Depending on how regularly you manage teams remotely -- meaning that one or more members are logging in from an offsite location -- you may already be investigating ways to get your group working happily together in the cloud. You can patch together a set of tools to do the trick or you can look for a one-stop shop with all the features you need. Either way, finding a secure solution that is easy to manage will save you a lot of headaches in the long run.
1: Know what you need from the cloud
All teams are not created equal, of course. Depending on the type of work you're planning to do together -- and whether you're a team for a short duration (like just finishing this project) or for the long-haul -- you will need certain types of functionality from the cloud environment you create.
Most teams need some kind of document library feature, as well as the ability to communicate in real time (and have online meetings if desired). And being able to post announcements and updates and assign tasks is a big plus.
Some cloud software, like Office 365, which has just announced its public beta, can also give you a wide range of Web parts to plug into your team site, along with a public-facing Web site you can customize to be your face to the world.
Office 365 offers predesigned Web parts to plug into your team space.
Knowing which features you need for your team will help you make a good choice and avoid getting caught with a complex (and maybe pricey) option that does more than you need.
2: Look for a flexible solution
Mobile teams today have multiple options for the ways they connect to the group. You might have one team member accessing files from a PC in Kenya, while another logs in for a meeting on a smartphone. Another team member might be writing notes on an iPad (and saving it directly to the cloud), while the team leader talks everyone through the latest presentation displayed on a netbook. No matter which cloud technology you choose, be sure that it supports the various platforms and media your team members will be using to access your team space.
3: Have a cloud vision
Once you have a sense of what you want to do in the cloud, it's a good idea to think through the actual structure of the site you want to create. How many document libraries will you need? Will you want to create four different areas for four different projects -- with a document or asset library in each -- to keep things straight? Will you want to incorporate podcasts and video on your team site? If so, where is the most logical place for those items to be stored so all team members can find them easily? I know it's old-fashioned, but sketching everything out on a piece of real paper is helpful to me. The diagram can help you see what you need to create where so that your team members can focus on the task they need to accomplish instead of trying to find their way through a complicated team site.Note: It's not a bad idea to scan and post your "cloud map" on the site or to create a site map that team members can use in case they do get a bit lost. Seeing the whole cloud picture can be helpful when everyone is first getting comfortable with all the moving parts.
4: Use permissions wisely
One of the big concerns about cloud approaches, and for good reason, is security. Are your files secure, stored in a data center somewhere that is beyond your control? Is your sensitive information safe and sound, visible only to those with the necessary permissions to view it? Although the permission levels -- and your ability to customize them -- may be different depending on the cloud computing service you are using, be sure to plan the various levels of permissions you want members to have.
Some team members may have permission to just read and review material; others you'll want to be able to create, edit, and revise material; and still others you'll want to give full administrative privileges to so that they can help you with adding content, pages, libraries, and Web parts as needed. Make sure that when you send a new member the information he or she needs to access the site, you stress the security of the site (logon and private password required) so your data stays secure in the cloud, available only to those with the explicit permissions to view it.
5: Invite feedback and fine-tune
If managing a team in the cloud is new for you, treat your first couple of experiences as your "cloud classroom" and host at least two or three debriefing meetings in which you ask team members to talk about their experience in accessing materials in the cloud, attending meetings, and accomplishing tasks remotely. Find out how easy (or difficult) your cloud space is to navigate. Invite members to make suggestions to streamline procedures or improve site elements. Listen to your team, tweak the team site, and do you best to keep everyone communicating as they move forward. Before you know it, you'll have a solid, functioning team. That's a great asset in any department, virtual or not.
Katherine Murray is a technology writer and the author of more than 60 books on a variety of topics, ranging from small business technology to green computing to blogging to Microsoft Office 2010. Her most recent books include Microsoft Office 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), Microsoft Word 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), and Microsoft Word 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press, 2010).