Collaboration tools: the best apps for better productivity

Teamwork plays an important part in any modern office. One thing you’ll know to be true is that the more employees are working on a project, the more important good communication and coordination is. The best possible result can only be achieved when all tasks are distributed well amongst all participants. It’s equally important that those taking part have the necessary resources and information available, and that any relevant changes to the work process are communicated with other employees as soon as possible. In order to optimize workflow, more and more companies are using collaboration tools, which not only help with productivity, but also enable location-independent working.

What are collaboration tools?

Collaboration tools or collaboration software offer various features for managing projects. The purpose of software solutions like these is to optimize the work process, which is why some tools are created for areas such as planning, organization, and analysis. For example, a tool can be characterized by the following content and features:

  • Mind mapping: Many tools help teams create ideas and/or collaborate creatively. Tools for creating mind maps as well as other brainstorming features can encourage project participants to share their ideas and actively contribute to the project. By doing this, clients can also be easily integrated into the creative process if they want to be, as long as access to the tool has been granted.

  • File sharing: One of the most important basic concepts of collaboration software is that users can share their tables, documents, and additional data with other users. Many tools have a central storage platform and are able to define individual access rights. This way, important files are always accessible from anywhere. Project managers and/or administrators decide who has access to which information.

  • Real-time communication: Collaboration tools often contain different features so that participants can communicate with each other in real-time. The individual project boards allow tasks to be distributed with an overview of everyone’s progress. The comment function enables members to discuss tasks that are unclear and solve any issues quickly and easily. Many implemented applications also rely on well-established forms of communication, such as video calls, instant messaging, and e-mail, or have interfaces to popular programs such as Outlook or Skype. Most providers also rely on saving tables or text documents in the cloud; allowing multiple users to access them at the same time.

  • Shared calendar: Whether you have a team meeting, important business calls, or a deadline: E-mails, calls, or chat messages are a good and fast way of informing others of upcoming events, although they can be forgotten about just as quickly. The more meetings that are planned, the more difficult it is to keep an overview. For this reason, collaboration tools provide a calendar feature that enables you to share all relevant appointments and view them at any time.

  • Management features: Good collaboration software allows project and team leaders to optimally plan and have an overview of the various work processes going on. There are components available, which can be used to optimally allocate and organize available resources. In addition, many tools provide solutions for documenting and evaluating workflow as well as the progress being made. If the software is used throughout the whole company, the applications can also facilitate communication between departments.

Why it’s worth investing in collaboration software

You do not necessarily need a collaboration tool to organize projects and optimize workflow. A small team working in the same office can coordinate themselves, for example, without specific software or with individual applications for specific areas. However, the more employees working together on a project, the more useful software like this can be. It’s also helpful for those not connected to the company network. Without tools, you could lose the overview if you have many teams to lead and numerous deadlines to stick to.

Once your company has reached a certain size, you are no longer able to contact each employee personally to receive a status update on how far they’ve progressed with each task. After a collaboration software is set up and tailored to the workflow, you can save valuable time and money that you can then invest in other company areas. File-sharing features also ensure that network-wide file exchange in large companies is possible at all times. It’s also easier to collaborate with partners, since they can integrate these features into relevant processes in their own collaboration software.

Which collaboration tools are available?

The search for a suitable program to optimize workflow is often more difficult than you might expect. This is due to two factors: On the one hand, the various offers differ significantly in terms of their range and in terms of cost (ranging from expensive enterprise solutions to free freemium or open source solutions). Some applications also offer a variety of different collaboration tools, while other solutions are specialized in specific features. It is also necessary to distinguish between local, self-hosted solutions, and online applications hosted by providers (Cloud or SaaS) regarding collaboration software. While the former are ahead, especially in terms of security, the latter are stronger when it comes to remote access.

Whether certain programs or file formats used by you or your employees are supported by the collaboration tools could also factor into the decision making process. In the following sections, we show you some interesting collaborative solutions.

