Rome wasn’t built by one man, it was built by a team working together. While building Rome took hundreds of years and a lot of messengers running about, modern teams are lucky to have a lot of great software at their disposal. In fact, there’s almost too much good software. How do you pick the right tools for you and your small business? Well, we’re here to help.
Why Use Online Collaborative Software?
Very little work is truly done by one person alone. I write this article and then, when I’m done, I submit it to my editor, Sean, through Tuts+’s custom content management system (CMS). He then looks over everything in the CMS and, if needed, makes some changes. It’s then pushed live. My name is on the article, but it’s still a collaboration between me and Sean.
Even before I write the article, we have to work out what I’m going to write about. It’s not just coming up with a topic; we need to nail down the specific angle I’m going to take, areas I need to cover, and so on. As you can see, even an article “written” by one person, takes a lot of collaborative work. In most other fields, it’s similar.
In the 90s, there was a lot more printed documents and handwritten notes used, but the concept was the same: people worked together. The problem was that printing documents out and marking them up by hand was a miserable way to work.
Whatever you’re doing with your team or small business, the odds are there’s going to be some collaboration at some point. You could go with the old print and pen method if you work in personal, or some digital equivalent, or you could do the sensible thing and set up a proper collaboration environment so everyone can work together at the same time.
The right online collaboration software can help your team work well together, even if distributed nationally or internationally.
How to Assess Your Online Collaboration Tool Needs
Everyone has different needs for their collaboration.
At Tuts+, the editor and writer work together on an outline from different locations, then the writer writes it, and finally the editor edits it. The outline stage and the write/edit stage need very different tools. An editor need not weigh in on every word choice as I make it!
For other industries, you might need four or five people to work in the same document at the same time. Or, maybe everyone works individually on their own, but you need a way to keep track of everything and keep everyone up to date. Or it might be that you just need a really easy way for your teams to communicate online. There are great online collaboration tools for all these things.
Take a few minutes and break down how a project proceeds as I did above for our articles. It doesn’t need to be too detailed, you just need to have a rough idea as to what kind of collaborating you need at any given stage. When you’re done, read through the following list and check out any online team software that sounds like it might fit the bill.
Online Communication Software
Communication is at the core of all collaboration. Your employees need a way to keep in touch with each other, from wherever they work from. It's important to know what other team members are working on, and even just socialise a bit. These apps will all do that and much more for your small business:
Email and Communication
Email gets bad rap but, before investing all the time and energy in teaching your staff to use new tools, consider whether it might not be the simplest thing to use. Everyone already has it and knows how to use it. As long as you’re mainly doing semi-regular one-to-one communication, it works great. It’s only when you’re sending hundreds of messages to dozens of different people that it breaks down.
Here are the top online communication software for small business and team use—from to email, to team messaging apps, VOIP, video messaging, and more:
Gmail is one of the most popular email apps (used by over 1 billion people), and for good reasons: it’s built into Google Drive, so readily integrates with Google software. It also has an intuitive interface. And, it packs in lots of features you can make use of, such as: Undo Send, Email Forwarding, powerful search, and more.
Learn more about how to work with Gmail in our comprehensive series: How to Use Gmail (Ultimate Beginner Guide). Or, get started with one of these helpful tutorials:
- GmailHow to Create a New Gmail Account (Quick Start Guide)Laura Spencer
- GmailHow to Compose and Send Your First Email With GmailLaura Spencer
Note: While we've listed Gmail here, but Microsoft Outlook is also quite popular. There are a number of other professional email apps your team could use. Discover more options:
Slack is the latest darling in the online collaboration world… and for good reason. It’s like a supercharged version of AOL Messenger that integrates with most of the other services on this list. If you need a command hub where everyone can contribute or chat privately, it’s a great app to use. Slack can replace much of your email communication for some teams. Give it go to see how it works for your group.
Yammer is Facebook for your business. The Microsoft owned app is a bit more structured than something like Slack, but still works as an open platform where all your employees can share files, brainstorm, and generally just work together.
HipChat is incredibly similar to Slack with many of the same features. There’s very little to differentiate the two, so it all comes down to personal preference. If you like how HipChat works or use a lot of Atlassian’s other products, then it’s probably the better choice. However, Slack is quite popular with a number of teams.
Skype is the biggest VOIP platform. Almost everyone you’d ever want to work with will already have an account. While it might not be the best software for large conference calls, if you need to get four or five far flung people together in one virtual room, it’s a great (and free) way to do it.
