The 6 best online collaboration tools for remote work
READ TIME: 16 MINUTES
Calendly, May 23, 2020
Remote work has been a trending practice for longer than you might think. Over the past five years, the number of people working remotely has increased by 44%. In the past 10 years, it’s increased by 90%. But the turning point that truly brought remote work into the mainstream was the coronavirus pandemic.
As social distancing became an increasingly necessary precaution, companies worldwide started to establish work-from-home policies. Time magazine called it “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment,” and it’s been highly successful. The president of Global Workplace Analytics believes that even after teams start returning to offices, 25% to 30% of the workforce will continue to work from home multiple days a week.
Without this forced “experiment,” companies may never have been nudged into finding so many high-quality tools for remote teams. It’s been a widespread research project with much real-time trial and error, but remote teams have finally started to identify what tools work best.
6 best tools for online collaboration
Here are the frontrunners that have emerged, one from each of the must-have categories of tools for remote teams.
1. Zoom: The best tool for videoconferencing
Zoom has become a household name since the beginning of the pandemic, and for good reason. It’s intuitive to use with a minimal learning curve, which may be part of why it enjoyed such rapid adoption among remote workers.
“I never get asked about how to use Zoom,” says Greg Martin, Senior Manager of NASDAQ. Martin says that once his people are set up with Zoom, they start using it quickly and keep using it often.
Zoom is known not just for its accessibility, but also for its reliability and seamless video conferencing experience. Zoom offers HD video and audio for meetings of any size, whether you’re speaking face-to-face or sharing content across screens.
Zoom did field some concerns about its security early in 2020, but the company has stepped up in a big way since then. Communications are encrypted with 256-bit transport layer security, more commonly known as TLS, and any content shared during meetings can be encrypted with 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard.
Privacy protections are robust on the user’s side as well. In addition to encrypting meetings, you can password-protect or lock meetings, disable or eject participants (one at a time or all at once) and restrict the meeting to people with a specific email domain. This last feature is great if you’re having an internal discussion with proprietary information.
Zoom is SOC 2 Type II compliant and certified by the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program. It adheres to the GDPR and can be made HIPAA-compliant, a feature that has earned the loyalty of clientele like Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Access Physicians and the CARE Network.
Zoom has plenty of customer testimonials on its site and high ratings across multiple aggregate sites. It’s a Customers’ Choice 2020 winner on Gartner Peer Insights, where it has 4.6 out of five stars from more than 1,300 customer ratings.
It’s also a top pick on TrustRadius, where its score is 8.9 out of 10 with 1,561 ratings and reviews. It has 4.5 out of five stars on G2, an even more impressive score when you consider that more than 24,600 people have provided ratings. If 25,000 people have rated a tool that highly, almost certainly worth a try.
2. Calendly: The best tool for scheduling
Meetings have always been a fact of life in the business world, and that hasn’t changed in the new remote workforce. If anything, finding the right time to meet is more important than ever, since you can’t pop down the hall and visit a coworker’s cubicle.
Video meetings are now pervasive in many professionals’ daily schedules. Appointment scheduling software has become one of the most essential tools for scheduling those conferences, and Calendly tops the list of options.
Scheduling meetings used to mean extensive back-and-forth between coworkers, suggesting time slots and alternatives. Things got even more complicated if you were working with collaborators across multiple time zones. Calendly eliminates all of that hassle.
Like Zoom, Calendly is easy to learn and use. You start by setting up your appointment calendar the way you want people to see it. You decide how long you want your meetings to be and block off any time slots you don’t want people to request. You also have the option to set up buffers between meetings so you don’t end up overscheduled.
People will see your availability when they click on your scheduling link. It’s easy to add the link to your website, social media pages and emails — anywhere people go to schedule appointments with you. This flexibility is important when you’re holding all of your meetings remotely.
If you have invitees in other time zones, the system automatically displays your availability in their local time. That means no more confusing emails and missed meetings because of simple miscommunication.
Once someone picks a time and the meeting is scheduled, all participants get a confirmation link. If you have a paid plan, you can also send out reminder texts to cut down on the likelihood of no-shows.
You can stop searching through long email threads for that elusive time slot that works for everyone. Calendly can pool the availability of multiple team members. From that data, you can select a time that works for everyone or assign meetings based on who’s available.
When all of your team communications are virtual, this kind of streamlined scheduling is essential for avoiding confusion.
Calendly integrates with most popular calendar apps including Google Calendar, Outlook and iCloud. When your invitee selects a time slot, the system can add that appointment to both of your calendars so that no one misses a meeting.
There are also integrations available for Zoom and GoToMeeting. By connecting to outside tools, you can add videoconference links and passwords to your Calendly events. Say goodbye to searching your email just to get access to your afternoon meeting!
