight. You get your laptop out and start to work. This is great, you think. Now you won’t have to do that report tomorrow. But then it begins to sink in: you need a file that’s in the virtual office but not on your computer.

If you were a Groover, this would never happen. You would be using Microsoft’s simplest virtual office, Groove, which works on a different technology than most other Internet collaborative tools. Instead of connecting to a website, you install the Groove software, with its file directories, calendars, and discussion lists. You can make separate Groove workspaces for each project and share the workspaces with whomever you want. As long as you’re on the Internet, any change that you make in your version of Groove is instantly made on the computers of your colleagues (or the next time they’re online). You might be in India, but the moment you drop a file in a directory, it’s on the computer of your colleague in New York. When you disconnect from the Internet, all the files are still on your computer. An important feature is “presence,” meaning you always know if someone else is connected to the workspace, and you can send an instant message to the person through Groove.

Click for Groove demo video

Click image for Groove demo video

If Groove’s strengths are its simplicity, offline access, and low cost (once you buy the software, there are no more fees), what are its drawbacks? At least for now, Groove can be installed only on a PC. If you use a Mac, you can’t be a Groover. Another is the inability to create a common calendar for all your workspaces, though a third-party vendor, GrooveIt!, sells a solution to this problem. Finally, Groove’s simplicity is matched by its small number of features.

Overall, Groove, included in some Microsoft Office suites, is a great product for simple needs. We’ve used it in the past. But if you need more features or have a lot of people on your team, you might look elsewhere.


Basecamp: A Simple, Elegant Virtual Office for Basic Needs

posted April 21, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in technology virtual offices

Picking an appropriate virtual office—a place where you can collaborate with coworkers online and share files, calendars, and contacts—is not easy. You need to understand your company’s present and future needs. But equally important is understanding your company’s collective personality. If only there were a Myers-Briggs test for virtual office users.

Lacking that, I created a quiz to see if you’re a potential user of one of my favorite collaborative web tools on the Internet.

  1. Do you love Macs?
  2. When you don’t like software, do you find yourself saying, “It’s not intuitive”?
  3. Do you tend to avoid manuals, wanting things to be obvious?
  4. Do computers scare you or are you someone who finds it challenging or enervating to set up software?
  5. Do you generally prefer fewer options but find it important that the options you have are simple, elegant, and function well?

If the answer to most or all of the questions is yes, go straight to the Basecamp website and watch the demo videos, narrated by the founder of 37signals, which makes the online software. Each demo begins, “Hi, I’m Jason,” and shows you how you can set up a basic, useful virtual office in no time.

There are many reviews of Basecamp already, some glowing, some nitpicking, but if imitation is a sign of success, Basecamp has been an overwhelming winner, spawning numerous competitors in the “simple, well functioning, but with limited features” niche. For many companies, especially those with ten employees or fewer, Basecamp is a gift from the gods, transforming them from disorganized collectors of papers and sticky notes to smoothly operating organizations, companies where each employee is only a few clicks from any file or important information. Basecamp is also an extremely likable service, as displayed in this testimonial video from its website.

But if Basecamp is so great—and I really think it is—then why shouldn’t everyone use it? Simply put, Basecamp’s strengths are its weaknesses. Basecamp is so simple that you won’t get confused, but it’s also so simple that you won’t have many options. Companies that have more than ten employees or those that are looking for more comprehensive ways to store information and collaborate might find Basecamp’s features too limited.

In my next post I’m going to discuss another simple virtual office, one, like Basecamp, that you can set up during a coffee break or while watching a rerun of Friends.


The Quest for the Perfect Virtual Office

posted April 10, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in technology virtual offices

It began so innocently. I remember thinking, we’ll look on the Internet, check out the reviews, and choose a virtual office. I knew very little about the subject, but really, how complicated could it be?

Enough that I nearly drove one of my colleagues insane. After months of research, talking with people, free trials, and moments of fatigue and near surrender, we realized the perfect virtual office—one that worked without glitches, was easy to set up and organized for our type of work, and had all the features we needed now and for the feature—was found nowhere in the products we tried, remaining instead a mere vision, a feeble hope, on some hazy horizon of the future.

Like finding the perfect cell phone or car, the perfect virtual office existed only in the promotional materials of the products.

There was another complication, too, a form of near torture. New products seemed to appear weekly, and the ones we tried were later updated and improved.

So at Thomas Riggs & Company our quest dimmed from religious fervor to the practicalities of business. And although we never found our sought after paradise, we did learn an important truth: when looking for a virtual office, as important as finding a good product is understanding your present and future business needs. All virtual offices come with a distinct set of features, and the better you understand what your business is going to do with the office, the more likely you will make a good choice.

What we also found, and what you might experience as well, is that the virtual office that most grabs you and sets off your imagination might not be appropriate for your work.

In my next post I’ll talk about the most interesting virtual office we tried. To the despair of those around me, I found myself talking endlessly about the product. So fascinating, so cutting edge, so utterly useless for our work.