Asana

In 2011, Facebook founder, Dustin Moskovitz, and programmer, Justin Rosenstein, released the collaboration software Asana. Both had previously worked on in-house solutions for optimizing workflow for the social media giant and this is when the idea arose to develop a separate tool. The focus of the SaaS web application (which is hosted on the company servers of the same name) is administrating projects and tasks without requiring an additional communication platform. In addition to the web application that can be accessed through any popular internet browser, apps for iOS and Android are available, which can be used by Asana. The basic version of the tool is free of charge, but in contrast to the paid versions 'Premium' and 'Enterprise' you only get a limited range of functions.

With Asana, you can assign a workspace to any number of teams. In a digital workspace like this, you can manage as many projects as you like by creating, managing, and editing tasks. You can define deadlines, add tags to filter tasks, or attach local files as well as Dropbox, OneDrive, Box, and Google Drive documents. A comprehensive overview of the different projects and tasks is provided by the dashboard, which enables you to organize tasks alphabetically, by deadline, or by status.

Additional features of the collaboration tool:                

  • Own team calendar
  • Project chat (Conversations)
  • Message system (Inbox) with archive
  • Undo function
  • Synchronization of tasks with external calendar software
  • Print and export function (CSV) for projects and tasks

The basic version allows you to create projects for up to 15 participants. In case you have to manage teams larger than this, you should go for the 'Premium' edition. Here, you’ll find ready-made templates, which will help you create new projects quickly and easily. The package also provides advanced search and reporting features that make the work process even easier, as well as access to special administrator features for even greater control over projects and participants. In the 'Enterprise' version, you receive exclusive support and the possibility of the login being in SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) for all users.

Advantages Disadvantages
Possibility of setting up own message system as well as e-mail notifications No desktop application
Mobile apps for iOS and Android  
Free for projects up to 15 participants  

Trello

The US company Fog Creek Software launched its collaboration tool, Trello, in September 2011 after one year of development. The collaboration software was then taken over by the software company Atlassian. The tool, which is available as a platform-independent web application as well as mobile app for iOS and Android, makes light work of coordinating tasks via easy-to-understand Trello boards. Additional collaboration features, such as calendars or shortcuts to cloud applications, can be added via so-called power-ups. In the free basic version, however, there is only a limited selection of extensions available. Only by purchasing the fee-based packages, 'Business Class' and 'Enterprise', can you get access to premium power-ups such as being able to embed in GitHub and Dropbox, etc.

When you create a new board with Trello, you have three sharing options: in private mode, only the manually added users can see the boards and make changes. Team boards, on the other hand, are automatically visible to all members of the project team. If you select public share, all web users can see the board when they click on the link. In both cases, however, editing is only possible if you are added by the project manager, as is the case with private boards. Distributing tasks works using so-called maps, which can be arranged in different lists to manage the task’s status. The collaboration tool provides three lists: 'To Do', 'In Progress', and 'Done'. You can also define your own categories and add additional lists. The following options are available when creating individual tasks (cards):

  • Assign members
  • Add labels (colors and optional patterns)
  • Add checklists with any number of points
  • Comment
  • Set deadlines for completing tasks
  • Attach links or files (PC, Trello, Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, OneDrive)
  • View activity protocol
  • Move to another list when the status changes

If you want to attach files from your computer, you have 10 MB available to do this. You can add files up to 250 MB in size with the 'Business Class' package. With a paid account, you can also control who can create public or private boards, or remove former members with one click. Thanks to premium e-mail support, you will be given an answer to any technical problems and questions within 24 hours. In the 'Enterprise' edition, the collaboration software provides additional protection for your project data through two-factor authentication, file encryption, software monitoring, and the option of custom security checks.