You can get Calendly integrations for many CRMs, marketing platforms and recruiting systems as well. Running a Zoom class or webinar and need to take payments? Calendly integrates with PayPal and Stripe so you can collect fees when people register.
You don’t have to take Calendly’s quality on faith. The platform has 4.7 out of five stars with 680+ reviews on G2, which named Calendly a leader in its category for spring 2020. Calendly has even more reviews — over 1,000 — on Capterra, where users have rated it 4.6 out of five stars.
3. Slack: The best tool for team communication
Slack has been a go-to team communications hub for years. It’s the platform of choice for top-name companies like Hearst Magazines, Vodafone, RBC and Fox.
Slack appeals to so many different kinds of organizations largely because it’s extremely customizable. You can sort your communications into channels based on teams, projects, departments and more. Team members can join channels or invite outside collaborators so that every conversation is easy to find.
Within channels, it’s easy to share files, videos and images. Slack user InDesign loves that it’s easy to add GIFs and emojis to any communications thread. These little extras make it possible to connect and build relationships virtually — something that’s not always easy to accomplish in a remote work environment.
Slack doesn’t limit you to text, either. Collaborators can jump on a voice or video call, the latter of which can include interactive screen sharing. This tool lets collaborators manipulate and mark up the presenter’s screen, an essential function for web-based automation company Zapier.
“Slack’s interactive screen … allows multiple members of our team to jump into a support ticket and work together to resolve it,” says Zapier Head of Partnerships Cody Jones. “Slack is really the backbone of what we do, it’s the ‘I need an answer right now,’ type of communication.”
Slack's integration suite is one of its most standout features. Its directory includes more than 2,000 apps that can make your workday easier and more satisfying in many ways.
There are apps like Bonusly and HeyTaco, which let you recognize accomplishments and applaud coworkers for going the extra mile. There are also dozens of productivity integrations to tools that teams already use, like Gmail, Google Drive, Outlook, Asana and more.
Many of Slack’s integrations come with “brilliant bots” as well — advanced machine learning tools that let you automate communications with collaborators inside and outside your company.
Slash commands also help Slack stand out from the pack. A slash command is a built-in shortcut that you type into a Slack message field, telling the system to take a particular action.
Send a help request to Slack with /feedback
Open a new channel with /open plus a hashtag and the channel name
Private message someone with /dm or message a channel with /msg
Get a list of the reminders you have with /remind list
This is only a small sample of the ways slash commands can streamline your workflow. There are many more general slash commands as well as app-specific shortcuts that let you use your integrations more efficiently.
Slash commands are the perfect example of how Slack makes collaboration easier — by taking what you already do and finding ways of making it happen faster.
4. Trello: The best tool for project management
This is a tough category to narrow down. There are so many well-designed project management tools out there, but Trello wins the prize by getting the job done without the need for distracting bells and whistles.
Trello describes itself as “a list of lists, filled with cards.” Each card is a single task or idea that you can describe or annotate as needed. You can add attachments, checklists, due dates and anything else you need to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Trello is streamlined to include only the actions and buttons you need, so you can spend more time using the app than learning or managing it. That’s important for startups, nonprofits and other organizations that have to get down to business fast.
Trello helps UNICEF’s Global Innovation Centre (GIC) get critical information and services to communities across the world. The GIC chose Trello over 17 other tools because it’s quick to learn, has an intuitive interface and makes it easy for team members to find what they need.
“When it comes to life-saving, life-impacting information for communities…Trello helps our conversations and execution be seamless and efficient,” says GIC Senior Advisor on Innovation Tanya Accone.
Trello is simple, but not simplistic. Its integrations, known as power-ups in Trello lingo, let you connect the tools you already use, like Google Drive, Dropbox and Slack.
One of the strongest power-ups, in terms of making your workflow more efficient, is Butler. Butler is an automation tool that you can program with customized commands to perform an action or series of actions. You can launch these actions manually or set them up to run automatically at a certain date or time.
With power-ups like Butler, Trello lets you spend less time managing projects and more time working on them.
Trello has been rated highly by thousands of reviewers across aggregate sites. It has 4.5 out of five stars on G2 out of more than 10,000 reviews, and the same rating on Capterra, where it has been reviewed by more than 16,000 users.
Trello has also earned a TopRated badge on TrustRadius, where more than 1,400 users have rated it 8.4 out of 10. Of those 1,400 ratings, approximately half are nine or higher.
5. Google Drive: The best tool for file management
A good file management system is one of the most important tools for remote teams, but it’s hard to pick a single frontrunner.
Google Drive and Dropbox are both strong contenders, with solid security protocols and encryption, as well as the ability to allow teams to collaborate on files. They both sync document changes so that you can access them on multiple devices, though Dropbox syncs a bit faster because it block-syncs your changes instead of the entire document.
