It’s amazing to see how virtual project management and online collaboration tools have grown over time. Years ago, the ability to make conference calls was the only tool needed to bring multi-site workers together. In many cases, that technology was only implemented if an on-site employee was home sick or unable to go to the office. That’s because most business models at that time were based in one location, never imagining the growing need for virtual collaboration software.
As the ability to network across towns, states, and even continents has increased, so too has the need for reliable software programs that can aid in large-scale project management. Even more important than just sharing documents among project team members is the need to solicit and keep track of feedback on the project. Gone are the days of circulating a hard-copy of a draft and getting back with sticky notes and annotations requesting changes or additions.
Now known as virtual collaboration, this modern standard corporate practice provides an easy way for virtual or freelance staff members to work side-by-side with in-house staff. Although the people involved in virtual collaboration are not physically together, they rely on technology-based products to accomplish many of the necessary project requirements, including meetings, cross-discipline collaborative project management, and final sign-offs on business plans.
Global companies are tasked with an increased need to create a work environment that seamlessly includes both remote workers and office-based staff. In today’s global marketplace, companies are using remote offices that unite employees across continents, including those who live in time-zones that are different from their main office. While the best method of accomplishing group projects is often thought to be through direct, in-person environments, this is not a viable option for most international companies. That’s why finding reliable ways to use technology to bring remote offices together is an essential tool for today’s corporations.
Some organizations may have been hesitant to use some of the advances in virtual collaboration technology in the past, simply due to their assumption that the technology was costly or challenging to implement. But any corporation that has employees in more than one office, especially if those offices are geographically far apart or work in different time zones, and expects to compete on an international level, will have found a way to embrace online collaboration tools for the betterment of the organization.
Virtual technologies, which can be as simple as adding a collaboration app to an employee’s mobile device, can increase problem-solving abilities while enhancing productivity and efficiency.
How to Build Remote Collaboration Tools for Your Business
Every business has its own needs and abilities. Still, there are a few general characteristics that can be utilized by any organization that wants to work with other organizations and clients remotely. These include:
- General collaboration. Working together through virtual sharing tools is a must for partners who can’t be physically together. Finding an easy way to share data, files, and project information is a community decision that should be made early on in the collaboration process.
- Virtual partners. Although a team may not be able to meet in person, each member must be able to provide input while being an active part of the project. For many companies with remote workers and international offices, this can only get accomplished by using highly reliable web-based tools.
Although in-person meetings might be the preferred method of collaboration, especially for more established organizations, successful companies that are adept at working in today’s technological society know the best employees might not be geographically close to the main office.
Using online collaboration tools enables your organization to cast a broader net when it comes to finding the best employees for a project since you’ll be able to provide a stable virtual environment where all employees can work together.
- Tech-based. None of the tools we mention below will be useful if you don’t have reliable information technology (IT) staff to help you implement them. Any modern corporation that’s looking to make their mark on today’s international audience needs to have a trustworthy and knowledgeable team that can help bridge technological divides in an easy-to-understand manner.
Anyone can install or upgrade software, but having a patient and forward-thinking staff can be the difference between just squeaking by on standard technology and setting the pace for the future of your corporation. It’s also crucial that your staff feels comfortable and trusts your IT staff’s capabilities. Team members must be able to reach tech support at any time, and they must have confidence that their tech needs will be addressed promptly.
Types of Virtual Collaboration
Just as there are many different types of office setups and styles, there are also various ways that today’s global companies accomplish their virtual-based projects. Whether the needs are basic or complex, most companies should have no problem finding the best app for their virtual collaboration needs.
A sampling of the different kinds of online collaboration tools includes:
- Computer-mediated. This type of communication is defined as the ability to use text and data to work on projects remotely through the use of email, text messaging, online project management software and linked databases. Most organizations use this system even if all of their employees are in one office.
- Asynchronous collaboration. This work environment allows staff members to react to, and collaborate with, each other’s projects, even when these responses can’t be instantaneous. Discussion groups or bulletin board-style software programs accomplish this, while also keeping a detailed record of recent changes and feedback. The downside is that this feedback can pile up, and there’s often no easy-to-use mechanism for sorting through the messages. This can make collaboration difficult for the project manager.
