Note: this post originally appeared as a guest post on WebWorkerDaily.

A little over 2 years ago my partner and I packed up our offices, sold all our office furniture and officially joined the full-time web-working crowd. Since then we’ve made plenty of mistakes, but we’ve also cleared our fair share of hurdles. The hardest part of the switch? Communicating effectively.

Communication is tough enough when everyone is in the same room. It’s exponentially more difficult after you end all physical interaction. Gone were the days of huddling around the whiteboard, brainstorming over carry-out and getting instant feedback on your work.

In the Beginning

As web-working greenhorns we decided we could just recreate our office virtually and everything would work itself out. We thought the easiest way to recreate the office was to promote as much real-time communication as possible. We all logged into IM every morning, checked in and then announced our every action to everyone in the team. After all, if we were in the office everyone would know what we were up to at any given moment, why should it be any different now?

Wow. That was a mess. Nobody cared what menial task I was up to and worse, it disrupted the entire team’s work. It was our safety blanket though. It felt good to know Bob didn’t pick up the phone because he was getting the mail or that Tom isn’t returning my critical IM because he was walking the dog. Despite that, the few occasions it did come in handy hardly made up for the daily barrage of garbage IMs. (ed: Had this been today, it would be an ideal use of Twitter, don’t you think?)

Tools?

After the massive failure of our first attempt we figured we needed to invest in some new Web 2.0 gadgetry to simplify our lives, give us a team collaboration space and centralize all our data. The market was much thinner 2 years ago but there were still no lack of companies vying for our attention and dollars. The promise was appealing: “We’ll facilitate easier team collaboration.” Great, just what we’re looking for.

After a couple days of research we ended up with a couple different tools, one a general intranet, one for project management, one for sharing documents and one for tracking bugs in our product. You’d think with all those resources we’d use one of them. Right? Wrong!

Documents got emailed, important messages were sent over IM, customer contact details could be in any one of 12 different places, bugs were scribbled on legal pads. We never fully invested in any one solution and consequently wasted our money on all of them.

Eureka!

We finally came to a solution that everyone is happy with and it only took us two years. Maybe I can spare you some of the trouble and let you in on our inside secrets.

After realizing all we’d done wrong we set out with a simple mission: use only web based services and use as few of them as possible. The payoff was immediate, nothing to install, troubleshoot or maintain. No huge upfront cost. Works for anyone, anywhere.

We use NetSuite for all our customer and vendor data. All emails to and from customers are stored in NetSuite, all our accounting is done in NetSuite, customers can create support requests in NetSuite. If it has to do with a customer it’s in NetSuite. NetSuite is an “enterprise” application so it is not cheap, but for our needs it is well worth the expense.

We use several different subversion repositories for the different files we need to keep track of and the different employees allowed to access them. For example, all our source code is in a repository called RPMWare.Development, all our marketing materials are in a repository named RPMWare.Marketing, we also have a general repository and one for sensitive information. We can quickly sync our computers (working copies in SVN terms) with the repository and stay on the same page. SVN also keeps track of each version of a file in case we make changes that need undone.

Unfuddle hosts our subversion repositories and provides project management and bug tracking. It’s working great because it’s all in one place. We don’t have 4 different services to login to, just one. Unfuddle messages have supplemented email and Unfuddle notebooks make a great place for quick document collaboration although it’s best to use something like Google Documents if you are going to publish your document.

If you’re not familiar with GMail or Google Docs it’s time to get with the times. We use both and have since we started “web working.” It’s been one of the very few things that worked since day one.

Although this exact setup may not work for you, the underlying ideas apply to anyone making the switch from office work to web work. Web work is fundamentally different than any other type of work and those differences must be taken into account when setting up your web workplace. Generally speaking, what worked in your “real” office is not going to work exactly the same in your new web office. Embrace the constraints and opportunities of web work and you’ll find a solution that works well for your needs.

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