Collaborating without an office Part 1: Remote tool-set

January 25, 2011


1st of two guest posts by Ben Hanna, the lead user interface designer of CouchSurfing.org which has no formal office. Part 2 covers the team’s Habits and Strategies of their “working environment”.

I work for CouchSurfing.org and we are 100% remote with no central office. We have 30 full time contributors spread over 15 time zones in every continent but Antarctica, and have been working this way for over a year.

Our critical tool-set consists of:

  • basecampBasecamp: Basecamp is a project collaboration and task management service. It has proven to be a valuable asset as it allows for file sharing, to-do lists, collaboration, and time tracking. Since not everyone is online at one time, we can work in batches, then pass tasks on to the next time zone when we log off.
  • Google Apps: Google Apps is great as it offers three products we use, Google Docs, Gmail and Google Talk / Chat. We use Google Docs to create documents that allow for multiple people to work on the same file at the same time and share ideas. It also makes spreadsheets and sharing presentations simple. Gmail takes care of our email and makes it easy to create and manage new and old email addresses. And finally, Google Talk / Chat allows us to communicate with each other via voice and text while working on projects.
  • Skype: Skype is great for impromptu discussions and voice chat one on one. However, it fails with larger numbers of people. It also keeps a long chat history with search-able text, which is useful. And lastly, it has simple but effective screen sharing.
  • teamspeakTeamSpeak: TeamSpeak offers group voice chat software, that has a higher group limit than Skype (24 people), which makes it perfect for company wide meetings.   It further allow us to set up different “rooms” for virtual conferences with different encryption and bandwidth levels. And finally it has push to talk functionality to limit bandwidth use.
  • Campfire: Campfire is 37signals based web chat that integrates with Basecamp, but is also a great standalone. When used with Fluid App for Mac, it becomes a powerful chat client that can do inline image and code display. We even use it for visual mock-ups and idea creation.
  • Dropbox: We use Dropbox to share files, back up work, and keep documents secure. We can remove documents from someone’s folder if they no longer need access and it keeps everyone up to date by syncing.
  • Freshbooks: FreshBooks allows us to easily manage contractor’s billing, hours, and work. Each contractor sends invoices in via FreshBooks and we can automatically pay them and keep track.
  • TrackRecord: TrackRecord is a a Basecamp plugin that allows individuals to record time spent on tasks and easily update their time online.
  • Email: This is changing, as we move to more group discussion on Basecamp – but email is still the go to tool for one-to-one communication if we are not on a chat client together.

On the tech/development side we utilize:

  • vmware_window SVN / GIT: Both these products keep our file system up to date and maintain our code base, but do things each a little differently.
  • VMware / VirtualBox: Both provide virtual machines that allow us to keep running identical copies of our system on everyone’s computers. In one update, we can all migrate to the newest version.

Those are all the tools we use to help us work without an office, but it takes a lot more than tools to make us successful. In the next post, I’ll cover our Habits and Strategies for working without an office.

Ben Hanna is the lead user interface designer of CouchSurfing.org which has no formal office. CouchSurfing.org is a worldwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit.


about the author

This is a guest post for the FreshBooks blog. FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.