5 Top (Free & Easy) Virtual Collaboration Tools that You May Not (Yet) Be Using


“When organizations elect to create virtual teams, they focus on the potential advantages, such as the diversity of the team, or the potential for ’round the clock’ productivity with employees working in multiple time zones. However, companies must also be aware of the challenges that accompany virtual teams. For these groups to be successful, managers cannot use the old rules of leadership. New ways of working require different skills.”

Karen McHenry

The success of virtual teams requires new rules of leadership and new skills, as Karen suggests, but also new tools. The tools we use to collaborate can make or break our effectiveness. How do we establish trust when we rarely if ever see one another? How do we build a new relationship with someone we’ve never met? Can technology help in this regard? Of course it can. It can also get in the way, causing more problems than it solves (how many times has a phone call or video conference cut in-and-out, or the sound during a webinar not worked properly?).

In this blog post I share with you my selection of Five Top Free Virtual Collaboration Tools available today, and my guess is you’re not using most of them. Trying them out may greatly increase your virtual team effectiveness. First, let me give you a bit of context, to aid  in your use of the tools.

(Click page numbers below to read more.)

The Best-Kept Secret of Successful Teams

4 Phase ModelAlmost every team and community today is diverse in some way or another: gender, age, spirituality, professional training, ethnicity, nationality… While we respect other styles and cultures, most of us still get stuck at some point where we say, “OK, we’re different; now how do we work (or live) side-by-side? How do we harness our differences as creative assets? At a minimum, how do we simply keep from driving each other crazy?”

We might work with partners who view time as flexible and events as unfolding. This may mean that, to them, deadlines are mutable and subject to change. Meanwhile, we push ourselves and our bodies, working overtime to make sure we honor our commitment to an agreed-upon deadline. While we may respect our colleagues’ view of time management on a theoretical basis, and perhaps envy them their apparently healthy work-life balance, how do we succeed with partners who don’t seem to respect their commitments to deadlines?

Perhaps we have a neighbor or even a waiter at a favorite restaurant who communicates very directly, yet we prefer a bit more indirection, thank you. While we respect their communication style, it can get irritating and try our patience.

Too often we fail to actively seek to bridge differences because we see them as something negative, as something that separates rather than unites us. Yet, by ignoring our differences, by pretending they are not there, we imbue them with great power. Eventually they can get the best of us, surprising us at awkward moments and causing frustration and tension. Our reluctance to address differences may stem from a fear that acknowledging their existence may push us farther apart rather than allowing us to collaborate enjoyably.

So, how do we transform these differences into assets? How do we convert them from something to be denied, hidden, or tamped down, into something to be embraced and used for the good of the organization and the team?

One model that has proven quite useful over the past two decades of use comes from the classic and widely used simulation, Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures. Called the “Four-Phase Model for Task Accomplishment,” this very simple approach guides us to first identify the similarities and differences at play in our interaction, verbally affirm them, spend time understanding them and, finally, explore how to leverage them.

How a specific team leverages similarities and differences will depend on the members of the team and their shared goals and realities. Each team creates its own team culture, ideally based upon and growing out of the first three phases of this Four-Phase Model.

As you can see in the graphic above, the Four-Phase Model is not linear, but rather each phase weaves into and out of the other. For example, understanding may lead to further identifying, or leveraging may lead to added affirmation.

A text description of the Model accompanies Ecotonos and provides further elaboration of the graphic:

  • Perceiving similarities and differences
  • Establishing which differences are divisive and which commonalties unite
  • Creating self-awareness of one’s own strengths and styles
  • Appropriate balancing of the tension between sameness and difference
  • Confirming individual commonalties and differences
  • Substantiating that difference is desirable
  • Legitimizing difference in the eyes of the group
  • Welcoming conflict and paying attention
  • Attempting to understand the other person’s perspective
  • Stepping into the other’s shoes
  • Mirroring/exploring and discovering together
  • Probing for deeper comprehension using various approaches
  • Seeing an issue from several vantage points
  • Defining how team members can contribute to goal accomplishment
  • Agreeing on methods for utilizing team expertise
  • Facilitating the generation of creative solutions
  • Creating a “team” culture
  • Focusing on efficiency and effectiveness

Once people become comfortable with the Identifying Phase, they may perceive the Affirming Phase as something unnecessary, a waste of everyone’s time. “We are all adults. We don’t need to give one another kudos.”

But my extensive experience proves, over and over again, that taking the time and effort to actively engage in the Affirming Phase is well worth the investment. Proceeding more slowly allows the team to accomplish more in less time, so to speak.

Below is one video that illustrates the value of affirmation in our lives. It is pretty long, but you’ll get the idea pretty quickly and I’m confident you’ll enjoy watching it.

The Four-Phase Model is one tool that can powerfully transform conflict into productivity and innovation. And, by the way, don’t forget that you are awesome!


The Case of Who’s in Charge: Whose language will we speak?

Or: “How to lose a US$1 million investment in less than an hour.”

Cultural Detective and the Case of Who’s in Charge

This case takes place in one of the world’s largest companies. The company has recruited, at much expense, a leading Nigerian scientist to head up a project; he is perhaps the only person in the world with the unique knowledge base, experience and connections needed to see this major project through to fruition.

The company has gone to great expense to relocate the Nigerian project manager to western Europe, and to assemble a cross-functional team of the company’s leading professionals to aid with the project. The project is of huge significance for the company. The plan is that it will break new ground and shift the way such projects are implemented worldwide. There is much hope and excitement, as well as huge investment and anticipated return, riding on it.

The project manager, the Nigerian scientist, calls a meeting with three of his team members. All four people greet one another in English, shake hands, and sit at a table for the meeting. The project manager introduces the agenda, in English. After a few minutes the discussion seems to naturally shift from English into the local language, and continues for about 45 minutes.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the four gentlemen stand up, again shake hands, and shift back to English to congratulate one another. One of them says, “I think we have devised an excellent plan.”

The project manager replies, “Oh, yes? And what would that plan be?”

The three others appear puzzled. “The plan we just agreed to,” they say. “The plan we’ve been discussing.”

The Nigerian responds, “I didn’t understand a word you were saying. I don’t speak that language.”

“Why didn’t you say so?! We could have switched to English!!” The others’ mouths drop open in disbelief at this waste of time, and the scientist’s failure to speak up.

“I am the project manager. I called this meeting, and I started it in English. All our correspondence has been in English. You all changed the language. It is a power play. Your colonialist ways never seem to change.”

After this meeting, the project manager requested his removal from the project. It appeared this hugely anticipated effort was dead before it had even gotten going!

An orientation to cross-cultural collaboration, including work on understanding and learning to deal with issues of post-colonialism, may have prevented this rocky start. There are times when, once mistakes have been made, there is no rescue or remedy. Convincing these team members to give it another go, to get past their doubts and discuss ways of respectfully and productively working together, required skilled facilitation. The project manager was convinced that his team members were racist, and the team members were convinced the project manager was overly sensitive. Both thought the other arrogant.

What are some of the techniques you might use in such a scenario? How might you help the team members gain empathy for what the project manager was feeling? How might you equip them with the skills they need to demonstrate respect in such an environment? How might you help the project manager develop the skills he needs to manage team members effectively, given post-colonialist realities?