Staying In Touch

Cheryl Cain
From email to instant messaging agents, group-level chatware to Internet-based telephony and beyond, there is an increasingly wide array of online communications options available for workers, team members, clients and more. Whether the people you wish to communicate are across town – or across the globe – the following tools will make getting in touch with them quick, easy – and in most cases, free. Let's take a closer look at some of the more popular tools being used today:

Email Systems
The most basic form of online communication, email offers the benefits of universal availability and an easy "electron trail" – meaning that records of email communications are easily maintained by all parties involved. "Read receipts" provide a means of ensuring that the message is received and opened, while the ability to send a single email to multiple recipients makes communicating the same message to as many people as necessary an effortless process.

Many anti-virus programs scan both incoming and outgoing email messages for viruses and other malicious "hitchhikers," while the programs themselves tend to be devoid of common "free software" problems like spyware. Add to these factors the ability to encrypt messages for increased privacy as well as the ability to easily attach files and you end up with a near-perfect tool for online communications.

Email isn't perfect however; with its main drawback being its less-than-real-time operation. While a sustained dialog can be conducted using email when all parties are focused on reducing any lag in response times, it's almost impossible to maintain a natural and timely flow of communications using this method.

Instant Messaging
Perhaps the most popular method of immediate online communications, instant messaging (or "I-M-ing") services are available from major ISPs including AOL and MSN, from powerhouse portals like Yahoo! and from private providers such as ICQ.

Instant messaging takes the guesswork out of wondering if the recipient received your message or not; since most systems provide an indication of the user's online status (whether they're available or not), while allowing for an easy and immediate response. Attaching (and receiving) files is relatively easy on most systems, as is the ability to archive messages. Broadband users can also take advantage of the "push to talk" and webcam options available on some instant messaging clients, further extending their usefulness.

Instant messaging is not without its drawbacks, however. Chief among these are the lack of interoperability among platforms and the time consuming tendencies of "needy" chatters. While products such as Trillian allow users to IM across networks, sending and receiving AIM, MSN, Yahoo!, ICQ and other messages from one application, they do nothing to prevent others from feeling that your use of IM grants them a license to keep you at their beck and call.

Indeed, with IM-ing it's all too easy to find yourself hampered in your duties while being pestered by others who do not value your time as much as you do... Finally, instant messaging systems do not typically allow for real time communications between multiple users, limiting their usefulness as a vehicle for virtual conference calls.

Group Chat Tools
Sometimes, such as in the case of companies that use multiple remote workers, a mechanism for instant, group-wide messaging is required. This is where chat rooms come into play, including a technology known as IRC, which stands for Internet Relay Chat.

IRC, often accessed through the popular mIRC software, can be thought of as instant messaging where multiple viewers can post and read public messages intended for the entire group, as well as conduct private messages between individuals. This makes IRC a valuable tool for project development, training and ongoing internal communications. Files can be shared among users and everyone within an organization can make use of this virtual "water cooler" approach to open communication.

IRC isn't as widely used today as IM technology, however, making it a better choice for in-house use as opposed to its use as a customer service tool or vehicle for easy access to a large client base. While often overlooked and considered as "old" technology, IRC is still an effective way to keep geographically diverse operators (or even those in adjacent offices) "on the same page."

Voice-Based Systems
For some, only the spoken word will do as a form of communication. Whether you don't feel like typing due to its lack of timeliness or your lack of accurate spelling – or typing alone would not convey the message as well as the nuances of inflection and easy exchange of ideas enabled by voice contact; getting someone on the phone is the most straightforward approach to remote communication.

Phone calls (especially to the other side of the world) cost money, however, and as such are often prohibitive. Enter the world of VoIP or "voice over Internet protocol" communications. Consumer-level offerings such as the popular Vonage system are bringing this technology into the home, but its uses online are equally attractive.

While popular IM systems such as ICQ have added telephony capabilities, dedicated applications such as Skype may provide a more robust set of tools and technologies. According to its website, "Skype is software that enables you to make free calls anywhere in the world. Skype uses innovative P2P (peer-to-peer) technology to connect you with other users. It offers several features, including SkypeOut calling from Skype to regular and mobile phones worldwide, conference calling, and secure file transferring. Skype calls have better sound quality than your regular phone and are highly secure, with end-to-end encryption."

While Skype's outcalling features are not free, many of its features are, making it an excellent choice for internal communications with the flexibility to access the world at large.

No one system is the right tool for every job, but with the variety of communications options available, every company, regardless of its size, has the ability to stay in touch with its employees, customers and partners – no matter where they might be. Find the option(s) best suited to your needs and stay in touch!

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