The long reign of e-mail is over, and that’s a good sign for current and would-be teleworkers.
The overthrow of e-mail was most recently proclaimed  by the Wall Street Journal columnist Jessica Vascellaro this month. Her contention is that as more individuals turn to alternative, more instantaneous communication vehicles like Instant Messenger (IM), Twitter, and Facebook, e-mail’s long stint as our main form of communication is coming to an end.
In professional and collegiate settings alike, e-mail has long dominated as the most preferred intra- and inter-office communication tool. Frankly, that’s not going to change anytime soon, despite predictions of its decline.
But there is a growing movement toward other communication and collaboration tools that give individuals and organizations a competitive advantage over others. Especially for schools, offices, and organizations that have a decentralized work force, the use of these additional communication tools isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Even though tools like IM have been around for some time, it seems that misgivings and misunderstandings continue to abound. I became most acutely aware of this as I recently discussed instant messaging with a non-IM colleague who finally said, “I just don’t see why you can’t have the same conversation over e-mail!” Until that conversation, I thought the benefits of online collaboration and communication tools were self-evident, but clearly there is explaining to be done.
It is the misunderstanding of what these tools are and how they should be used that contributes to some of the negative feelings that managers and workers may have toward decentralized work arrangements. Any college, corporation, government agency, or other organization looking to boost its productivity should consider implementing some basic online communication and collaboration tools. According to a study sponsored by Verizon and Cisco, organizations that implement these collaborative communication tools can boost productivity by some 400 percent.
Here is a basic toolkit that colleges and other organizations with a decentralized work force should never be without.
Using IM is a no-brainer for any college student. But many colleges and organizations fail to understand its usefulness. The value of instant messaging is twofold. First, it allows users to communicate instantly. That means no more one-question emails or one-line responses. There is also less need for 20 back and forth e-mails when a simple IM conversation will do.
When a research professor needs a piece of data from a graduate assistant, she can just IM him. When a business officer needs a standard cost of attendance number from the financial aid office, an IM could easily suffice. Most IM clients even allow users to save and archive chat sessions that can be referenced later, (although not all chats may be worthy or wanted for later review!).
The second benefit of IMs comes in the form of instant updates. IM clients allow users to mark whether they are available, busy, offline, on the phone, and a host of other updates. Used correctly, these updates can occur automatically (e.g., when I’m on the phone my IM client automatically updates my status as such). Many IM clients allow users to post notes next to their status that may indicate whether they are in the office, in a meeting, on vacation, or out sick. These one-way broadcasts to friends and colleagues give instantaneous information that doesn’t require any inquiry beyond opening your IM software application and quickly scanning availability statuses.
Some of the most popular IM clients include: Google Talk, MSN Messenger, AOL, Skype, & Yahoo. Some corporate email clients actually include IM clients as well.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is basically a phone connection through the Internet. Organizationally, VoIP may be less expensive than landline communication. Calls between users on the same network or platform are usually free of charge. But where VoIP really comes in handy is in how it interacts with other computing services.
The right VoIP program will integrate with your contact lists in your email client. It will also automatically update your IM status and give you a comprehensive summary of all of your previous calls, organized by contact. Many VoIP services include a recording function that allows users to review conversations at a later date.
Taken to the next level, a good VoIP platform will record voicemails directly onto your computer. One service, Google Voice, not only offers users one phone number that can be rerouted to any other number, but also transcribes voicemails with surprising accuracy and sends transcriptions of those voicemails to you via email or text message on a cell phone. No more wasting time dialing into your voicemail and taking notes.
Online Meeting Software
There are times when it is important for everyone to be on the same page, literally. Good online meeting software allows everyone to work off of the same screen. Effective meeting software allows multi-directional communication, so that instead of one person manipulating a shared computer screen, several people can control a shared screen. Some programs, such as GoToMeeting,  integrate audio and a live feed of the screen into one application. Others allow multiple users to update the screen in real-time, without passing control from one person to the next. Still others allow users to see each other through the use of a Web Cam, although the novelty of that feature may wear off quickly.
A simple Internet search of online meeting platforms yields hundreds of results, so some experimentation will be needed to find the best fit for your purposes. What’s most important is to find something that allows multiple users in different physical locations to see the same thing and work off of the same documents simultaneously in a truly collaborative way.
The above technologies represent a starting point for schools or organizations – especially those with a decentralized workforce. Many organizations may be well beyond the suggestions in this article and may be using online tools to track document changes, workflow status updates, project management, calendaring and travel schedules, and much more.
Other technologies are still emerging, like Google’s much anticipated “Google Wave” that combines several of the above technologies into one platform that allows users to collaborate and communicate in real time.
Purposefully left off of the list are many of the popular social networking sites that are quite useful when it comes to socializing, but haven’t found a real home in office productivity. (To my knowledge, no manager, researcher, provost, or college president has ever given directions or assignments to a subordinate through Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn.)
What communication and collaboration tools do you use on your campus or at your organization?
Justin Draeger is vice president of public policy & advocacy for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.