- Synchronous collaboration. Working together from multiple remote job sites in a real-time environment is the goal of synchronous collaboration. Using apps and software that help team members see what the other people in their group are currently working on is one method, while scheduling meetings in an audio conference or a web-based conference room is another.
The Pros and Cons of Virtual Collaboration
As with any developing technology that impacts the workplace, there are both positives and negatives about how these programs are used and what, exactly, they accomplish. Virtual collaboration allows companies to hire workers regardless of their geographic location, which empowers corporations to find the best and brightest employees.
It’s also more cost-effective to conduct project management through online software, as opposed to hosting regular, face-to-face meetings. Reducing the cost and lost time associated with employee travel, along with the finances behind office space and supplies, is a big plus when it comes to employing virtual workers.
On the other hand, some companies and individual employees are hampered by technology limitations. Outdated computer systems and a lack of support, both on the part of the central offices and the remote workers, sometimes makes it difficult to move beyond basic projects. This reliance on technology also makes it difficult for coworkers to feel the natural bond that develops between in-office staff. Working within so-called “technological silos” can increase unhappiness and feelings of dissatisfaction among team members. When working with international partners, it’s also important to keep in mind the limitations that they face within their own countries. Some nations, like China, limit their citizens’ access to the Internet, so you will need to find online tools that are usable by all members of your team.
If your organization is just beginning to explore the world of online collaboration, or if you’re already there but need to improve your methods, your first step should be to hire a reliable IT team. The best tools and employees in the world are ineffective if they can’t work together seamlessly toward project goals in an efficient manner.
With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the top 13 tools and apps that make virtual collaboration possible and easy for most corporations.
With a full suite of workplace features, Microsoft’s entry into virtual collaboration is one of the most comprehensive products out there. Microsoft Teams boasts chat and video conferencing functions, file storage, and plenty of application integration with other needed workplace programs. It’s especially useful for organizations that already work with the other Microsoft programs – it features a shared workspace with programs like PowerPoint, Word, Excel, and OneNote. Various pricing options are available. An important note: Skype for Business – owned and operated by Microsoft – will be entirely replaced by Microsoft Teams by mid-2021.
With a tagline of “Be less busy,” Slack is a software program that helps businesses, employees, and clients communicate in real-time. Comments get automatically segregated into project channels that can be searched later, a rarity in most virtual collaboration systems that don’t provide a means for retrieving older messages.
Users can communicate with each other in real-time, and the organization recently unveiled a voice feature, which enables project members to record their notes on a per-project basis. There are various price-points available depending upon the size of your project, but if you need more reassurance of how user-friendly and manageable Slack is, consider this:
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is using it. Yep — the same team members that put a robot on Mars are big fans of Slack. Surely it can handle any Earth-based project you throw at it.
Think of Yammer as a private social media site created just for your corporation. Used by 80 percent of the Fortune 500’s top companies, your Yammer network will provide real-time communication and file sharing that’s only accessible by staff who have a valid company email address or an approved IP. A small startup that launched in 2008, Yammer is now owned by Microsoft and is easily integrated into Office platforms.
One of the gold-standard companies when it comes to enterprise video communications, Zoom provides a reliable platform for video and audio conferencing. The product offers a single communications suite for meetings, chat, and productive workplace collaboration. The product features high-quality HD video and audio (even in low-bandwidth environments), and up to 100 participants for video conferencing come included in the standard version. The product works across PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android, and with traditional conference room systems or “Zoom rooms.” They offer different tiers of pricing from Basic to Business.
Jira is an excellent option for teams with a highly technical or software-based product, or for groups that need an in-depth project management tool. It’s a powerful, useful tool for planning out development projects, battling issues, and tracking bugs in software. There are several different helpful plugins for the product to increase its capabilities, and Jira comes in a few separate versions tailored for specific uses (prices also vary). One fun note – the name “Jira” comes from the Japanese word “Gojira” – or, as we call it, “Godzilla.”
Microsoft Office 365
Microsoft Office 365 presents the “full suite” of Microsoft programs for business. A top option for those organizations looking for consistency throughout their programs, Microsoft Office 365 features some of the most familiar software options on the market – Outlook, OneDrive, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, SharePoint, Teams, and more. It’s a prime option for flexibility and engagement when it comes to collaboration in the office. A wide array of different pricing options are available with Office 365.
