What Does It Take to Run a Virtual Team? (Redux)

Last August, I blogged about how my business partner and I were working through some processes to improve the way my virtual company works. We’ve continued to refine and improve those processes, so I thought I would write an update to let you know how things have changed.

In my previous post, I examined the specific needs our team: communications, management, archiving and interaction. Then I identified the processes that fall under each of those needs. Here’s an updated diagram illustrating this:

Also in my previous post, I identified the software solutions — all cloud-based — that my company was testing out or using to fulfill these needs. Here’s how I illustrated the disparate applications that we cobbled together to try to create the illusion of a seamless solution.

One of the main things this diagram shows is that there we were using many applications in an attempt attempt to mimic the experience of working in a single physical location. Our virtual team has the fundamental need to keep everything in the cloud, because we don’t have the ability to pop our head into the cubicle next to us to ask a question, or walk down the hall to access a shared filing cabinet to retrieve important documents, or gather by the water cooler to get to know one another better.

But how do you pare down these multiple online solutions to be able to use fewer applications and yet get more functionality? We’re finding that, over time, developers are contemplating these same needs and processes and coming up with more integrated solutions. For example, in just nine months since I wrote my last post about virtual teams, a new cloud-based workspace solution called Glasscubes has come onto the scene that seems to take a different approach to distributed work and project management.

Glasscubes starts with the premise that virtual teams need a “space” in which to work and that all of the functionality should then reside within each space. In most cases, cloud- based apps seem to come from the standpoint of their specific function — such as “project management” or “task management” or “time tracking” — and then work to solve that problem. In the cases of some services — such as 5pm – the app’s “environment” derives from its functions.

But when you fundamentally begin with the “environment” — such as with Glasscubes — it appears to me that you end up with a solution that is better at fulfilling our need for a “place” or “space” for working in the cloud. Because of the more integrated feature set in Glasscubes, much of what we’ve been using prior to it is quickly becoming redundant. Here’s a diagram that shows the changes in our process distribution, thanks to Glasscubes’ more complete virtual workspace solution.

As you can see, we’re still having to use other solutions, because even Glasscubes doesn’t cover all of our processes. However, now many even seemingly disparate needs are fulfilled with a single solution.

The Adoption Quandry

As our team grows, we continue to struggle with the problem of adopting new software solutions that each team member can embrace. Because of our different personalities, we’re each comfortable with some, but not all, of the different solutions we’ve been testing out to improve work processes. That’s why, for example, we’ve never adopted SugarSync for file syncing, sharing and archiving for example even though, in theory, it could be an amazing and seamless solution for us. It’s also why never did adopt Socialtext, even though I personally can see the tremendous functionality of that product to integrated distributed teams.

Glasscubes, however, took me seconds to begin using and, more importantly, to understand how it worked and how I could use it. And even though I had the benefit of a personal demo from the company’s founder, every team member who I brought into the Glasscubes system took to it straight away. When our most creative team members and our most linear team members both felt comfortable within a single solution, I knew we were on to something.

Cost Considerations

One problem with having to piece together multiple solutions can be cost. As a boutique agency, we don’t have massive budgets for technology and while many of the applications we are using have both paid/premium and free versions, we have to pick and choose which ones we can afford to purchase.. Luckily, many of the freemium applications offer a good amount of features for free.

Right now, we are paying $125/month for a professional account with Glasscubes. This is more than we were paying for 5pm, but with the new addition of time tracking on Glasscubes and the overall comfort level everyone on the team has with the solution, we’re feeling the extra expense is worth it. We are still having to pay a minimum of $18/month for 5pm at the moment as we try to figure out how to get our archived files, content and conversations off of that system in an organized fashion.

What are your team’s needs and processes? What are the solutions you are using and how adequate are they?

Editor’s note: If you’re interested in what makes the type of cloud working that Aliza describes in this post possible, check out our Structure conference in June.