When you’re talking about collaboration, 1 + 1 = 5. Working with like-minded people who compliment your strengths makes you much more effective no matter what you’re trying to accomplish. Most of the time, sitting down around a table or a white-board is the best way to work together. But finding people close to you and physically getting together can become a problem. (Remember all of those cool people from college that live half-way across the country now? What about those predicted $5 per gallon gas prices?)
Because of these challenges, I’ve spent the better part of 3 years on a constant search for effective collaboration tools. During that time I’ve come across quite a range of technology. Here’s a run-down of the best collaboration tools that will help keep you and your team connected and working together effectively:
Note: All of the tools I’m highlighting are free. There are tons of great tools that you can pay for, but the trick is finding quality tools for free. Check out the bottom of this post for options that have fees associated with them.
I’m still amazed when I ask someone to jump on Skype so we can talk and they don’t have it installed or they can’t remember their username because they haven’t used it in so long. If you’re someone who consistently uses a computer for work, Skype needs to be a part of your work-flow.
Hang up your phone (phones are so early 90′s) and power up your web-cam so you can actually see the person you’re talking to (and enjoy nearly flawless audio quality), share desktops, send files (it’s slow, but it works), or chat when audio/video communication isn’t appropriate.
It’s not perfect: sometimes slow internet speeds, confusing audio options, and other unforeseen complications prevent good connections. But 90% of the time, it’s my go-to choice for audiovisual communication. For the other times… my phone still works fine…
One of the coolest collaboration technologies available today is desktop sharing. This tool is my most recent discovery and, consequently, I’ve only used it a few times. It’s one of the simplest screen sharing tools I’ve ever seen and it’s totally free. You can broadcast your screen to up to 10 people and even take control of their screen and keyboard (if they give you permission of course) which is great for tech support for family members or non-techie people on your team. It doesn’t provide audio or webcam support, so you’ll want to use it with either a phone (lame) or a tool like Skype. It also allows recording of a presentation (though this would be of limited value without the audio) and some sweet functionality like adjustable quality (to optimize for speed or quality) and viewer pointers (so those who are not showing their screen can use their mouse as a pointer).
If you’re trying to collaborate on something like a design or a presentation, screen sharing is what you want, but many times the point of a meeting is to brainstorm new ideas or finalize details. For these times, plain text will suffice to keep everyone on the same page. Google Docs is really the only choice for real-time collaboration on text. Everyone can see what others are typing almost instantly, everyone goes away with the same copy of the notes, and the notes can never get lost because they’re hosted on Google. Google Docs is also great for non-real-time (is there a word for that?) collaboration for things like sending a draft of an article to be revised.
Also keep in mind that Google Docs provide the same real-time collaboration for their version of spreadsheets and presentations as well.
File sharing is another key to collaboration and their’s only one tool you need: Dropbox. It’s as simple as it gets but still provides advanced features like versioning. Best of all, you can get up to 8GB of space for free (you start with 2GB but it’s pretty easy to earn more). With Dropbox you can create a folder, invite your team to it, and then anything that is placed in that folder (by anyone who was invited) gets copied to everyone else’s folder. It really is that easy.
Teambox does a lot of the other things we’ve talked about (file sharing, note taking) but it really shines when a team is collaborating on one big project. It provides places to chat, send messages, create shared task lists, host documents, and take notes. It also has incredible tools for getting content into the Teambox (through email, mobile devices, etc.) which make it incredibly easy to add into your work-flow.
- GoToMeeting – Screen sharing and audio chat
- OpenACircle – project management, screen sharing, video chat (no audio chat last time I checked)
- AnyMeeting – Webinars and screen sharing (features up to 200 people for free with one-way webcam and desktop sharing)
- Basecamp – project management and document sharing
- Wrike – project management
What are some tools that you have found useful? Did I miss anything?