A cost-effective, straightforward alternative to other online project management tools, ProofHub offers all-in-one services for team collaboration. Since its inception in 2011, ProofHub has been trusted by some of the world’s biggest companies for their project management services.
One of the most significant benefits for ProofHub? The price. There are no per-user fees and two affordable “simple pricing” models for the product. With ProofHub, users get everything needed for collaboration and productivity – including time tracking, Gantt charts, task management, group chat, proofing and file approval, and project templates.
ProofHub recently brought in integrations for QuickBooks and FreshBooks and will offer Slack integration and an iOS mobile app in 2020.
The virtual collaboration tool from Cisco Systems, WebEx is one of the most popular enterprise tools for video conferencing, online meetings, screen share, and webinars. It’s a versatile and easy-to-use platform, integrating with several other popular applications – from Office 365 and GitHub to Google Drive and Salesforce. The various plans available range from free “Personal” options to “Starter,” “Plus,” and “Business.”
Like Microsoft Office 365, Google Suite is a powerful, comprehensive, all-in-one software solution for companies. Running on the popular Google platform (adding in the benefit of mass familiarity), the Google Suite goes beyond standard features like Gmail and Google Docs to include other basics for project management like Drive, Calendar, and Meet. It’s an agile, cost-effective solution that easily integrates into the work lives of many employees. Pricing runs at Basic, Business, and Enterprise levels.
One of the first widely used tools for file sharing and cloud storage, Dropbox has grown extensively since its original release in 2007. Now available in 17 languages and used by companies across the globe, Dropbox allows users to simply create a folder within the program that saves and shares large files. These files are accessible through the Dropbox website and apps that are available across mobile devices.
Once your folder gets created, you can invite other people to view it, but it will remain private and is only accessible to your pre-approved teammates.
It’s as simple to use as emailing attachments, but this won’t take up as much space on your hard drive — or create multiple versions of the same file. Dropbox is available for free with 2GB of storage. Users can upgrade their service by purchasing more capacity, but you can also earn free additional space by following Dropbox on Twitter or connecting your Facebook page to your Dropbox account.
Many employees consider Dropbox to be one of the best apps for virtual collaboration, and it’s a favorite for anyone who needs to share large files with multiple team members.
Keeping track of to-do lists and project statuses is a challenge in any collaboration, especially those that are being produced and managed by large companies.
Facebook founder Dustin Moskovitz created Asana in 2008 as a project management system for team projects. Unlike other virtual project management tools, Asana has keyboard shortcuts, which make editing and note-taking faster and easier. It can also get used to sort assignments and manage to-do lists, making it easy to use for complex projects.
An inbox feature was added in 2012 to let users send notes within the application instead of relying on email systems or other outside communications programs.
Basecamp set the standard for online project management systems when it got launched in 2004, well before most companies even realized they would need a way to track assignments for remote workers. Basecamp is available as a free 60-day trial with interfaces available in several languages, including Spanish, French, and Japanese.
One of its best features is that it’s accessible through any web browser, so team members don’t have to install additional software. It also accepts uploads, allowing staff to add their versions of basic text files or suggest edits to someone else’s drafts. It lacks many of the visual editing capabilities of other collaboration tools. Still, if your project is mostly text-based, or you’re only looking for a way to keep track of tasks, a simple-to-use program like Basecamp will accomplish your goals without weighing you down with unneeded options.
When this web app got released in 2011, it had a simple goal of helping people keep track of their projects in a well-organized, easy-to-use program. It’s now being used by well over 10 million people, making Trello one of the most popular and successful project management collaboration tools available.
Trello works by setting up project steps using cards, like post-it notes, on a layout that resembles a high-tech bulletin board. Each card can be labeled with assignment details, such as the person responsible, when it’s due, and what needs to get accomplished. An activity sidebar keeps a list of all changes to the project, so current needs and completed tasks are easily viewable by all participants. Trello has also received rave reviews for its ability to seamlessly retrieve projects between mobile apps, desktop computers, and tablets.
And, unlike some project management systems, Trello is user-friendly enough to use for personal projects, like household chores, home improvement projects, and appointment schedules. Maybe the best feature? It’s free.