05/02/2017

Collaborating in the Cloud Era

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Collaboration means different things to different people, but in the end we all need to work with others in some capacity or other. With more people equipped with faster bandwidth, built-in webcams and microphones, and mobile apps, the cloud is opening up all sorts of possibilities for working together to get things done - without having to be physically in the same location.

Cloud-based collaboration helps create a sense of shared responsibility. It levels the playing field for people to participate from a variety of settings and locations. It turns location-dependent work into location-independent work.

There are many cloud-based tools out there offering easy and low-cost collaboration options, yet many people are still hesitant to use them. They may feel resistant to learning new technology, or sense resistance from their team. They may not want to spend the money. In many cases we find people just don’t realize the capabilities of these tools, and how they can improve workflow and productivity and replace ineffective processes.  

How do we at NewPath Consulting collaborate with our customers? Which tools do we use, and why do we think the cloud is useful for better collaboration and fewer misunderstandings? We’ll answer those questions in this post.

Collaborative scheduling with Appointlet

Everyone gets frustrated with the back-and-forth of booking meetings. One person proposes a few times, then the other person replies with a few other times, and after a few more rounds of emails they agree on a time (with no guarantee that time actually gets onto either person’s calendar).

A cloud-based tool like Appointlet (Alex’s online calendar) eliminates the need for this back-and-forth. With Appointlet, you establish different types of appointments (30-minute initial consultation, 60-minute meeting, etc.) and set your available meeting hours (e.g., weekdays from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.) and other policies (e.g., insert a 15-minute gap between all scheduled meetings).

When someone visits your Appointlet calendar via your website or a link you send by email or instant message, they can select an appointment type and choose one of your open times. Then Appointlet syncs with your own Google or Office 365 calendar so you will never be double-booked.

Online schedulers create a unique sense of transparency. NewPath Consulting’s Alex Sirota notes, “By allowing others to transparently select their appointment from my available time slots on my calendar, based on my preferred scheduling policy, I am giving the most amount of options to my appointment partner - setting the stage for mutual respect as well as reducing the actual amount of overhead time to set a meeting.”

While it may seem like the person asking for the meeting has to do more work, they’ll have multiple options and are guaranteed a spot as long they can find a match. They have the power to not only schedule a meeting, but to cancel or reschedule - all without having to start a new email thread. Appointlet also ensures that both parties get the appointment in their calendars and receive email reminders.

Online appointment booking systems save time, and set equal responsibility. “I won’t book appointments by email anymore,” Alex says, “My appointment booking link is in my email signature, and I also offer it anytime a customer needs more help than I can give by email.”

The key for Alex was to change the tone when he invites someone to book a time. Instead of being a chore for the other person, it’s a way he can provide better service. “I tell them, ‘I’ve opened my calendar for you to select a time at your convenience,’ and they can also select how we’ll meet - phone, video conference, or face to face.”

Collaborative meetings with Zoom

As long as you have reliable internet access, a webcam, and a microphone, video conferencing can change the whole way you think about office space. At NewPath Consulting, we often use the cloud-based conferencing tool Zoom as a more environmentally-friendly alternative to in-person meetings. This eliminates multiple expenses, including the time and energy to get to a location, fuel costs, wear and tear on you and your mode of transport.

And while in-person meetings commonly don’t start on time, when the technology is in place, most web-based meetings start quickly with just the click of a mouse.  In fact, Zoom and Appointlet integrate beautifully, making it easy to set up web conferences and share the technical details with all parties involved, making it even faster and smoother to get started.

Zoom depends on a couple of important prerequisites. All participants need to have a reliable and speedy internet connection (at least 5 Mbit/s or faster for both uploading and downloading), and a decent quality microphone, camera and set of speakers. It’s also important for all callers to be in a relatively quiet environment because background noise from one person’s line can undermine the entire meeting.

Another benefit of Zoom is that you can patch into the meeting from any phone to a variety of local or toll-free dial-in numbers; you don’t need to participate via video or the web. You can also record meetings to the cloud and/or to your computer. Meetings then become a form of self-documenting, real-time, customized, just-in-time training (that can be accessed forever). We find that our customers really appreciate this high degree of customer service.

Collaborative project management with Google Docs

Lastly, let’s talk about collaborative project management. It used to be that I had my documents on my computer, and you had your documents on your computer, and we could maybe send each other drafts of documents and share via email or USB key.

First launched in April 2012, Google Drive allows users to store files in the cloud, synchronize files across devices, and share files. Now instead of on “my computer” or “your computer,” documents are on Google’s “virtual computer” - the cloud. Along with protecting your files from accidents, corruption, theft, or computer crashes, Google Drive also makes them much easier to share and collaborate on documents, spreadsheets or presentations.

Another aspect of the cloud era is that we don’t have to wait until everything is perfect before we share our work with someone else. The whole point of Google Drive’s collaboration features is for people to create and edit documents together. One person can share even the most basic outline or title, and everyone else can jump right in to contribute and improve. There is a shared responsibility across all parties to make the document better, continuously refining and shaping the message until they all think it’s the best it can be.

Not everyone is comfortable with this approach but we’re experimenting with it more and more at NewPath Consulting because it is the future of collaboration. One of our business development documents has seen 13 major edits so far - and we expect at least another 13 before it’s finalized!

In Google Drive there are ways to enter edits as comments (you can tag one or more collaborators to call their attention to a comment), as suggested changes (must be approved by the original author), or by actually updating the current version of the document. Any collaborator can review the document’s revision history to see exactly who changed what and when.

Slack - the ultimate collaboration tool

Slack is a real-time messaging app that allows you to divide conversations into specific topics/projects, share files, message individuals directly, and much more. It’s accessible via Mac, Windows and Linux, with mobile apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Too many people live and die by their email, which becomes a never-ending and constantly changing to-do list. It’s difficult if not impossible to prioritize tasks, keep conversations straight, and effectively communicate with groups of people.

Slack takes project management out of email and is a way to structure organizational tasks into conversations. It’s the equivalent of Facebook for work - a ‘water cooler’ where people can move projects forward by making quick decisions in real time.

Alex of NewPath says, the answer is clear, “Slack is the first place I go to receive and send information related to customer service or internal NewPath projects. It's a prioritized communication channel for our staff. Email is what we use for communication with the outside world, for now. We’re looking at inviting customers into the Slack channel where our team is already discussing and executing their project.”

Separating discussions into distinct channels and projects is the key to being able to focus, no matter which tool you’re using. That way people aren’t wasting time managing messages that don’t pertain to them, and they can consciously tap into a specific discussion when it’s time to work on that project.

There are many integrations that can help bridge the gap for people who are attached to the tools they’ve gotten used to, and that make Slack even more productive and fun. In a sense one can stitch together a collection of cloud tools, all within Slack.

Though we’ve come to the end of this blog post, we’re still at the beginning of this brand new era of collaboration. We’re experimenting on your behalf. We’re working with new tools in new ways, testing them internally before bringing them to our customers to experiment with us. Then we can know how things really work and whether they truly make our work and our lives better.

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