Several of my colleagues from VSee were in Washington, DC this week, supporting an event for the UNHCR in which Angelina Jolie and officials from the UN and US State Department talked live to refugees at a camp in Chad.
This event was the kickoff to World Refugee Day tomorrow, in which several more camps around the world will be streamed through the web site.
Georgina Laidlaw wrote on Gigaom's Web Worker Daily about 5 Things You’ll Miss by Not Working In An Office. More usefully, she also offered some coping strategies. Since most of the people at VSee spend more time working outside of the office than in it, we've developed a few strategies of our own, some but not all of which involve using our own product.
The things Laidlaw says you'll miss and what we do about it:
1. Watercooler Chit-Chat
Replacing the informal lines of communication that exist in physical location would appear to be the hardest, so perhaps why some many strategies have evolved. VSee does have a real office, and some of the employees go there every day. Others gather on Thursdays for and informal lunch (VLunch) and discussion (VCafe). Since Boston is three hours ahead of California, I don't really want to eat lunch at 3:00, but I'll make myself an espresso and we'll open a video connection and chat informally while they eat lunch and I have a snack. The good news is that my espresso is better than the place across the street from the office. The bad news is that all that eating can be fattening. (See #3)
In between formal meetings, we use our own product to talk to each other on video. The presence indicators really help, so you can see who's available at any given time. It's important that a product used for this purpose be really easy to use so it encourages spontaneous interaction.
Of course there is no substitute for real face-to-face gatherings. In addition to the usual visits to customer sites and trade shows, we organize company-wide events such as a recent ski trip to Lake Tahoe.
2. Set Starting and Finishing Times
This one is a problem for me. I check my email when I get up and it's easy to get sucked into solving a problem before even getting breakfast. Regular meals help. I try not to get too involved with work before having breakfast, and try to knock off in time for dinner, even if dinner is at 8:30. Here's where working with a west coast crew helps (in the morning when they are still asleep) and hurts (in the evening when they are still going strong.)
3. Good Reason to Get Up
One does need to leave the screen and keyboard occasionally. Fortunately my home office is on the third floor, so even going down to the kitchen for a snack provides a little exercise.
4. The Ability to Corner Someone In the Kitchen
Here's where the presence indicators really help. You can see when someone is engaged in meeting and when they are available. We really do use VSee for those 5 minute calls where you need to ask someone a quick question or need them to drag ad drop a file over to you.
5. The Boss
By this Laidlaw means some mechanism for getting everyone to turn out the work. Fortunately in a software company, people are more driven by development schedules than by a supervisor hovering over them. We do have regular weekly meetings where everyone can look each other in the eye and make and keep commitments. That's where video really helps.
As previously reported, I have been serving as Chief Product Officer at VSee Labs since last Fall. VSee has built a loyal following within the US and other governments for its easy-to-use video calling product.The company is profitable and cash-flow positive and is now expanding into the mainstream business market.
A lot of my activity has been to enhance the stuff around the product: marketing collateral, a web site, building a reseller channel, and implementing a full set of web services to allow partners to integrate VSee into their offerings.
One project which is launching today is the VSee blog. I've seeded it with some posts that have previously appeared here, but will be posting (and encouraging others to post) there about how our customers (and ourselves) use on-line tools to manage a distributed organization.
I'd like to hear your experiences in working with your distant colleagues.