Advantages Disadvantages
Suitable for beginners, intuitive operation Position and structure of the cards on the board can’t be changed
Mobile apps for iOS and Android Confusing archive
Various options for creating and categorizing tasks  

Slack

The collaboration tool Slack has been simplifying communication in companies and agencies since 2014. In addition, the software ensures that users have access to all the applications, services, and resources they need for their daily work. According to the provider, Slack is already being used by more than eight million active users from over 100 countries and more than 35,000 companies every week. The web-based application, which is also available as an app for iOS, Android, Windows, and Windows Phone (beta), can be used free of charge or for a monthly fee ('Standard' and 'Plus'). The payment packages have a larger range of functions.

The main aim of Slack is to offer users the best possible communication platform. For this purpose, you can create as many channels as you like, which basically work like chat rooms. When configuring channels like these, you have the option of making them accessible for either all invited employees or you can manually decide who can join (Private Channel). In addition, all members who are logged in to the collaboration tool can also communicate with each other via direct message. Not only can ordinary text messages be sent, but it’s also possible to share files (PC, Google Drive) and documents (Google Docs), or display code snippets (HTML, CSS, C++, PHP, etc.). The second core function of Slack is integrating third-party applications, which is why there are already interfaces to the following web services:

  • File management: Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Box
  • Communication: Google+ Hangouts, RSS, MailChimp, Skype
  • Development: GitHub, IFTTT, Zapier, JIRA Cloud, Nagios
  • Marketing: Statsbot, GrowthBot, Drift, Mention, Reveal
  • Productivity: Trello, Google Calendar, Asana, Simple Poll
  • Social & fun: GIPHY, Twitter, Bitmoji, Meme Bot
  • Design: InVision App, Zeplin, Lucidchart, RealtimeBoard

The more channels that are created and used for managing and processing projects, the harder it is to keep an overview. But thanks to the impressive search function, individual conversations and files can be retrieved and accessed at any time in Slack. In the free version, however, the collaboration software can only access the last 10,000 messages. In addition, the amount of possible third-party software that can be integrated is limited to ten. You don’t have to worry about either of these hindrances with the 'Standard package' (from $7.00 per user per month), which also enables guests access to the channels and offers features for implementing two-factor authentication and OAuth (Open Authentication). The 'Plus version' (from $13.00 per user per month) promises 24/7 support and a reply within four hours.

Advantages Disadvantages
Easy to share documents, code snippets, and other files No option for creating different teams
Apps for iOS, Android, Windows, and Windows Phone  
Various interfaces to third-party software  

Lifesize Cloud Video Conferencing

The US company, Lifesize has been developing solutions for realizing user-friendly and scalable video, audio, and web conferences since 2013. According to their own data, more than 4,500 customers from more than 100 countries trust the high-quality products that combine the cloud’s possibilities with powerful HD camera technology and camera phones. In addition to the web application for Chrome and the Microsoft browser, there are apps for macOS, Windows, iOS, and Android, which enable device-independent and location-independent participation in meetings. The collaboration tool can be tested for free for up to 14 days. You then have to choose one of the subscriptions: 'Core', 'Premium', or 'Enterprise'. The latter enables livestream transmissions and video conferences to be recorded as well as other things.

In order to launch audio or video conferencing, you can either use direct dial in Lifesize or create and schedule a Meet Me conference. The latter is, for example, possible through the Google Calendar Chrome extension, e-mail based dial-up, or any ICS-compatible calendar. In addition, you can create a conference room, supporting up to 50 participants in the Enterprise edition, which can be connected to an H.323/SIP video system or a telephone call either via the Lifesize cloud app or via a guest client. The room enables you to give presentations in full-screen mode and to mute participants. As an additional feature, you can set up a security code that participants need to enter in order to join the chat. The collaboration software also offers the following features:

  • Easy to turn individual conversations into group meetings without needing a new connection
  • Unlimited number of guest calls
  • User and meeting directory
  • Calendar planning for linked conference rooms (from the 'Premium' version onwards)
  • Interfaces to established video systems and applications such as Skype, Cisco, or Polycom
  • Encrypted data and media transmission (128 bit AES)
  • Automatic Firewall Traversal for secure, cross-network communication

