Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, more people are being forced to work from home and collaborate online than ever before.
So, what are the best online collaboration tools that remote teams should be using?
Table of Contents
- Hallmarks of a Great Online Collaboration Tool
- The Essential Online Collaboration Tools Every Team Needs
- Tools for Team Communication
- Tools for Project and Task Management
- Tools for Graphic Design Collaboration
- Tools for Cloud Storage and File Transfer
- Tools for Note Taking and Sharing
Hallmarks of a Great Online Collaboration Tool
Great online collaboration tools are:
- Intuitive. You may be able to pick up on new technologies easily, but the best online collaboration tools are ones that can be learned even by the least tech-savvy members of your team. The more intuitive the platform is, the better.
- Cloud-based. Cloud-based collaboration tools have a few advantages over their desktop counterparts. Oftentimes, they have desktop, mobile, and responsive versions of their app, so you can access it from any device with an internet connection. Additionally, cloud apps usually give you free backups, so you never have to worry about losing your files.
- Flexible. Collaboration doesn’t always play out the same way across teams; effective collaboration sometimes requires changes to your approach. That’s why the best online collaboration tools are flexible, and capable of multiple functions.
- Integrated. Most teams rely on a wide variety of different apps to remain operational and productive, so it pays to have apps that integrate with each other. Can your online collaboration tool integrate with your calendar? What about your project management app?
- Secure. You also need to have confidence that your collaborative work is secure; it’s important to manage permissions for multiple levels of accessibility, and rest assured that your data is safe. Just keep in mind that security is a shared burden, and you’ll need to practice good email security practices within your team if you want to remain protected.
The Essential Online Collaboration Tools Every Team Needs
These are the essential online collaboration tools that almost every team needs to be using:
1. Google Docs.
There are many G Suite tools that deserve a spot on this list, but if you’re working with documents, there’s nothing better than Google Docs. With Google Docs, you’ll be able to work collaboratively on a single document, creating and resolving comments as you revise and edit your work. You can also keep a team-based bank of documents and easily share content between team members.
2. Google Sheets.
You’ll also want to make use of Google Sheets, G Suite’s version of Excel. At its core, it’s spreadsheet software, but the collaborative tools are impressive, to say the least. In addition to offering the standard spreadsheet managing features, like data management, formulas, charts, and graphs, you can talk to your team in-sheet, and work together on a single, comprehensive version—rather than trying to keep track of multiple versions on different devices.
Brainstorming sessions are one of the most common ways to collaborate, but brainstorming can be difficult without a strong collaborative visual tool. Google attempts to provide that online collaboration tool with Jamboard—a kind of digital whiteboard. With it, you can use content you’ve created in other G Suite tools (like Docs or Sheets), and mark it up just as you would a whiteboard, with sketches, writing, and more.
4. Office 365.
We lean to favor G Suite around these parts, but Microsoft Office 365 is a similar suite of productivity apps that serves as a functional alternative. With it, you’ll gain access to all the apps you know, including Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, along with great cloud-based tools to make your online collaborative life easier.
Tools for Team Communication
Communication throughout the day is a foundational component of online collaboration throughout the day. Use these tools to communicate with your team:
Now one of the top names in intra-office chat, Slack is more than just a chat app. With it, you can create different “channels,” dedicated to different sub-teams and projects, and set permissions so only relevant users are allowed access to those channels. Whether you use it like email or purely as an instant messaging app, it’s an easy way to remain in communication and discuss new ideas.
If you’re looking for a more visual form of communication, you’ll need a tool like Zoom. Zoom skyrocketed in popularity during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of businesses and employees were forced to figure out a way to work remotely for the first time. Zoom is a video chat app with tons of tools to make it easier to collaborate, including the ability to host sub-meetings within a broader meeting context.
Skype was the best video chatting option available to businesses for many years, in part because it was free. But Skype remains a fantastic option if visual communication is one of your highest priorities. You might have a video chat option in another suite of productivity tools, like Google Hangouts in G Suite, but Skype is a good standby otherwise.
Tools for Project and Task Management
When you need to collaborate on projects or tasks in a centralized, organized hub, you need task management software. These are the best!
Asana is the first of a few project management platforms I’ll list here. Project management apps all have a similar function, giving teams the ability to create projects, tasks, and subtasks, while hosting discussions on each of those items. Asana is my favorite project management platform. With a more traditional structure, you can create high-level projects, break those projects into tasks, and even split those tasks into subtasks. It’s great if you have multiple team members working on the same projects together, so you can consolidate and preserve the conversation while tracking progress.
Trello is a popular collaboration tool in this category because of its unique, column-based design. With it, you can create and rearrange tasks in the form of “cards,” and set rule-based triggers to automate some of your workflow.
