Who hasn’t awakened a colleague from a deep sleep with a mistimed telephone query, wished for a quick in-person chat to resolve a sticky problem with a co-worker who’s forever on the move, or didn’t know where to find a critical file owned by someone half a world away?

These and other problems are commonplace for those who work on teams in other parts of the city, country, or the world. Frequent travel is exhausting and expensive, and can’t be the day-to-day solution.

So, while you’ve probably solved the time zone problem by checking the web for local time before you make a call, the following suggestions might help solve some of the other problems of working with others a world away.

1. Use Instant Messaging for quick impromptu meetings

One tool that’s often overlooked when working with virtual teams and remote co-workers is instant messaging (IM). It’s a great tool for a quick answer or opinion. Once you add your teammates to your contact list, the IM program, such as Windows Messenger or MSN Messenger, will let you know when they’re online. You can also message a team member’s cell phone, such as the Microsoft Windows Mobile-based Smartphone.

Most programs also allow a multi-person chat, making instant messages a great way to conduct a spontaneous meeting. Unlike email, everyone sees the messages and can respond simultaneously—even “talking” all at once—adding a touch of closeness for far-flung team members. Some of these programs also enable you and your team to exchange files, use a whiteboard—even see each other if you each have a Webcam.

What you need to get going:  Everyone can download either Windows Messenger or MSN Messenger, both Microsoft products. The one downside of instant messaging is that it often only works if everyone is using the same program and system.

2. Use a virtual conference room for more formal meetings

Web-based conferencing makes it possible to brainstorm, make a slide presentation, have a staff meeting, or conduct training sessions with a group of people who are thousands of miles apart. Everyone attending sees the same information at the same time, as if they were gathered around one table. These programs, such as Microsoft Office Live Meeting, also enable you to share files (not just prepared slides), use digital whiteboards—even save the presentation so people who couldn’t attend the meeting can watch it later. Most services charge on a monthly or per user/per minute basis.

1. Green boxes indicate who is attending the meeting.
2. You can make notes using a digital whiteboard.
3. Your agenda goes here.

What you need to get going:  With Live Meeting you just need a telephone and a PC with a web connection. Get more information about Microsoft Office Live Meeting.

3. Keep your meetings organized

What’s the agenda for today’s meeting, and where are the documents you need to review? What did you decide at last week’s meeting? There’s an alternative to scrambling through email messages, attachments, and your file system to find the answers—a Meeting Workspace provides a central place on the web for all this information. It’s easy to set up: you create the site within an Outlook meeting request.

Then, before a meeting, use it to send a meeting invitation to those attending and include a link to the workspace where those invited can see the agenda and find the documents you plan to discuss. Conduct the meeting as you would ordinarily whether in person, over the phone, or using a conferencing program, such as Live Meeting. Then use a Meeting Workspace to publish the meeting results and track tasks.

What you need to get going:   Everyone on the team needs Microsoft Office Outlook 2003, a Microsoft Exchange Server email account, and access to a SharePoint Services site. Talk to your IT administrator to find out what your company has set up. Get the details on how to use and set up a Meeting Workspace.

4. Set up a virtual water cooler

Set up a website for everyone on your team to share information such as calendars, to-do lists, and reports, as well as poll team members on an upcoming decision or hold newsgroup-style discussions. With a Windows SharePoint Services site, you can control access to team documents, keeping track of versions and updates. As teammates add or delete documents, links are automatically updated so the content is always current. You can also personalize the display of information to a certain extent—for example, hide information that doesn’t interest you or change the order in which the information is listed.

What you need to get going: Everyone on the team needs to have access to a SharePoint Services site. Get more detail on the benefits of using a SharePoint site or take advantage of the free trial version.

Note  You can also set up a SharePoint site (and the Meeting Workspace mentioned above) using Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server.

5. Review edits of co-workers, no matter where they are

When you can’t pore over a document together, the ability to track the changes you and your teammates make is a boon to collaboration. Microsoft Office Word, Microsoft Office Excel, and Microsoft Office PowerPoint all enable you to track the changes you make, although the capabilities in Word are the most powerful.

You can also accept or reject proposed changes, and when it’s time to distribute the document, you can set Word to hide all revisions. For a more final version, you can accept all the changes to make sure that no stray revision marks or comments remain in the document you plan to distribute.

1. Word automatically color-codes the edits and comments of each person. (You can display the comments of any one reviewer or all reviewers.)
2. Word tags edits with the reviewer’s initials as well as the date and time of each change.

What you need to get going:  Learn how to track changes in Word with three self-paced lessons and two hands-on practice sessions. When you’re done, take away a Quick Reference Card to help you work on your own. You can also find out how to track changes in Excel and track changes in PowerPoint.

6. Stay in touch: Use a PDA to keep your important data with you

One challenge to long-distance collaboration is making sure you have on hand all the documents you need to contribute to a conference call or online meeting. This is even more difficult when you’re away from your desk. Consider solving part of the problem with a mobile device such as a Smartphone or a Pocket PC. You can easily keep information on your mobile device synchronized with your desktop or notebook computer so you always have the latest information with you. Read more about Windows mobile devices.

What you need to get going:  Browse the devices available on Windows Mobile and talk with your IT department about their recommendations. If you use a Windows Mobile-based device, you’ll have all you need to keep your computer and mobile device in sync. However, you may want to take advantage of the latest version of ActiveSync, the software that makes synchronization possible