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Searching for a Shared Virtual Workspace?

Searching for a Shared Virtual Workspace?

Searching for a Shared Virtual Workspace?

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      In my coaching practice, I am increasingly looking for ways to work with my clients on shared documents and projects online. I am looking to online solutions for two reasons:

      1. It allows my client and me to access documents and work on them collaboratively at any time. My clients are busy people who need the flexibility to work on their own schedules.
      2. My practice includes long-distance coaching using telephone, IM (Instant Messaging) etc. When we need to work on or exchange documents, PDF, email, and fax are ineffective tools.

      We want to be able to set up an online workspace to work on documents and projects in one place. We must be able to:

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      • Post and edit documents online;
      • Automatically sync our calendars (esp. Outlook), with online calendars and visa versa;
      • Merge online calendars into group calendars to see at a glance when every individual is busy/free;
      • Post discussion threads;
      • Receive email or SMS (‘text’) alerts whenever any of the first three functions (documents, calendars, discussion threads) have been changed or added to by group members.

      Pretty simple right? You’d think so. I went to the first two places that I knew offered some or all of these services: Google & Microsoft. Big disappointment.

      Google Groups

      The Good News
      It’s free. That’s hard to beat. And Google has two other strengths as a place to get work done: a) it is fully web-based, and b) there is a wealth of various tools.

      Being web-based means that not only can you store and view documents, discussions, and calendars, but they can also all be edited and shared right in the browser. No client of any kind required on your computer (other than a web browser); no need to ever download anything unless you want to sync items for work off-line.

      A particularly powerful tool is the Forms function available through the Google Spreadsheet. This allows you to create a survey that can be set up in a number of different ways and tie it to a spreadsheet that collects the response data. I have used it several times and love it. It does not have the power and ‘polish’ of some of the dedicated online survey offerings (like those from Constant Contact), but it is secure, flexible, and free. Google Forms has a basic template collection that allows you to set up your survey or questionnaire in a number of attractive ways with minimal design time.

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      The wealth of tools available on the Google site is truly impressive. Google Groups, Docs, Calendar, Google Talk (IM), Blogger, Picasa, on and on… But that brings me to…

      The Bad News
      For such a wealth of tools, the lack of integration floored me. Put simply, there is almost NO way of using one tool in an integrated fashion with another. Want to list your shared Google Docs in a Google Group? Can’t do that. Want to sync your Google Calendars to create a shared group calendar within Google Groups? Can’t do that either. Want to embed a Google Docs spreadsheet in a Google  Docs document? Nope. The list of what you can’t do goes on and on.

      Recommendation:
      Use Google if you want a free tool to share work online, but don’t expect much. The lack of integration at this point in the game is frustrating. It is especially odd as Google has on its hands a very powerful collection of individual tools. It makes no sense that they aren’t better integrated.

      Windows Office Live

      The Good News
      Probably the two biggest positives with the Microsoft tools are that a) they are pretty tightly integrated with Microsoft Office (especially Office 2007) and b) there is much more storage space available (5 GB vs. Google’s 100 MB).

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      If you have an Office Live account, which is free, you can save your Office (Word, Excel, etc.) documents directly to your online workspace. There you can invite others to view and edit them.

      There is notification available for most kinds of activity in an Office Live workspace.

      The Bad News
      While the various tools are more tightly integrated via the copy of Office you have sitting on your computer, the net useability is no greater than the Google offering. The weaknesses fall into three areas:

      • Anyone accessing documents on your shared workspace must own a copy of MS Office for full editing and integration functionality. This ‘Microsoft customer only’ restriction is a serious one. There is probably a level of useability with Open Office, but that is still a far cry from the platform independence of Google Documents.
      • There is no way to edit online. This means that if you are on the road, you can’t easily get at your documents from an internet café or most smart phones (not that editing Google Documents from a smart phone is any picnic, but at least it can be done).
      • The calendar integration is a nightmare. I have spent hours trying to figure out how to set up a calendar on Office Live that syncs with my Outlook calendar. Not only does that not work, it took me forever to find where my calendar does go when I ‘publish’ it online (it goes to a site with the address starting calendars.office.microsoft.com, which is not linked to from the rest of the Office Live site that I can find). And you can’t sync two ways. You can only sync your online calendar to Outlook, not the other way around. That is a serious limitation for a ‘live’ group workspace.
      • Another weakness is the confused relationship between Windows Live, Office Live, and Office Live Small Business. Oh wait – there’s also Microsoft Groove! The distinction between these offerings is unclear, and there doesn’t seem to be any integration between Windows Live (things like Messenger) and Office Live. Further, the distinction between the different ‘Lives’ is unclear. At least in Google, what exactly each tool is for is clear, even if they don’t play well together.

      Conclusion?

      The tool I want does not exist. Given the huge number of players in this field, and the explosion of interest in virtual, collaborative learning and working, I’m surprised. I looked at some for-pay sites as well, like Central Desktop. This certainly does the job better than either Microsoft or Google, but still doesn’t do some of the basic functions (like syncing and merging multiple calendars). Considering that Central Desktop charges a fee I would expect it to have serious bells and whistles. Not so. I am assuming that somewhere out there, living inside some high-end intranet, there is a proprietary tool that does this, but it certainly isn’t available to the rest of us.

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      So what’s the conclusion? We have to use separate tools to cobble together a collaborative virtual work space: Microsoft has pretty good Office integration (with the glaring exception of the Outlook Calendar), Google has lots of good separate sharing tools, Tungle does a fantastic group calendar, Central Desktop does a decent job but charges.

      If I had to pick one system, Google’s is probably the closest. Google is pretty good at syncing calendars in ways that you can share, at hosting blogs, storing and editing documents right in the HTML/Web environment, and providing a very basic shared space in Google Groups. No other site offers all of these “in one place”. But then that’s the biggest frustration with Google, their’s isn’t ‘in one place’ either. You have to hop from Calendar to Docs to Blogger to Groups and back again to get a sense of what your group is up to. How a site could house all of these tools separately and not bring them together in one interface is a complete mystery to me. They even have the interface already – set up a tabbed version of iGoogle and see what I mean!

      Google isn’t resting (or rather sitting) on its laurels. There is a new sharing project in early development called Google Wave that allows users to share ideas, files, documents, video and audio in real time (think IM) and asynchronously (think ‘posting’). Now if they could integrate a real group calendar function, and fully editable Google Docs into that, we may be getting somewhere!

      I am really looking forward to reading other’s solutions in the quest for shared virtual workspaces.

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      Last Updated on January 13, 2020

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

      No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

      Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

      Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

      A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

      Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

      In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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      From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

      A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

      For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

      This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

      The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

      That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

      Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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      The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

      Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

      But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

      The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

      The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

      A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

      For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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      But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

      If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

      For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

      These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

      For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

      How to Make a Reminder Works for You

      Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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      Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

      Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

      My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

      Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

      I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

      More on Building Habits

      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

      Reference

      [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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