While Skype beats GoToMeeting on simplicity, GoToMeeting is far more fully featured. If you need to run conference calls like they’re proper meetings with a dozen or so people there, then it’s the app to use. You can also add people without them needing to sign up for an account. Just send your new potential hire or customer a URL and they’ll be able to join in.
Online Project Management Software
Most projects aren’t as quick and easy as the articles we work on at Tuts+. Your team could be working on something for months or years with no end date in sight. How then, do you keep track of progress, divvy out tasks, and make sure things are moving forward, however slowly?
All the best project management software tools are designed for breaking big projects out into smaller tasks, assigning them to people online, keeping a record of what’s happened, and managing a large project right until the end. Here are some powerful project management apps your team can use:
Asana is a great way to break projects down into tasks and track them to completion onilne. It’s highly customisable so it will fit most different kinds of projects. You can assign tasks, see who’s working on what, make deadlines, discuss tasks, and much more as you progress through a major project.
Trello is a really simple board based project management app that we for assignment planning use at Tuts+. You can create as many Cards and Columns as you need. For example, you can have a Columns each for To Do, Doing, and Done, and then assign every task a Card. Each Card moves across the Board as work progresses. It's also really easy to communicate on project specific tasks using Trello's commenting system.
For more involved projects at Tuts+, like creating courses, we use Basecamp. It’s hard to explain simply what Basecamp does because it does pretty much everything. It’s a communication system, project management app, and a lot more. If you need a single solution to your collaboration, it’s a good app to consider. It’s one of the most popular options for a reason: it's powerful, but easy to use.
Discover more online project management software options:
Online Document Collaboration Software
One of the most frequent collaborative tasks is creating and editing documents. Whatever business you’re in, there’s a good chance you need some way for more than one person to weigh in on files as they’re being made. Maybe it’s a pitch presentation for investors, a risk assessment for the regulators, or anything else that’s traditionally done in Microsoft Word.
Microsoft looked like they were falling behind for a while but they’ve regained their footing. The Microsoft Office suite (as long as you’re signed up to their Office 365 subscription plan) offers a full range of online collaborative tools. Multiple people can work on the same Word document at the same time all from their own regular copy of Word. It’s pretty neat.
11. Google Docs
Before Microsoft got their act together, Google Docs was eating their lunch. Only available through your browser, Google Docs is at its best when people our collaborating online. As a word processor it’s streamlined, but as a suite of tools for people to work on documents together it’s robust. Multiple people can all work on the same document at the same time, leaving each other notes, and making edits—all from multiple locations.
Quip, which we’ve featured before here on Tuts+, is like Google Docs taken to its logical extreme. It combines all the features of a collaborative document editor, along with some advanced project management tools. If the only work your team does is work on documents together (such as spreadsheets and text documents), it’s a great way to go.
Documents aren’t the only things people collaborate on. Computer code is one of the most important collaborative works of a lot of companies. Hundreds of programmers can all be working on the same core project at once.
GitHub is the best tool for making sure that everything is kept in order. Each person has a working copy of the code on their own computer. When they make changes they “Push” it to GitHub which keeps everything managed. If one person’s changes break things, it’s easy to roll them back. If your team is collaborating on code, GitHub is essential.
Online File Sharing Software
While it’s easy to collaborate on some kinds of documents, others like large video files need to be synced between computers, but can’t easily (or at least cheaply) be worked on at the same time. There are plenty of good file sharing options out there which will let your team keep large files, resources they all need, or just their meme collection in sync.
Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, and OneDrive all do pretty much the same thing. Everyone has a folder on their computer that syncs over the internet to the same folder on everyone else in the team’s computer. This way, files are shared automatically without any need for emails or asking people where they left a certain photo.
Which app you use depends on your needs. Dropbox is best for small teams and individuals, Google Drive has a lot of free space and integrates well with Google Docs, Box is for enterprise clients, and OneDrive is part of Microsoft’s product suite. Pick the one that fits best with your current team's workflow.
Collaboration is a key part of almost any business and thankfully, there are great online collaboration tools to do it. The hardest thing is to pick one software tool to do a job and stick with it, rather than constantly getting distracted by the newest, shiniest app.
In this article, I’ve looked at some of the best online collaboration tools available to businesses and teams of any size. Have a look at each one and see if it meets your needs. Most have free trials so there’s no harm in trying them out. There’s no one size fits all approach to project management so don’t be afraid to adapt them to your needs.