There are a number of other tools available today for individuals and teams who want to improve their virtual team productivity beyond that afforded by the more mainstream tools mentioned in this tools section. Below are the ones wehave found to be most useful. Keep in mind that these tools take a bit more tweaking and patience to use, but their benefits are well worth the effort.
- Graphics Tablet—During brainstorming sessions, a graphics tablet allows much easier, faster and more natural sketching. Because the tablet more closely approximates the natural writing and drawing skills we all learn early in life, it is the best tool available for greatly improving the online collaboration experience when sketching ideas or sorting concepts are required. The tablet can be used not only for those times when sketching is required, it can even replace the mouse. One of the authors has discovered that once he became used to the graphics tablet pen as a mouse replacement, his repetitive-motion strains from excessive mousing went away. Of course, pointing devices are personal and everyone has a favorite.
- VoIP—Voice-over-IP can replace the phone for quick conversations. It can save phone costs for long-distance communications and is already built into many of the desktop sharing and IM tools. You must choose your VoIP vendor wisely, however. Even moderate delays in the delivery of the voice data from end to end can ruin the casual dynamics of a conversation. We estimated the maximum tolerable delay to be on the order of 50-100 ms (milliseconds). Much more than this and people find themselves talking over each other until they resort to disruptive handoff protocols such as, “Okay, your turn.”
- Dual displays—A little known feature of most laptops is that they can drive an external display, while at the same time displaying different information on their built-in screen. Using the dual-display driver available with newer versions of Windows, it is possible to set up a large external screen as your primary display and the laptop as a secondary. The mouse cursor easily moves between the two so you can move windows for e-mail, IM, and even whiteboarding sessions to the laptop display, leaving room for core work on the main display. This is a wonderful thing.
- Speech Recognition—As good as it is today, it is surprising that speech recognition (SR) software has not become much more popular with the average office worker. When combined with a good quality USB headset with a noise-canceling microphone, a good SR tool can immensely speed communications and dictation. We found that one particularly good application for SR is IM. It is possible to carry on lengthy IM chats without once touching the keyboard to make corrections. Of course, to reach this accuracy level required a good deal of vocabulary tuning in the recognizer software. Our best experience has been with the most recent versions of Naturally Speaking® and the latest SR engine built into Microsoft Vista.