I can't begin to tell you the kinds of benefits to working for a digital agency where all the team members distributed across the country (but wearing pajama bottoms until 4pm is definitely one of them). But that's not to say there aren't drawbacks (like when my colleagues' face freezes in the middle of a Skype conversation).
Still, you'd be surprised how easy it is to make 3,000 miles feel like sitting across the table. Not every company has the same needs, but here are a few of the programs we use to eliminate the disadvantages of distance and communicate working remotely—as well as some alternatives in case your circumstances are a bit different:
It’s no secret that Google rules the Internet, especially in collaborative software. It's an integral part of our everyday life at Beutler Ink, and not just the fact that our company email is powered by Gmail (technically, Google Apps for Business, and the Gmail interface it provides).
The service formerly known as Google Chat—which we all still call "Gchat"—is the quickest way to send short messages, questions, and updates to several of your colleagues at once, without the megabyte-filling commitment of an email. Gchat is the updated version of the first instant messenger software and, while other services exist, Google Chat allows easy communication on your professional email (as opposed to chat services such as Facebook chat or AOL instant messenger).
If you are a person that finds yourself with more web tabs open than is physically possible to keep track of, then an additional service such as Adium might be helpful. Adium is a third-party client for connecting to services run by other companies; if you want to connect Facebook chat, or if you still use AIM, if you like free, open-source, multi-platform solutions, and if you want to keep all your chats in one window and tab among them, Adium just might be for you.
For a distributed team, it’s important to interact face-to-face every so often. When Beutler Ink decides to convene as a group, we use Google Hangouts, Google’s group video chat (for up to 15 people if you have a business account, and up to 10 if you don’t). Warning: Brushing your hair is a necessity before using this feature. An alternative to Google Hangouts is Skype, which has become a verb in its own right (i.e. “Are you Skyping with Phil later on?”). While Skype is old hand at services such as mobile/landline calling or outbound audio calling, a paid subscription is necessary for multiple video calls. Fortunately, Google is now integrating these services as well and the multi-person video conferencing is free (at least for now).
For those times that words just aren’t enough, and you need to share your screen, we’ve experimented with a couple of platforms. Google Hangouts does offer a screen-share option, but requires everyone to be present in a hangout to use this option. More complex services such as GoToMeeting from Citrix includes the ability to share keyboard and mouse control, instantly change presenters, and record meetings. A similar app is Join.me, which provides instant screen-sharing in addition to being easily accessible by your phone or tablet.
Of course, being an agency, we have to communicate working remotely with our client partners as well—hello, conference calls!—and we can't always rely on clients or potential business partners to be on the same platform as we are. In recent years, a number of large companies (and startups as well) have focused on new ways to arrange voice calls. For these circumstances, we're quite fond of a Washington, DC-based startup called Speek. The best thing about Speek is that—with apologies to Yakov Smirnoff—it calls you. However, at times we've had some reliability issues, so lately we're trying UberConference as well.
These are the ones that work for us—and we've experimented with a few. But our needs may not be the same as everyone's. If you think we've missed a use case—or have a better suggestion for what we're doing, please share in the comments below!