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Real Tools for Virtual Teams

Where’s the best place for teams to work when their members are located in far-flung places? On the Web. Here are ratings of a collection of Web sites designed to make teams work virtually anywhere.

Ray Gaither, 54, is almost never in his office. At least, not his physical office. As the president of Fisher Brittany Consultants Inc., a Brooklyn-based consulting firm, he spends most of his time on the road. But just because he’s out of town doesn’t mean he’s out of touch with his five employees. In fact, most nights after Gaither has settled into his hotel room, he and his colleagues get together in their virtual office. Their meeting place? HotOffice (www.hotoffice.com), a Web site that they use to hold online conferences in which they troubleshoot problems and brainstorm ideas. “Every one of my people has a laptop, a video camera, and HotOffice,” says Gaither. “That’s how we’re able to stay in touch.”

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Figuring out how to “stay in touch” is one of the big challenges for colleagues who have to work together, even though most of them work in different places. And staying in touch doesn’t just mean communicating — it means sharing documents, organizing calendars, clarifying who’s doing what by when.

How solid are Web-based tools that claim to address these and other teamwork challenges? Does using those tools require more work than they’re worth? Fast Company spent time on four of the Web’s most popular teamwork-oriented sites in order to explore these and other questions. We rated each site on a scale of one to five for its utility and its usability. Feel free to share our perspective with members of your team.

eRoom.net: (www.eroom.net)
Utility: * * * *
Usability: * * * *
Cost: Free for groups of up to 4 people; $100 per project per month for groups of up to 10 people; $295 per project per month for groups of up to 40 people.

ERoom takes the idea of project teams seriously. The service, which seems ideal to meet the needs of teams within companies (as opposed to, say, a group of free agents), is designed to help people who are working together on a specific project. Its digital workspace — or, in the spirit of the company’s name, its virtual room — offers lots of useful features. Teams can share documents, compare schedules, or conduct threaded discussions. Even better, eRoom’s tools are remarkably easy to use.

Let’s say that you want to start a new aspect of a project. A pop-up window asks whether you’d like to create a folder, a list, a link, an email box, or a poll. To make things even easier, eRoom offers templates. If you want to create a list, you can select a contact-list template or a task-list template. To create a task list, you just add the appropriate details under predefined columns: task, owner, priority, due date, and status. Since eRoom is linked to desktop applications such as Microsoft Outlook, the task is automatically added to your computer’s desktop To Do list.

ERoom also makes it easy to share files and folders that already exist on your computer’s hard drive. Just drag and drop those items into your virtual room, and they’re instantly available to any member of your group — provided that you grant access to those members. ERoom does a nice job controlling access (who can see a document, who can only read one, who can read or edit one) and controlling versions (who changed what document and when).

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Of course, there’s more to teamwork than meetings and documents. There’s the ability to share ideas — which, in the best teams, happens frequently and informally. Here too eRoom can help. Not only does the site allow you to see which team members are online at any given time, but it allows you to summon those members to your virtual room for a chat using instant-messaging technology. Unfortunately, the site’s conferencing system supports neither voice nor video. Put that on the To Do list for the project team at eRoom — which is working on ways to make this good site even better.

Done.com: (www.done.com)
Utility: * * * *
Usability: * * * * 1/2
Cost: Subscription prices range from free to $99.95 per month, depending on features.

A good virtual tool needs some sort of metaphor to help it make sense to the people who use it. The metaphor at eRoom is a room filled with members of a project team. The metaphor at Done.com is a trail of email, which is used to help teams assign tasks, manage progress, and schedule meetings. Of the services that we looked at, Done.com’s was, without question, the fastest and easiest to get up and running.

Tasks are assigned in the form of an email. Just enter the addresses of the people to whom you’re assigning a task, then enter a subject, a priority, a start date, a due date, and a brief description. You can also designate when and how to be notified of developments as a task progresses. For instance, you can be notified when a task is seen, when there’s a problem, or when a task is overdue. Once a task has been assigned to a folder, all correspondence, discussions, decisions, issues, and meetings connected to that task get filed and saved to that folder.

Since few things get done on project teams without meetings, Done.com allows users to schedule meetings, and it notifies participants when there is a request to reschedule if someone isn’t available, or when someone accepts an invitation to join you.

Done.com’s reliance on email is a simple solution to the thorny problem of managing project teams. There’s just one problem. As far as we could see, there was no way to control who could assign what task to whom. Anyone who is a member of a team can assign a task to any other member. Moreover, although you can see all of the tasks that you have assigned to someone or that someone has assigned to you, there’s no way to see tasks assigned by others unless they “cc” you. We’ll send an email to the folks at Done.com, and assign them the task of offering a feature in response to that shortcoming.

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HotOffice: (www.hotoffice.com)
Utility: * * *
Usability: * * * 1/2
Cost: Advertising-supported version, free; ad-free version, $12.95 per month, per user, up to 20 users.

HotOffice is the Web service that Ray Gaither and his team use to hold online meetings. Funny thing, though: Online conferencing may be its least impressive feature. HotOffice’s most impressive feature is its ability to manage documents. It allows users to upload documents to a personal file, to a folder dedicated to a project or a department, or to the company. It also offers some amazing ways to control who has access to which documents. Users can also check out documents, which then makes them unavailable to other users in HotOffice, so that no more than one member can modify a document at the same time.

HotOffice has a second strength: It integrates the workspaces of individuals with a shared work area — without compromising privacy. For example, users can post shared or private appointments on a calendar. Even though an event is not public, when users view the group calendar, it will indicate that a person is unavailable.

One downside to HotOffice: Your computer must be constantly connected to the Net, since the service lacks offline capability.

MagicalDesk: (www.magicaldesk.com);
iMagicalDesk: (www.imagicaldesk.com)
Utility: * *
Usability: * * *
Cost: Free, with feature-and-capability upgrades that range in price from $5 to $10 each.

Finally, a Web service that understands that Macintosh users are team players too. Unfortunately, the site’s version for Macintosh computers, iMagicalDesk, is the least sophisticated of all the services that we investigated. Although it offers most of the tools (mail, calendar, task list, address book, file sharing) that are found on other sites, those tools just aren’t as robust as what you’ll find elsewhere.

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And the features that do exist don’t always work as advertised. For example, iMagicalDesk lets you configure email settings to check external POP3 accounts. I configured mine to retrieve mail sent to my “fastcompany.com” account and to bring it to my iMagicalDesk inbox. But when I didn’t receive any mail and couldn’t find a “check mail” button (it must be magic), I decided to go ahead and check my Fast Company account from a desktop email program. It turns out that I had seven new messages, none of which I was able to retrieve through “magical” mail.

Although iMagicalDesk isn’t a great solution for power users, it is a fun, simple solution for organizing personal events or group tasks — especially those you share with family or friends. Besides, you have to give this site credit for offering a Mac-compatible service — and for keeping with the iMac spirit. You can change your log-in screen to match your favorite iMac color (I mean “flavor”). As a fervent Mac addict myself, that’s certainly a winning feature to me and the rest of us on the Mac team.

Gina Imperato (gimperato@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company associate editor based in San Francisco. She’s a team player.