Basecamp was one of the earliest frontrunners in the realm of project management apps, and it remains a great choice for keeping track of complex projects or a large number of projects. With it, you’ll gain access to an interactive message board, to-do lists, group chats, shared file storage, and automatic check-ins from your team members.
Yammer is another Microsoft tool that functions as a kind of business-related social media platform. With it, your teammates can set statuses, create in-grounds, and manage both public and private chats. It makes it easy to communicate in ways extending beyond mere email and chat, and the file sharing is super intuitive.
Tools for Graphic Design Collaboration
Collaborating on graphic design or other visual-centric projects can be especially tricky when working remotely. Here are the best online collaboration tools for graphic design:
If you’re collaborating on a graphic design, you might consider using Canva. It’s a simplified graphic design tool that allows you to create, modify, and share a design with your team. Leave comments on someone else’s work, rely on existing templates, or create your own templates for future use.
Sketch is another online collaboration tool primarily for designers, but it can be used for other teams as well. With Sketch, you can design prototypes, collaborate with your other team members, and finalize the layout of your most important products. You can also create your own workflows to improve productivity.
If you love the idea of creating visual “mind maps,” MindMeister is the tool for you. With it, you can create mind maps in real time together, stringing together discrete ideas and coming up with new angles and approaches. If you’re working with an abstract premise or if you’re stuck on a complex problem, there’s no better collaborative solution.
InVision is an online collaboration tool primarily intended for teams working on mobile apps and other digital products. You can use it to work together on wireframes and initial designs, and leave comments and feedback for future iterations. Best of all, everything is kept in the same dashboard, so you can monitor the progress of multiple projects at a glance.
Tools for Cloud Storage and File Transfer
When you work with a remote team, you all need an easy way to store and access documents. The simple solution is cloud storage. These are the best online collaboration tools for cloud storage and file transfer:
Dropbox is the first of several tools on this list designed to make it easier for your team to upload, store, backup, and share files. Dropbox is one of the most reliable and well-known cloud storage solutions on the market, and it’s ridiculously easy to use. It also integrates with most other collaboration tools available to your team, making it easier to share and work across apps.
There’s also OneDrive, a Microsoft product. It features most of the same functionalities as Dropbox, and is designed in a similarly intuitive way. Obviously, it’s best used if you’re also relying on Microsoft’s other apps.
If you’re looking for a quick, convenient tool that allows you to share files between team members, but you’re not interested in one of the more robust cloud storage tools, you might try WeTransfer. It’s a simple, convenient online tool you can use for free, with no registration, to share files with other people.
GitHub is a bit of a novelty for this list, since it’s almost exclusively designed for software developers. Still, it’s one of the best collaborative tools available for developers, so it’s worth including. GitHub makes it easy to manage and share your projects, and is home base for countless open source projects and more than 50 million active developers. It’s the top name in the industry for a reason.
20. Adobe XD.
Another niche tool worth mentioning is Adobe XD, which is part of the Adobe suite of cloud tools. It’s an all-in-one tool for UX/UI designs, so it’s perfect for designers (even if other teams won’t get much use out of it).
Tools for Note Taking and Sharing
Working remotely means you’ll find yourself coming up with ideas and finding articles, links, and content that you want to share with your team. But it doesn’t make sense to send emails every time you find something share-worthy. Instead, use these apps to aggregate your share-worthy items and ideas into one organized list that you can share with your team when it makes sense to do so:
Pocket is a unique app that allows you to metaphorically store files, websites, and other sources of content in your “pocket” for later retrieval. With it, your team members will be able to save things directly from a browser or within an app so they can view it later—even without an internet connection. It’s an easy way to share important materials, but it’s also important for establishing offline access to important files, which may come in handy if you’re experiencing intermittent outages.
Even with the abundance of note-taking apps available these days, Evernote remains my personal favorite. It’s super easy to learn and use, and you can access your notes on any device. You can store files, write notes, organize to-do lists, and even share your work with other team members. It’s simply the most comprehensive and useful note-taking tool available, for both teams and individuals.
Bit.ai bills itself as the “world’s most powerful workplace and knowledge collaboration platform.” With it, you can create and share things like notes, documents, projects, tasks, and guides. But beyond that, you can use it to create entire knowledge bases, or wikis, which your team can use to make sure they’re following proper procedures. It’s also great for tracking documents, and staying organized—even while you’re working remotely.
Project management platforms and chat apps are great, but the foundation of organization-wide communication is still email—so you’ll want to have a good email analytics strategy in place to make sure your team is communicating effectively.
EmailAnalytics is the tool for the job; with it, you can track almost everything associated with your team’s Gmail accounts, including average response time, average email length, number of emails sent, and more. Sign up for a free trial today, and get control over your team’s communication habits!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics, and co-host of the podcast The Entrepreneur Cast.