I remember the first time I participated in a video teleconference, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The computers in the conference room on my end were 386s, and the closest thing to a laptop we had was the size of a small suitcase.

What I remember even more clearly from that meeting was that the video part was a success, unfortunately. Everybody could see and hear everything, and it truly was like having our Gulf Coast team (my group was in the Midwest) in the room with us. In hindsight, that turned out not to be such a good thing. People focused not on the meeting but on how cool the teleconferencing equipment was.

We now live in an era when our communications infrastructure permits hourly e-mail exchanges with friends in deepest Africa. The work we’re doing is highly integrated and distributed beyond our companies’ borders, requiring the participation of our customers and distribution partners.

The expertise needed to create and service these megasystems is increasingly beyond what we can do in house, which means that our teams are now more virtual than actual. To keep these new-style teams productive and focused, you need to make sure your communication style and format are up to date as well.

Start using IM
When working with a distributed team, your first instinct may be to schedule a conference call. After using this expensive and sometimes ineffective format to conduct meetings for nearly two decades, I switched two years ago to a highbrow Internet forum where lots of new ideas are exchanged and rich conversations occur. This forum includes a chat-room function, much akin to Yahoo or AOL Instant Messenger.

I made the decision to switch to this format in the midst of a lengthy online discussion among myself and perhaps half a dozen others, when I realized that we were getting more said, faster and more clearly, than I could ever remember being said in a telephone conference call. Consider the advantages:

  • Everything “said” (i.e., typed) in this kind of exchange is recorded and can be saved and referred to by all participants.
  • Your comments are often more coherent and meaningful because you can take a moment to consider the best way to say what you want to say before you actually offer it to the group (which is much more difficult in verbal conversation).
  • It’s okay if several people “talk” at once because nothing is lost, and there’s no confusion.
  • It doesn’t cost anything extra; even the software is free.
  • It’s available 24/7.

I use instant messaging for business interaction all the time now. It’s not uncommon for my IM window to be up all day long and for colleagues I’m working with to “pop in” for a chat throughout the day. They’re all over the country, so the equivalent effort on the telephone would add up to quite a bit of money.

Create a forum
For long-term work (six months or more), consider using forum software. You can set up a forum on one of your local servers (which is accessible to all project participants as a private Web site) by licensing a forum package (e.g., I use vBulletin) for a low price—often less than $200. You’d want to do this if you have a team of a dozen or more, with significant functional disparity between tasks and multiple levels of authority.

Forums allow you to organize dialogs any way you like, with discussion threads created under appropriate project tasks. You can keep all project communications perfectly categorized. You can set up all project personnel according to task-appropriate and level-appropriate security restrictions, so that everyone sees only what they need to see.

You have a complete history of the project, organized as it is created. And you’ve created a project environment where participants—no matter how timid—will feel more inclined to “speak up.” You’ll be in the same “room” all day long with people scattered across the country. They’ll seem as close as the next room. (I do this all day long, every day—it really works.)

Counting the cost
Though the technology cost of virtual teaming is just about nothing, there is an obvious objection to the people cost. It’s great to have a project team of three or four freelance gurus, as long as that’s not more expensive than just using your in-house staff.

If you’re working with hired guns, you aren’t asking for their physical presence. In my own work, I’ll do a project for 30 or 40 percent less than my usual rate if I can do it from my home office and not have to fool with mileage, relocating, negotiating benefits, or wearing a tie every day.

And that’s not the only benefit: If you’re not buying a consultant’s physical presence, you may not need it 40 hours a week. A full-time employee or consultant must be tasked rigorously to optimize that 40 hours. But you can buy the time of a “virtual” team member according to many purchase plans—by the hour, in packets of a dozen hours, or in large blocks distributed across weeks and months, with the flexibility to rise and fall as the project demands. You can get real bargains and distribute the resource with far greater discretion, and both you and the consultant will be happier.