Google Drive is part of Google Workspace, Google’s business service, so it integrates with Meet. It also integrates with Docs, Sheets, Slides, Maps and more. Dropbox just has Paper as a word processing tool.
It’s a tough call, but for its versatility and ease of use, Google Drive comes out as the winner in this head-to-head.
A Top Rated company on TrustRadius, Google Drive has an 8.9 out of 10 rating from more than 3,700 raters. It has 4.7 out of five stars with 8,177 reviews on G2 and a whopping 4.8 out of five stars on Capterra, where it has more than 19,000 reviews.
Google Drive beats out Dropbox in terms of reviews and ratings on every major aggregate site.
Dropbox: 8.4 out of 10 with 1,700+ reviews; (Business: 8.7 out of 10 with 500+ reviews)
Google Drive: 8.9 out of 10 with 3,700+ reviews
Dropbox: 4.4 out of 5 with 10,700+ reviews
Google Drive: 4.7 out of 5 with 8,100+ reviews
Dropbox: 4.5 out of 5 with 16,300+ reviews for Dropbox Business
Google Drive: 4.8 out of 5 with 19,400+ reviews
Though Google Drive is our top pick, both can be great tools for remote teams. You might find that integrations make the difference. Zoom users might do better with Dropbox, for example, while Drive is an intuitive choice for companies that primarily use G Suite tools.
6. Dashlane: The best tool for password management
Password managers are often essential tools for remote teams. When you have to access the same accounts and programs as your collaborators, you need a place where you can find your login information. Otherwise, you risk someone changing a password and preventing everyone else from logging in.
This is another close call. Dashlane is richly featured, easy to use and secure, but LastPass is also a strong contender. Both tools have strong security, though LastPass had a breach in 2015 while Dashlane has a clean record. This is one of the reasons why Dashlane ultimately comes out ahead, but the deciding factor is really Dashlane’s versatility.
Dashlane lets you customize how your entries are organized, so that everything is easier to find. Using Dashlane is easy too — you get to choose which settings and auto-fill options apply to any particular site. This is a great option when you have a work account and personal account for the same site.
Dashlane is more expensive than LastPass, but its features justify the price. Premium subscribers get secure file storage, dark web monitoring and the ability to set up a virtual private network (VPN). The VPN functionality can be beneficial for remote teams in need of additional security.
Premium Plus subscribers get all the features of Premium, plus credit monitoring, identity theft insurance and identity restoration support. At the Premium levels, Dashlane goes way beyond password storage to provide hefty identity protection and cybersecurity features.
Tools for specialized teams
While almost every remote team needs a videoconferencing app, scheduling tool and communications hub, there are also specialized tools that help companies in different industries. Here are the front runners from the tech industry, a leader in remote work now and probably in the future too.
InVision: The best tool for design teams
With InVision, remote design collaboration is almost as satisfying as the “real thing.” It has tools for every type of design team, from Prototype for web designers to Studio for screen designers and animators.
Perhaps the company’s most versatile tool is InVision Freehand. It’s a digital whiteboard where you can wireframe, storyboard, sketch and share creative ideas. You and your team can bounce ideas off of each other or bring clients into the collaboration process in a way that feels almost like you’re in the same room.
InVision is the tool of choice for innovative companies like Soundcloud, Prezi, Evernote and Eventbrite. It has 4.4 out of five stars on G2, where it has received 650 reviews and the Leader award for spring 2020. It also has a score of 4.6 out of five stars on Capterra and is a Top Rated company on TrustRadius, where its score is 8.8 out of 10.
GitHub: The best tool for software development teams
Designers and developers may work on the same projects, but they need different tools. GitHub is a convenient way for software development teams to work together on a variety of tasks, from overall project management to the nuts and bolts of code review. GitHub also has the Actions tool, which lets you automate workflows with continuous integration and continuous delivery functionality.
No development team works in isolation, so GitHub provides a robust suite of integrations that includes InVision. With these two tools working in conjunction, even the most socially distanced teams can create a launch-ready site.
There are many more integrations available on GitHub’s Marketplace, where developers have posted apps with functions like code quality assurance, API management and deployment.
GitHub is beloved by developers all over the internet. It has:
Out of those 480 TrustRadius reviews, 346 are nine out of 10 or higher.
A final word
It can take a lot of time and effort to find the right tools for remote teams. This guide can help you to reduce your search time, narrow your options and get your teams working more efficiently.
No platform is perfect for every team, but the ones listed here are intelligently built, reliable and value-added for companies in various industries. Many of the biggest companies out there rely on these tools to run their day-to-day operations both in and out of the office.
Without exception, these tools include features that simplify collaboration, allowing you to spend less time on logistics. That means more time doing the work that matters, no matter where you are.
If none of these collaboration tools fit within your current budget, there are plenty of free business apps out there.
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