In the days before the Internet (a.k.a The Dark Ages), people would travel to an office and stay there until their employer (henceforth known as Big Boss) released them from their chains of servitude.
Fast forward to today, the Internet lets us ROFL and LOL at each other, we each have 3,000 friends on Facebook, and we don’t have to talk to anyone unless we want to. People are also now abandoning the dreaded office commute, and instead choosing to work from their home office in their Spiderman pants. It’s a brave new world.
But in order to be productive as a remote worker, and to collaborate well with your clients, what tools do you need apart from a webcam, your wits, your irresistible charm, and a DSL connection? This is a special investigation by Mark O’Neill of MakeUseOf.
Meet with the Team
Working from home has advantages, the main one being that you don’t have to talk to anyone. But every now and then, Big Boss or a colleague is going to require a conversation. A virtual webcam meeting is an option and you can choose from several applications.
Skype is the gold standard for video chatting. It revolutionized online chat when it was released in 2003 and quickly turned into a trusted service. And believe it or not, since Skype was taken over by Microsoft, the service has gotten much better.
If you’re looking for an alternative group chat, there is Google Hangouts, which not only supports group chat, but even goofy special effects. Join.me and Appear.in are two good web-based alternatives as well. I particularly like the latter.
Stay in Touch
If your team or collaboration partners are scattered all over the country or even another country, in-person conference meetings are obviously impossible. So how do you recreate the water cooler or that conference room atmosphere online, to make you feel that you and your colleagues are all grouped in the same place, ready to gel and discuss business?
For purely text-based chats, the one which is currently hard to beat is Slack. It claims to have tens of thousands of teams using it, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which among its many missions, put the Curiosity Rover robot on Mars. Oh and MakeUseOf. Let’s not forget about us.
It’s free to sign up and use, although the free version does have some limitations. But it is more than enough to use effectively, if you are part of a remote team, and you need to stay in touch with one another. For example, the MakeUseOf staff use Slack to coordinate upcoming articles and to generally shoot the breeze. We also use it to pick up work assignments from the editors.
If you don’t mind paying for some extra features, the paid plans start at $6.67 a month (if paid annually, $8 a month if not). This gives you things such as forwarding email into Slack and using your Google Apps for Domains to sign in.
Another option for team communication is Campfire, which has its many fans. But there is no free version – plans start at $12 a month.
Schedule Your Emails
Another essential part of keeping your clients happy is receiving their emails and replying to them. But the more emails you receive, the harder it is to keep track of them all. And many would agree that the key to email zen is Inbox Zero.
So how do you get Inbox Zero? By deciding when tasks in emails are due and then snooze those emails to come back just before the snooze date. Boomerang has a limited free plan and an unlimited paid plan, but if you want a free solution to manage emails and customer relations, then Streak is another highly recommended tool.
Once you put a date on an email, Boomerang or Streak will remove it from the inbox, place it in a special snooze folder, and bring it back to the inbox on the date you requested. Look upon it as a virtual assistant.
Another way to look at email scheduling is to accommodate the needs of your colleagues or clients. Some emails are best sent on Monday, yet others are best received in the afternoon. With a bit of strategy, you can make it to the top of the inbox at just the right time.
Collaborate on Documents
If you’re in an office and working on a document, it’s easy to get feedback from your boss or a colleague. They can simply look over your shoulder and read your work. But how to do it online? That’s where it used to get a bit messy
Constant rewrites with a picky client meant that multiple copies of the same document were flying over the place. Once, a client of mine thought that my second-to-last draft was the finished product, and she promptly published it. Why? Because she had overlooked my final draft which was sitting in her inbox.
Google Docs removes the possibility of this happening. All drafts and edits are done on the same document, with unlimited people signing in to give their input. Comments can be made and replied to, and everything is saved to Google Drive. Quite simply, Google Docs makes my job a hundred times easier.
Another option is Office Online, from Microsoft. All documents are synced to OneDrive. But Office Online and I have never fully clicked with one another. Our first date was a bit of a disaster, and when she told me she was changing her name from SkyDrive to OneDrive, I took the hint and left.
Get Paid without the Check Bouncing
Once you have completed your magnum opus, it’s time to get paid. And despite many pretenders to the crown, the King of online payments is still PayPal (even though they do kind of screw you with your pants on, when it comes to the exchange rates).
If you are dealing with mainly or only international clients, a business account at PayPal is a must. It radiates professionalism and you get your money faster. You can customize your invoices, view your transaction history using filters, and set up personalized payment pages.
Another online payment option is Stripe, which enables you to take credit card payments, by taking the card number and billing the client directly to their card. I am currently test-driving that one; stay tuned for in-depth coverage.
Schedule Your Social Media Updates
If you work from home, then most likely you are using social media to market yourself and find new clients. Say what you want about Facebook and Twitter, but when it comes to marketing and promotion, they are hard to beat.
But the fastest way to annoy your social media followers is to blast out multiple updates at once. This will lead to them not all being read, and you will also get more than a few unfollows.
The solution is Buffer, which spaces out your status updates, and posts them according to a pre-set schedule. So for example, you can have status updates going out during the night while you are asleep in bed. There is a free plan and (in my opinion) a very over-priced paid plan. The free plan should suit most people.
Store & Sync Data with Cloud Services
Finally, we can’t overlook the most obvious one of all – cloud services. For those with multiple gadgets, running from location to location (the bedroom to the living room couch for example), syncing all your files across devices is an absolute must.
The main player in cloud storage is of course Dropbox, but they suffer from this terrible illness called “chargealotofcashitis”. If only they would drop their prices, I would be all over them like a dog on heat. For that reason, I turned to their arch-nemesis Google Drive who charges peanuts and offers great file managing tools. Now that me like.
Penelope! Hold All My Calls! Baywatch Is Starting!
The Internet has made it easy for us all to become entrepreneurs and dust off the kitchen table for our laptops. No longer are we bound to the Big Boss from 9am to 5pm. Now we can lie in bed, watch Judge Judy while eating last night’s pizza, start work at lunchtime, and be finished in time for cocktails at Happy Hour.
Do let us know in the comments the tools you use to get you to the bar on time!