“How can you have a collaborative work environment, where the team gets more accomplished because the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts, when you don’t share an office space?”

My skeptical friend posed the question, but I am sure by the tone of it that the question mark wasn’t pronounced and the statement was intended to be posed rhetorically.

The answer to this “rhetorical” question lies in collaborative on-line software like Google Docs or Zoho or others. These on-line services are even better than a document saved on a shared server. In the latter case, only one user can be working on particular document at a time and others must wait to access the document or face the (Read-only) mark, branding you as the subordinate user in the document with no rights to make any changes … simply a spectator in the effort.

With collaborative documents, it is possible to have multiple users all modifying a document at one time. These multiple users can be in the same room or as far away the Internet can take you. It can be entertaining to watch a spreadsheet change and recalculate dynamically as your colleague is making changes from across town or across the globe.

As an example, Beese Entertainment (publishers of this paper) uses a collaborative document at the end of the production cycle for a publication. At this point, our designer may have up to four people all trying to pepper him with corrections at once.

Instead of taking the changes verbally, or in a series of notes, the instructions go up in a single document. All of the instructions are ordered by page number, easy to follow and documented in one place, so the instructions don’t get lost in the shuffle.

It is even possible to get feedback from the designer on questions about the changes or indications that the changes are complete.

It’s a little bit like having the whole team standing behind one person at the keyboard and yelling instructions at them at the same time, except that the document receives all of that information and displays it instantly for everyone to see.

An engineer acquaintance of mine immediately saw how the service could benefit his efforts, as he would have multiple technicians in multiple locations all working on the same project. He spent the bulk of his Friday afternoon coordinating which team had access to the tracking document at what time, so the weekly summary report could be completed.

Were he to be using the collaborative spreadsheet, all of his teams could be modifying the document at the same time, even updating the document daily, providing him a live update at any given time.

Google offers collaborative spreadsheets (Excel), text (Word) documents, presentation (Power Point) and PDFs as well.

The Google family of services includes calendars that can be shared, to be modified or viewed by other users or even published publicly on the Internet. There are also live chat options, discussion groups, custom Wiki sites and more.

Zoho is another family of collaborative software, though there is a fee for this one. They do offer some added dimension to the individual services, as well as additional offerings not yet available through Google, including customer relationship management options, invoicing and project management software.

For now, my favourite collaborative software is the Google offerings. The best part of the Google family of services is that, as of right now, the services are free. I for one hope that Google never realizes what a powerful tool they provide for our company and start to charge for it.

As co-owner of Beese Entertainment, the publisher of this paper, Mark Beese works in a modern office: a web of home-based employees and contractors that make the most of technology.

He’s Awsome!!!