Save time and money with online meeting tools

A number of useful Internet-based tools have arisen that can help workgroups schedule and run them more effectively

If you're like me, you probably hate attending business meetings. But a number of useful Internet-based tools have arisen that can help workgroups schedule and run them more effectively. All of the tools here work within most popular Web browsers, and most of them are available for free or for fairly low monthly fees. The challenge is in understanding which tool suits a particular situation, because not every meeting is held under the same circumstances.

Sync Multiple Calendars

Certainly the most common situations are those where you want to synchronize a common calendar, such as between someone's PDA and their Microsoft Outlook desktop, or between a boss's calendar and an assistant's. Many services can make sharing calendars between work team members (or even between family members or friends) easier. Both Google Calendar and Yahoo Calendar offer free calendar sync, and numerous other products--including Calgoo's Connect, Apple's MobileMe and iTunes for its computers and iPhones, NuevaSync, and SugarSync--work with both services. BusySync and Spanning Sync also can synchronize Apple's iCal calendars with Google Calendar.

But these sync services don't always work correctly. Part of the problem is that most online calendar and scheduling products make use of e-mail for notification of events and invitations, and it is difficult for various calendar programs to recognize or act on such e-mail messages in any consistent fashion. Another issue is that if you get an e-mail from the calendar program with an embedded URL, your corporate antispam service might block it. And in still another situation, two people on two different Microsoft Exchange servers might wish to schedule a common meeting--it is possible to hook up both Exchange calendars so that they synchronize with the same Google Calendar account, but it can be tricky. One potential solution for that last problem is to use Cemaphore's MailShadow for Google Apps to synchronize the Exchange servers with Google Calendar; the software costs $60 per e-mail account per year.

One thing that both Google Calendar and Yahoo Calendar are great at doing is sending out e-mail reminders about recurring meetings to a collection of addresses. As long as you have entered the right addresses, this function works well.

Let Clients Set Up Appointments

What if you want your clients or any other people not employed by your company to book your time directly? In the long-ago past, appointment secretaries would be in charge of the boss's calendar and would set up meeting times with pencil and paper. Now you can point clients and outside colleagues to self-service appointment scheduler Web sites, such as HourTown or TimeDriver. These sites can display your staffers' free and busy times, as well as what remaining time "inventory" is available for appointments. They also send out e-mail notifications, and they don't require any special software beyond a Web browser to confirm the appointment. You can easily adjust the schedule when you are going out of town or are otherwise unavailable, too. Both services are available for a reasonable cost: TimeDriver has a free 90-day trial and is $30 a year thereafter; HourTown offers three different plans, including a free one that allows two monthly bookings.

Set Up a Common Meeting Time or a Shift Schedule

How about a situation where you want to arrange a common meeting time for people coming from different companies? A meeting organizer could send out an e-mail notification with a series of possible open times, and ask each participant to check off which of those times work for them. But if you have ever tried to organize this kind of meeting, you know how quickly you can get buried under all the e-mail responses.

The free services SetMeeting.com (from Meeting Agent) and Doodle are useful in this respect. SetMeeting.com's biggest weakness is that once you initiate the process it doesn't allow you to change the meeting location without canceling and starting from scratch. Doodle, which is less sophisticated and has fewer features, is really more of a polling device to help you find a common time; but you may find it attractive if that's all you wish to do.

Another situation might involve, say, a large number of shift workers or volunteers whose available times you want to coordinate. While this is not really a meeting-scheduling issue, it can be a time-consuming chore if you try to tackle it manually or attempt to make arrangements through a lot of back-and-forth e-mail. The paid services Schedulefly and Shiftboard are designed for this purpose. The former was developed for restaurant staffers, while the latter was originally constructed for the healthcare market. Both have since expanded their focus, and can run in any Web browser. Schedulefly starts at $20 a month for up to 19 users; Shiftboard starts at $50 a month for five unique log-ins. The fees go up for larger groups. Schedulefly has a Facebook plug-in, too, so you can coordinate and announce shift times there.

Send Out Travel Alerts to Far-Flung Colleagues

A rather unusual service is that offered by Tripit.com. The idea behind the Web site is for you to post your travel arrangements and use its social networking features to tell your associates and buddies when your journeys will take you to their neighborhood, or to find out when they will be in your neck of the woods. Of course, setting that up means sending out more invitations to yet another social network, and getting as many people as possible (or at least the ones you want to see face-to-face) to join your Tripit circle. But once you have your network of friends, notifying them of your trip is relatively easy: You just forward the e-mail confirmation for your airline or hotel reservation to a special address (plans@tripit.com), and the site will automatically parse the information in the confirmation, figure out who is traveling, and post your travel itinerary to your network. The service is free, too, and it can integrate with your LinkedIn network so that you don't have to assemble your notification network from scratch.

As you can see, all kinds of Web-based services can help you schedule and coordinate your in-person meetings more effectively. Now if only someone would develop a service that could notify everyone that you're running 10 minutes late for your appointments!

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David Strom

PC World (US online)

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