The livestream function, available from the collaboration tool’s 'Premium' subscription, provides real-time meetings for up to 10,000 viewers (desktop and mobile). Through display authorization, you can make sure you have the necessary security. Access to the recorded videos can be regulated via configurable authorization rights. Meeting attendees automatically have access to the appropriate material. In addition to the platform-independent playback, video files can also be downloaded in MP4 format. In addition, 'Premium' and 'Enterprise' customers benefit from an extended support offer (faster response time, higher availability, telephone support, etc.).

Advantages Disadvantages
User and meeting directory Web app not supported by Firefox
Desktop apps for macOS and Windows as well as mobile apps for iOS and Android available No pay-per-use price model
Encrypted transmission  

Basecamp

In 2004, the Chicago-based company 37signals (now known as Basecamp), released its collaboration software called Basecamp, which has been sold over 2.5 million times since. The tool helps to organize both internal business communication and project work as well as collaborations with business partners, unifying all your teams, projects, and workgroups into a single platform. Access to Basecamp takes place either via common web browsers like Google Chrome, Safari, Microsoft Edge, or Mozilla Firefox, or via the desktop application, which is available for Windows and macOS. Thanks to iOS and Android apps, mobile device users can also use the sophisticated collaboration features.

Basecamp’s user interface, which appears to be somewhat confusing for beginners, is basically divided into three areas: The HQ space provides room for company-wide announcements, general information, and files that are to be made available for every employee in the company. Logically, this area is designed for management to use. Under 'Teams', you can create your own platforms for individual departments that they can use to communicate and plan. Under 'Projects', the collaboration tool displays the different channels for the created work projects and their participants. Regardless of the heading, the following six core features are always available:

  • Campfire: Individual chat room for each group
  • Message board: For news and status updates
  • To-dos: A list for presenting the most important work steps (including deadlines)
  • Schedule: Calendars compatible with Google Cal, iCal, or Outlook
  • Automatic check-ins: Automated status inquiries (daily, weekly, or monthly)
  • Docs & files: Central location for files, documents, and links to Google Docs that can be organized through folders

Basecamp can be tested for free for one month, giving you time to decide whether or not to purchase the collaboration software. Compared to many other solutions, however, the provider has a very unusual approach when it comes to the price model: It’s normal to pay per user, but Basecamp charges $99.00 per month (or $999.00 per year with a one-off annual payment), regardless of whether there are ten employees or five hundred employees! In addition, the software is free for teachers and students, and non-profit and charity organizations receive a discount.

Advantages Disadvantages
Excellent options for editing and managing documents together Difficult to get the hang of when starting out
Possible to set up automated status inquiries  
Price stays the same no matter the number of users  

HipChat

Developers Chris Rivers, Garret Heaton, and Pete Curley released the first official version of the collaboration software, HipChat in 2010. HipChat offers users a communication platform in the form of chatrooms. The software firm, Atlassian, purchased the tool around two years after its release and has been responsible for any further development and sales since then. HipChat is available as a web-based application that can be run on any popular internet browser. In addition, there are installable versions for Windows, MacOS, Linux, Android, and iOS. The basic version, HipChat Basic, is free of charge, but as a new user, you can test the fee-based edition, HipChat Plus (starting from $2.00 per month per user) for free for one month.

