Top 12 Tools and Apps That Make Virtual Collaboration Possible
For an emerging enterprise that barely existed 15 years ago, it’s amazing to see how virtual project management and online collaboration tools have grown over time.
In the early 2000s, the ability to make conference calls was the only tool needed to bring multi-site workers together, and 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 important 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 difficult 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. In fact, in a survey conducted by WorldCom, the vast majority (as much as 90 percent of respondents) indicated that online collaboration tools help them save company money and improve their time management. This is why it’s important to consider 2016’s virtual collaboration trends.
How to Build Remote Collaboration Tools for Your Business
Every business has its own needs and abilities, but there are a few general characteristics that can be utilized by any organization that wants to remotely work with other organizations and clients. 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, it’s imperative that each member is able to provide input while being an active part of the project. For many companies with remote workers and international offices, this can only be 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 larger 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 a 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 important 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 in a timely manner.
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 12 tools and apps that make virtual collaboration possible and easy for most corporations.
Meetings & Communication
Accessible by most people with an internet connection, Skype allows users to instantly connect with one another through chat and video conferencing. While a subscription fee is required to connect with land-based phones, most offices can use this service for free.
With a tagline of “Be less busy,” Slack is a software program that helps businesses, employees and clients communicate in real-time. Comments are 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:
It’s being used by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 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.
Working on documents with coworkers is easy with Google Docs, and it remains one of the most trusted collaboration tools available for the modern workplace.
Instead of sending documents back and forth through email, and then trying to track everyone’s changes — which is the traditional and outdated method of collaboration — you can just save your file as a Google Doc and select the people you want to share it with. It works across platforms and can handle standard documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
There’s also no extra software needed, and the documents can be accessed through any device with a web browser, so staff members can easily check a document from their home computer or while traveling.
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 is created, you can invite other people to view it, but it will remain private and is only accessible to your pre-approved team mates.
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 be 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 was 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 own versions of a basic text files or suggest edits to someone else’s drafts. It lacks many of the visual editing capabilities of other collaboration tools, but if your project is mostly text-based, or you’re simply 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 was 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 labelled with assignment details, such as the person responsible, when it’s due, and what needs to be 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.
Remember when your elementary teacher handed back a test or report that was all marked up with corrections in red pen? This open-source proofreading software works off the same basic premise of enabling team members to mark up a document for review.
Red Pen keeps track of all changes, notes and suggestions and work across different platforms. Developed with writers and designers in mind, Red Pen also lets you revert back to previous versions of your document if you decide to ditch the edits. Available in project-based time increments, monthly subscriptions start at $20.
Recently named Company of the Year by Inc. Magazine, Evernote has revolutionized how companies interact in virtual spaces. Created as a white space where approved users can add notes, voice memos, web links and more, Evernote is an online knowledge collection house for ongoing projects with multiple contributors.
Evernote is available in a free limited version and a more expansive paid edition. Other versions of Evernote can be used for smaller projects, like home-based scheduling and chore charts.
Designers are some of the most finicky users of online collaboration tools, since they like their platforms to be sleek and easy-to-use. A cluttered workspace, or a system that doesn’t put needed tools front-and-center for designers to use, is distracting and likely to be abandoned by creative-focused staffers.
Enter GoVisually, a free program that allows designers, or anyone else, to share a project with other people in an easy-to-use environment that encourages feedback. Unlike most collaboration programs that only allow for annotations to be made in a straightforward text format, GoVisually includes many design tools that are found in the most popular software programs, like PhotoShop and Illustrator. Notes can be made using shape or lasso tools, and each new change is applied as a different layer, so designers can flip back to previous versions while deciding which changes to accept.
This mobile app and web-based program was created with animation designers in mind. Upload your project and send the link to clients, coworkers or anyone else whose feedback you want on your latest project. The sleek dashboard and thumbnail views make it easy to navigate between projects, which makes it one of the best tools for virtual collaboration.
The prototype editor lets you play around with your design and make changes before sending it out, unlike other programs that only let you upload a finished product. The tools also allow for animations and transitions, which is big leap forward for designers who are using outdated project management systems that only handle flat, still images.
The folks at In.Vision assume you’ll like their product so much that you’ll be willing to pay for it. As a result, they offer the first project for free. After that, a monthly fee starting at $15 is required, depending on the space and tools you need.
Contact Aperian Global
Aperian Global is an international leader in helping organizations find their place in the global work environment. With more than 25 years of experience, Aperian Global can partner with your organization to create a dynamic, diverse environment that sets you apart from the competition. With offices in global markets, including Oakland, California; Boston, Massachusetts; Kolding, Denmark; Shanghai, China; Singapore; Bangalore, India; and Paris, France, our diversity and ability to communicate across language and culture is our greatest asset.
To learn more Aperian Global’s facilitated programs that are designed to improve collaboration in virtual teaming environments, contact us today.