In today’s business climate, a lot of companies are looking to save money on renting office space and have employees work from home or remote locations that are not situated in prime real estate areas. The head office or primary work location may be at a prestigious address, but all the workers do not need to work from there. To successfully have remote workers, just having them working from home is not enough. You need technology to help manage a virtual workplace.

You have to decide on which technologies you’ll want to use to help your virtual workforce communicate, hold meetings, share documents, manage projects and track progress. The best virtual technologies are “cloud-based” services. So, you do not need your own servers, and your workers can connect from anywhere and often from any type of computer or mobile device. As well, because the data is stored remotely, there is less chance of data loss in the event of a natural disaster.

SaaS, or Software as a Service, is not something that many businesses consider. However, the most used ones are Google Mail and Google Calendar. Both are easily accessed via a web browser for personal and business use. For most, these services are free. But there are premium Google Apps that are available to businesses that even allow businesses to use their company domain name on the Gmail platform. The Google apps not only include Gmail and Google Calendar, but offer a suite of productivity tools that allow users to create and edit word processing and spreadsheet files. Files are not only editable on Google Apps, they can be stored, shared and edited by other users, both inside and outside your domain group.

For those businesses that are more familiar with Microsoft’s suite of products such as MS Word, MS Excel and MS Outlook for email and calendar, Microsoft offers Office 365. Office 365 is a SaaS suite of tools. However, it is different in that storage is in the cloud (or local if you prefer) and the software also resides on your computer(s). So if the internet goes down, you still have access to the program to work with. You would just save the file locally and upload to the cloud later. Your subscription comes with cloud space included. Although the price seems hefty for a subscription, from Terry’s experience (Telsec’s Online Marketing & Community Manager), unless you did not update Office or word regularly, the ability to load Office 365 on multiple devices with all the updates and newest version (plus having the SaaS version when on the road), provides the best of both worlds for a flexible workplace.

If you had cloud space as a Member of Live or one of the earlier brands that Microsoft used over time, the cloud space provided was decreased but is still active. Also, keep in mind that Skype has been integrated into Outlook email and Calendar. So basically, at a glance, you can manage communication between members of your team or any email received from another person on Skype. Terry especially likes the Domain Name Server service in your Office 365  “admin” area.  This enables him to manage multiple website email accounts from his Office 365 portal. Between Azure (SaaS for Microsoft Servers), he has reduced overhead by $1,700 a month by eliminating cooling and buying bandwidth for the servers he owned – as well as one-time costs of about $15,000 for the 3 servers and software to run Exchange server and IIS. Now, he pays $153 a year for Office 365 and $53 a month for Azure. That represents huge savings, especially for a small business like his!

When a company needs more tools for project management to plan, manage and track jobs, there are tools like Basecamp and Microsoft Project (part of  Office 365) that are both hosted online and available to team members where ever they have an internet connection or a mobile smartphone that accesses the Internet. Microsoft Project could be loaded on up to 5 desktops, 5 tablets and 5 phones in addition to be being accessible from the web.

And let us not forget about document storage and file sharing with your virtual team, or even sharing documents with customers and clients. Dropbox and Google Drive are some of the more widely used tools for these purposes. They may have some free portions, but their paid prices are reasonable for any small business.  There is cloud space included with your Office 365 account and free space on a Live account. It has all the sharing features of the others, with the bonus of having both public and private control.

So, you need to have a collaborative meeting with you team who are working remotely. How do you do it? WebEx and GoToMeeting offer a great paid service for this type of meeting, but what about Google Hangouts? Hangouts may not always provide the most reliable meetings, but the cost can drive you to risk what you are aiming for. Remember, when you are paying for a service like WebEx or GoToMeeting, you have the right to make sure that you are getting what you paid for – and not a free service that holds no expectations. Skype’s messenger service has paid and free versions with most or all of the features of the others mentioned above, with the bonus of having integration into Outlook Email and Calendar (and no dependencies on appointments as long as the other person is a Skype user). Terry has also set up discussion groups on Skype for members of an organization, as well as discussion rooms for other ventures that have up to 50 participants in a chat discussion.