20 Must-Have Online Collaboration Tools, Apps, and ProgramsWilliam Gadea 05.12.2011
At IdeaRocket we collaborate with many of our freelancers remotely, so we’re constantly investigating online collaboration tools to see which are the ones that work best for us. Since many other businesses have to collaborate remotely with employees, clients and contractors, we thought we’d share what we’ve discovered.
Project management: Collaborating remotely with multiple partners is facilitated by sharing information — things like task lists, message boards, schedules, etc. A number of websites offer these services on the cloud. Perhaps the best known is Basecamp, but this space has become quite competitive, with players such as Zoho also vying for your business. The business model of these companies is usually to offer you some ‘lite’ services for free, and then have you pay a monthly fee for scaled-up service.
Video-conferencing and screen-sharing: By now most of us have seen how video-conferencing on Skype or iChat can make interactions with friends and family more intimate, but many businesses still haven’t realized the full potential of this as a collaboration tool. Screen-sharing is an important feature on both these free applications; it let’s the other person see what’s on your screen, be it text, images, or video. iChat (Mac only) goes one better than Skype, and actually allows both parties to control the same computer. At IdeaRocket this has facilitated creative discussions, since both parties can alternate control and show what they mean by drawing their concepts out.
More robust meeting services such as Cisco’s WebEx and GoToMeetings/ GoToWebinars allow meetings or presentations with video and screen-sharing for hundreds — or even thousands — of people, usually for a monthly subscription fee.
Timesheet: Whether your workers are on-site or working remotely, they need to fill out a timesheet in order to get paid and track expenses. Again, software-as-a-service providers step up to the plate. The company we use and are quite happy with is Paymo.biz. They have a number of options on how to report information and clock your hours, including punch-in timers and a desktop widgets. Paymo also integrates well with Basecamp. Other companies in the same space include ClockSpot and GetHarvest.
Real-time document sharing: When collaborating on writing a document with another person, sometimes it helps if both of you can see the edits as you’re making them. If the parties all have a Google account, then Google Docs lets you do this quite easily. You can import from a number of different file types, maintain the formatting quite well, then export back out. Not only can you work on text documents, but also presentations, spread sheets, forms and drawings. If it pains you to pry yourself away from the Office suite, Microsoft offers the Office Live service, which also allows the sharing and online editing of documents without abandoning the interface you’re used to.
File-sharing: We still haven’t found a file-sharing service that we’re a 100% satisfied with. Box.net has an attractive and intuitive interface, but some of our freelancers have had difficulty accessing it. Dropbox has been a big hit with the general public because of its ease of use, but it doesn’t seem to have the power features that Box.net has. Microsoft offers 5GB of free space with Live Mesh, and this service is also available for Macs. Subscription services such as Sharefile allow you to brand your space, if that’s important to you.
Contracts: There are services that allow you to get contracts signed with an electronic signature. We have tried Echosign but found it a little cumbersome and less than intuitive, both for us and for our clients. (Others with more patience might benefit from it!) Competitors in the space also include rPost and Docusign.
Meeting: Nowadays, many companies use email utilities within their calendar apps to schedule meetings. This reduces mishaps such as participants misunderstanding the appointment time because they’re in different time zones. A number of online products seek to add functionality to the basic calendar. Timebridge.com, for example, offers multiple times to attendees and allows them to mark which they prefer. Tungle.me does this too, but it is also a more ambitious product that aims to offer you additional information and insights about your schedule and meetings.
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