Each user that is added to a HipChat account has the option of creating a private or public chatroom. This can be used as a standard for group chats with an unlimited number of participants or for individual conversations in text form. It’s possible to share files – the free edition has 5 GB of storage space available. Users with the fee-based version are also able to start video chats or transfer the screen display for demonstration purposes. You can also view and search the chat history, if necessary. Regardless of which version of the collaboration tool you use, the room can be extended by integrating third-party apps that offer more functions. Among other things, the following services are available:

  • Dropbox
  • Facebook
  • GIPHY
  • Google Calendar
  • GitHub
  • Image Editor (Adobe Creative SDK)
  • HTML Canvas
  • MailChimp

You can add anything from this list by clicking on the 'Add integrations' button and then using a command or via the button in the desired chatroom’s menu. Additionally, HipChat enables you to make chatrooms accessible for guest logins. This way, you can add users who aren’t members of your account – business partners, for example. After activation, you load these via an individual, automatically generated link. There’s also the option of hosting the collaboration software yourself. This Enterprise solution, which Atlassian offers under the name HipChat DataCenter, enables you to manage all the data yourself and adapt the tool even more specifically to your own ideas.

Advantages Disadvantages
Numerous interfaces to useful third-party applications available Notification system needs improving
Platform-independent (web, desktop, and mobile apps) Only supports 1 to 1 video content
Self-hosting is possible  

Wrike

The collaboration tool Wrike is the core product of the company of the same name, which was founded in California in 2006 and has been acknowledged several times in the fields of project management, work management, and company growth. With features that regulate communication, transparency, and accountability in projects, the software is suitable for marketing teams, creative teams, project management teams, and product development teams. In addition to the free edition, which up to five users can use, Wrike also offers various custom options with different focal points such as 'Professional' (from $9.80 per month per user), 'Business' (from $24.80 per month per user) or 'Marketing' (from $34.60 per month per user). You can access the application either via the web application or via the respective desktop (Windows, macOS) or mobile app (iOS, Android).

Every project you manage with Wrike can be divided effortlessly into any number of partial steps. The individual tasks can be organized with the help of folders and schedules, which can be viewed and adjusted in timelines (available from the 'Premium' package onwards). This way, you can always track the progress and contributions of all employees. The live activity stream, the version management, and the shared file storage (2 GB or more) can also be used to store and link relevant documents. To ensure that you don’t have to re-create each task, the collaboration tool provides a convenient copy function that enables you to duplicate recurring tasks or complete projects. Like some other solutions, the Wrike board can be expanded by integrating apps like these:

  • File sharing: Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive
  • Development: Jira, GitHub
  • Support: Zendesk, SurveyMonkey
  • Accounting: Harvest, QuickBooks
  • Chat/messaging: Slack, HipChat, Microsoft teams
  • Single sign-on: SAML integration, Okta, Bitium
  • Social: LinkedIn

If you have a team of five people or less and you want to simplify the workload with a software solution, you would definitely benefit from the free basic version of Wrike. If your collaboration software demands are higher, you should consider the 'Professional' version, which offers 5 GB of storage, as well as an unlimited amount of guest account licenses. Starting with the 'Business' package, you will get additional features such as resource management, user group rights, report templates, the possibility of individualizing your own workspace, as well as 50 GB of storage space. If you decide to test Wrike, you can choose from the available packages and confirm your choice at the end of the test phase, or alternatively choose another subscription if you decide to buy the software.

Advantages Disadvantages
Copy function for recurring tasks and projects Comparatively expensive
Apps for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android Complex user interface
Visual timeline (from 'Professional' onwards)  

Overview: Comparison of the 7 collaboration tools

  Developer Year of release Apps Special feature  
Asana Asana 2011 iOS, Android Tag system for task filtering  
Basecamp Basecamp 2004 Windows, macOS, iOS, Android Automated status inquiry  
HipChat Atlassian 2010 Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS, Android Self-hosting possible  
Lifesize Cloud Lifesize 2014 Windows, macOS, iOS, Android Livestreaming function  
Slack Slack 2014 Windows, iOS, Android, Windows Phone Code snippet enabling  
Trello Atlassian 2011 iOS, Android Adaptable layout and design  
Wrike Wrike 2007 Windows, macOS, iOS, Android Activity stream and version management