Frank J. Borkowski
Over the next few months we’ll cover various aspects of the “virtual office."

Unless you have more than 10 employees, you no longer need a Windows server for getting e-mail, shared documents, or even construction management. You can do all you need to do better and cheaper using hosted services on the Internet and getting all your “stuff” into a centralized location online so everyone has access. It will solve so many communication problems that you’ll wonder how you did it any other way. Here's how to get started:

Use webware that offers a “role-based security” system. This allows subs/suppliers to see the schedules or plans only for the jobs they’re working on or restricts client access to their particular job.

Make sure important documents shared online are “version controlled” so somebody doesn’t download and use an outdated set of plans or forms.

Remember that the more familiar it is, the better. If your staff are using Microsoft Outlook, Word, and Excel, then by all means find a virtual office system that will plug easily into Outlook, Word, and Excel.

Include some kind of “workflow” or “shared task” module. Nothing keeps people accountable like an online system that lets everyone see who completes assignments on time.

Think compatibility. Half the Web traffic these days is from smartphones, iPads, and other non-computer devices. Your virtual office solution should work with the gadgets your users are most likely to access it with.

Leverage your website. Virtual office systems should integrate with your site, such as routing a sales or warranty service request to the right people.

Today there are dozens of potential solutions. Generic “webware” from Microsoft, Google, Zoho, and others, industry-specific online applications such as Co-Construct, or a combination of these. Money is no longer the limiting factor — many online applications are free and you’re no longer stuck with any one vendor because today it’s easier to mix and match depending on your needs.

—Joe Stoddard is an industry consultant helping remodelers be successful with their technology.; [email protected].