What is a Collaboration App?
When teams use the right tools to work together, they often make improvements to both the process and the final outcome. The right tools let remote workers communicate more efficiently. They archive discussions and work history and make them searchable, which helps people learn from the past. They bridge gaps between discussion and action in a way that email has never been able to do. Many of them enable teams to talk about their work within the context of the work itself. In practice, online tools for team communication and collaboration give people a place to express themselves, joke around, and get to know one another on a personal level. It all facilitates team cohesion and leads to greater productivity.
The term collaboration software has a variety of meanings. It’s not a single, well-defined product, but rather a broad category of apps and services. Enterprises, for example, have very different communication needs than small startups. Collaborating is simply a different beast when it happens among hundreds of people across many offices than when it takes place in a single room.
Similarly, a team of only five or six people might be highly focused on what’s happening in the moment, whereas a large organization with high turnover may make it a priority to preserve past conversations so that newcomers can quickly get acquainted with what has happened to date.
Before we list the best collaboration tools, let us break down a few of the types of apps that we include under this heading, and a few that we don’t.
What Are Team Messaging Apps?
Team messaging apps borrow ideas from all the best forms of modern communication, such as instant messaging and forums, and put them into one space.
Two clear examples, and two of the best team messaging apps around, are Slack and HipChat. They’re both real-time communication systems in which teammates can message one another, but they offer a lot more than simple text exchange. For example, they store and archive messages, meaning you can search and find an old conversation if you need to reference it. You can use hashtags to mark keywords in conversations so that other teammates, who might not be in on the conversation now, can easily look up relevant chat histories later. The best team messaging apps also have sophisticated alert systems, so the right people’s ears will prick up when an important conversation is happening around a topic that’s central to their work.
Some team messaging apps include additional communication tools, such as the ability to make audio and video calls, and to share your screen with other team members.
Slack remains the most popular team messaging app, but it doesn’t work well for all teams. Twist by Doist is an alternative that was built when a geographically dispersed team realized Slack didn’t meet their needs. In Twist, it’s much easier to manage conversations that occur asynchronously.
Task and Workflow Management
One tool in this list of the best collaboration tools, Asana, might be more accurately classified as a task management or workflow management tool. While dedicated project management services usually have within them tools to manage work at the task level, Asana is a little different. It’s a unique tool that’s incredibly flexible, so it can bend to your will. If you find that all the project management tools out there are too rigid for your work and workflows, Asana is worth investigating. Getting started with Asana is not a trivial task, however. You’ll need to customize it to reflect your workflow. That can be a large undertaking, but if you view it as also being a chance to codify and streamline the way you get work done, chances are good you’ll soon be glad you invested the time required.
If Asana sounds like the tool for you, be sure to explore these seven Asana tricks to help you get the most out of it.
All-in-one collaboration tools offer a little bit of everything, from project management to social networking for employees. They are often targeted at enterprise companies, but some fit the bill for smaller groups, too. Igloo, for example, is a company intranet that offers real-time chat, but also has forums, calendars, templates for organizing specific kinds of work, and more.
Podio is another example. Podio is even more complex than Igloo because it’s not only an intranet, but also a highly customizable platform with its own apps marketplace so that you can add tools as you need them. For example, if an entrepreneur finds that her growing company suddenly needs collaboration tools specifically for a human resources department, she can explore Podio’s list of apps for HR teams and add the ones they need. In that way, Podio scales easily as an organization grows.
If your team is already rather large, then Workfront may be a better fit. Workfront is best for large enterprises that need to be clear about the roles of different users and what kind of information they should be able to access once inside the collaboration tool.
Not Included: Project Management and Kanban Apps
Two sub-categories of collaboration apps that are not included here are project management tools and kanban apps. Because project management apps are so specialized, they are separated into their own best-of list with more applicable side-by-side comparisons. Kanban is an even more specialized way of tracking work. We have reviewed a few of the most popular options, including LeanKit, Trello and Volerro, and we’ll be examining more in the months to come.
If you’re unfamiliar with kanban, the word refers to a methodology for working that’s highly visual. When using kanban, you and your team take cues from a board with cards on it. Those cards are arranged in columns. Each card is a task, usually, and each column is a state of work. For example, you might have columns called To Do, Doing, and Done. Each task that your team has to do falls into one of those columns. As a card moves through its workflow, all the appropriate team members have insight into its position and status, as well as any other attributes you apply to it.
Many kanban apps support collaboration in ways beyond simply providing a place to manage cards and columns. Volerro, for example, has markup tools that let you draw on PDFs and images that have been uploaded to the collaboration space. These markup tools make it much easier to have online discussions about visual material, because people can highlight exactly what they are referring to on the image or PDF, rather than try to describe it in text only.
Then there are collaboration apps that have folded in aspects of kanban without giving up their original purpose. Asana, for example, now has a Board view that displays tasks as cards rather than in a list. Project management app Teamwork Projects has something similar. The board view becomes a way of visualizing the same information differently, without altering the work methodology of the team.
More Points to Consider
When it comes time to actually invest in some collaboration tools, there are two ways of thinking. First, you could get an all-in-one system, which might be a company intranet or work-management platform. If you go that route, make sure the system you buy has features such as included chat, and maybe video calling, if that’s important to your team. The second way of thinking is to pick specialized tools for your business and cobble them together. All the tools listed here have APIs that let developers create custom integrations, and many support much simpler, native integration with very popular tools and services, such as Google apps.
If you don’t have a wealth of coding skills in your team, try to find tools that are supported by the Zapier network. Zapier is an online service that helps you create simple integrations between different tools without having to learn to program. For example, you can create an integration so that when you receive a new email, the full message will automatically be imported into Slack.
A company or organization’s investment in communication and collaboration tools doesn’t necessarily require a huge upfront cost. As you can see from the table above, plenty of collaboration systems offer a free level of service. Free versions of collaboration tools, like most other software, typically have some limitations. The package might only support, say, two projects, or it might have a file storage limit. Still, these free versions let you test whether the services meet your needs before you commit to spending time and money implementing them.
Culture Is Key
One important point about all collaboration and communication tools is that they must have a company culture behind them. Throwing a new tool at a group of people and telling them to use it instead of email doesn’t work. To start using a collaboration tool successfully, all the key players on the team need to buy into it. It has to be part of the culture.
When it happens, though, and everything clicks, you can expect to see a much greater sense of teamwork and probably some animated gifs and emoji to boot. Keep in mind that collaboration tools work best when people enjoy using them, so don’t try to fight the emoji or off-topic chats.