Just because you're not physically located in the office doesn't mean you can't be a present, productive, member of your team. These days, working remotely is easier, cheaper, and more necessary than ever. More companies allow employees to work from home, or hire remote staff, and more tools are available to make co-working and maintaining a virtual presence easier too. Here are a few of my favorite telecommuting tools.
My friend Rael lives in Portland and works at an office in San Francisco, and he does it via Skype . At the office, he's got a desk, chair, and a computer with a webcam, microphone, and Skype always running. When he sits down to work at his desk in Portland, he video Skypes into his San Francisco workstation for the entire workday. His California co-workers joke that he's just a floating head on a screen. But when someone in the office needs to talk to him, they go sit at his desk and do so. He can hear ambient conversations going on around the office and they can hear and see him. In fact, on a particularly quiet day at the office, someone complained that his keyboard clacking was too loud! The always-on video connection lets Rael's co-workers know when he's at his desk, see his expressions during conversations, and watch his body language when they're collaborating on-screen.
To collaborate with a co-worker on-screen, Rael uses iChat's screen-sharing feature. It lets him point, click, and type on the same screen simultaneously with a co-worker. If you don't have a Mac running iChat, Skype offers screen-sharing as well as a service called LogMeIn.
Video conferencing is great for work-at-homers not located at the office, but if your entire team is far-flung and there IS no physical office, there are other options. I managed a six-person editorial staff located in different timezones and cities across the country using Campfire . Campfire is a Web-based group chat room that you invite your team members into. Anyone can drop in on, chat, catch up on missed conversations, and search past transcripts. Unlike instant messenger group chats, Campfire provides a permanent room at a URL you can visit in your Web browser, and it logs all group chat transcripts for future reference.
If you just want to collaborate on a document--like a spreadsheet, word processor document, or slideshow presentation--you don't have to share your whole screen. Google Docs  stores your documents in the cloud, and lets you work in the same document with your co-workers and see their cursors changing the document live as they type. Docs also offers a sidebar chat so you can discuss the document as you work, as well as inline comments. You can also upload any kind of file to Google Docs, organize them into folders, and share that folder. So, for example, if a document has a collection of images, videos, or audio files associated with it, you can share the folder containing all the files inside it with your collaborator.
Last week: Work Smart: How To Avoid "The Busy Trap"