The Way We Work
August 8, 2011 by Julia Camenisch

Remote work is an industry game changer. Whether you’re a solo freelancer that occasionally needs to outsource or a small business owner with employees who could occasionally work from home, there’s inevitably going to come a time when making use of remote work tools will directly impact your business’ bottom line.

When it comes to saving money, the benefits of embracing remote workers are well documented. From savings on office space and infrastructure to maintaining productivity during inclement weather or natural disasters, remote work is an important tool. Here’s a roundup of current remote work technology and how you can effectively implement it to make the most of potential cost savings.

Project Management:

Remote work will save you money by allowing you to use skilled workers who often cost less than local hires. The key to keeping those cost savings is effective project management. You’ve got to be able to stay on top of what’s being accomplished in a systematic way. Here’s two tools to check out:

  • TeamLab (Free): Open source and free! What’s not to like about this project management tool? The software’s developers initially created it for themselves, then found it so useful they decided to offer it for free to others. TeamLab allows you to create and schedule project milestones to keep your remote workers on track. It also includes a wiki, instant messaging and time tracking. Finally TeamLab is an online portal, so there’s no issues with installing software on team members’ computers.
  • Project2Manage ($6.95/month): A bit like Google Docs, Project2Manage give you a one-stop repository for storing team files and creating documents. It also allows you to give your remote workers different levels of access to the said repositories. It includes the standard project management features, such as messaging, to-do lists and deadline reminders.

Money Saving Tip: Efficiency is key to savings. One way to make sure tasks are moving along as needed is to assign work in small chunks with short turn-around times. That way you’ll be able to stay on top of work accomplished, and if there IS a problem, you’ll discover it sooner.

Communication:

Remote collaboration on projects saves money by keeping productivity high. After all, you only pay your remote worker for the time actually worked —  not for interoffice chats and water cooler visits. But while social conversations are reduced, you still must make good communication channels a high priority. There’s always the usual software suspects, like Skype or Google Chat. But here’s a few others to consider as well:

  • Campfire Now ($12/month): Campfire Now is a chat program designed with group collaboration in mind. According to the developers, the program is “network-agnostic,” meaning you don’t have to worry about everyone trying to find a common chat client to use. Campfire Now saves chat history, allows you to upload files and review them together, plus it offers an iPhone app for chatting on the go.
  • TightVNC (Free): Got someone coding for you? Use TightVNC for remote software demonstrations. This program allows you to see and control the desktop of a remote computer, exactly as if you were there. Another option is Gbridge, a program  that allows you to not only share desktops, but also creates a secure VPN using Google’s gtalk protocol.

Money Saving Tip: Using online communication tools is significantly cheaper then conference calls when you’re working with freelancers from other countries. But while it might be tempting to rely solely on email and its ilk, making use of real-time communication tools is important. Why? Once again, it all comes back to efficiency. With real-time conversations, whether through chat functions or Skype calls, your team can get on the same page in a matter of minutes versus the hours and/or days that getting email responses can take.

On that same note, make sure your communication is effective. For more info, check out this past oDesk blog post on successful remote team communication.

Training:

Remote work saves money by allowing you to hire specialized skills just for the projects needed. You don’t have to keep a graphic designer on staff when you only need their talents a few times a year.

Assist your virtual staff in focusing on the job at hand by being upfront about your preferred work flows and organizational procedures. Don’t assume they’ll automatically pick up on those unspoken ideals. Take some time to train your remote staff with these tools:

  • Vyew (Free): Vyew is a webinar tool, allowing you to make live presentations to your virtual staff and giving them the opportunity to ask questions and interact during the online “class.”
  • Go2Webinar ($99/month): Another webinar tool, Go2Webinar costs a bit, but is useful if you want to create a slew of training material all at once, then make it available to your remote workers as needed.
  • Dropbox (Free): While this isn’t exactly a training tool, Dropbox can be a great way to distribute policy and procedure documents to everyone who needs them. And when you update a document? Dropbox will automatically update the copy that each virtual worker has on his or her machine.
  • MediaWiki (Free): Your remote employees aren’t the only ones who will be learning. Remember that you hired them for a purpose, and they can help train you in best practices and new technology as a part of the collaborative working process. A great way to capture this body of knowledge is through a wiki. You can set up a free wiki using MediaWiki, the software that powers the Wikipedia family of sites. For more info on effectively using wikis, check out the online O’Reilly guide to using a wiki.

Money Saving Tip: Before you begin hiring, prepare all your training materials. Even the best contract worker can only live up to the expectations they know about. It’s not their fault if your lack of instruction means multiple revisions, thus incurring extra costs for you.

Have you worked with virtual employees in the past? In the comments section below, share best practices that you’ve learned, as well as collaboration tools that made the job easier. Also, you can connect with other employers on our oDesk Facebook page to learn what’s worked for them.


Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.