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Best Online Collaboration Tools – How Our Remote Team Runs

Remote work is awesome but navigating the workplace when your office is the ENTIRE WORLD can definitely be a struggle. The good news is there are plenty of online collaboration tools that fill the gaps that remote work creates.

As we’ve built WP Site Care over the years, we’ve tried lots of different online collaboration tools. It took quite a while, but we’ve finally settled on a software stack that works well for us.

We’ve been through dozens of tools and while some of them have been awesome, plenty of them have sucked. Or at least they’ve sucked for our specific needs. That’s probably more accurate. In this post I’ll show you the collaboration tools our team uses to get work done and keep customers happy.

Choosing the Best Online Collaboration Tools

online collaboration tools
I wouldn’t recommend getting sawdust this close to your keyboard

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as we’ve tried different products is that tools are… just tools.

It sounds obvious, but I I’ve definitely been guilty of googling for an answer before I knew the problem I was trying to solve.

Ask some questions before you start looking for a tool:

  • Where is work getting stuck?
  • Why is the current tool frustrating?
  • What’s the exact problem you’re trying to solve?
  • Is the problem even software-related at all? 

There have been plenty of times when I’ve asked these questions and found that the software was either entirely capable of what I wanted it to do. Or worse, the frustration was about a person or a process, not the technology at all.

I’m sure you’ve done the same.

Oh, you haven’t? Well, this is awkward… Anyway, onward!

Here are the tools we use to collaborate at WP Site Care:

G Suite

G Suite Homepage

Like lots of companies, we use G Suite (Google’s business offering for gmail, google docs, and every other google service on the planet) for all of our email. We admittedly use less actual email than we did in our early years, but it’s still the backbone of all of customer communications.

We’ve experimented with some other ways to communicate with customers, but people really love email. It’s familiar and there’s no education or barrier to entry. It just works, as they say.

G Suite is a low cost, zero-maintenance email solution with extremely high availability (if there’s a gmail outage the whole internet stops, it seems). That makes it a great solution for a company like ours that wants to focus on building our service, not managing email infrastructure.

P.S. In a former life I was a Microsoft Exchange Server Administrator. Use G Suite, trust me.

Help Scout

Help Scout Homepage

Tied very closely to gmail is our customer support help desk, Help Scout. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Help Scout is an email-based ticketing system that let’s us do all sorts of cool things behind the scenes to help our customers.

We can pass messages around internally, add private notes, tag certain types of conversations, and we’ve even tied it in directly to our Walkie Talkie plugin. This integration gives us extra data to help resolve customer issues more quickly, without any extra work from them. More data without more work is a big win.

Help Scout mentions and private notes screenshot

Beyond all that, Help Scout has some really powerful reporting tools that help us know exactly how we’re doing.

Are we getting to customers in a timely fashion? How many emails do we have to trade before we solve a customers issue? Are customers happy with the service they’re receiving?

These reports are the core source of information for our Happiness Reports.

Basecamp

We also use Basecamp. Basecamp does many different things, but suffice it to say it’s the main communication hub for our company, and the way we get work done.

The biggest advantage to using Basecamp, for us, is that every discussion and conversation that happens has context. Not only are we having conversations within a specific project, we can talk about a specific document in that project all in the same thread.

Quick story: Last year at a Bureau of Digital Owner Camp I got to meet Basecamp founder, Jason Fried (#humblebrag). When he talked about the way they communicate at Basecamp (using Basecamp, go figure), I instantly “got it”. It made so much sense to me. At the time we were using Slack and within a few weeks of coming back from Owner Camp, I had transitioned our team to Basecamp, and I don’t see us ever going back to Slack.

With Slack you can organize conversations into specific buckets, but they’re never close to specific enough. And it’s pretty much impossible to see where one conversation starts and another ends. They’ve tried to address this with their threaded conversation feature, but that introduces a whole other set of problems in practice.

Another huge advantage about everything being contextual in Basecamp, is that I can opt-in to the notifications that are important to me. This is a huge improvement over filtering out what I need from a constant firehose of garbage. Basecamp has brought organization and focus back to our team. If you haven’t given Basecamp a fresh look in a while, check it out. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Get $50 off your first month of Basecamp when you use this link. You’ll be happy you did!

1Password

1password Homepage

Sharing sensitive data in a team can be really tricky, and something we take very seriously. Our customers trust us to protect their usernames and passwords and other sensitive information, and we use 1Password for Teams to handle that.

We don’t store customer logins or other sensitive data anywhere other than 1Password. 

Not only is it incredibly secure (some fun details on that here), it’s also very easy to use. We can share logins across our team, and there are fantastic permissions controls too. This makes it so that no one has access to anything that isn’t directly connected to their own work.

1Password is by far the most elegant password management tool I’ve ever used, especially in a team environment.

TextExpander

Text Expander Homepage

TextExpander is a ridiculously cool tool that saves us time and helps us stay aligned with our processes and messaging.

TextExpander lets you create text shortcuts for pretty much anything. For example, if I type mtngurl that automatically inserts the big long meeting URL for my personal Zoom meetings.

We’ve taken this to another level and use it to share support scripts, useful terminal commands, and all sorts of other text snippets that get frequently reused. With TextExpander for Teams we can instantly share all of these snippets and libraries with every member of the team.

Google Docs

Google Docs is everywhere, and I’m sure anyone reading this is at least somewhat familiar. That said, I wanted to mention it because there’s one piece of Google Docs that we can’t seem to live without.

We’ve tried lots of document solutions in the past, and Basecamp even has a built-in docs system, but the live collaboration in Google docs is something we can’t seem do without.

The closest thing we found that people on our team seemed to like ok was Quip, but ultimately we found our way back to Google Docs.

Dropbox

Dropbox Homepage

Sharing files securely is another place where we’ve experimented quite a bit in the past, and Dropbox Business ultimately became the answer for us.

Dropbox is pretty ubiquitous, so the barrier to entry is low for a team. Dropbox Business also has some cool features like encryption, super granular sharing permissions, and even remote device wipe.

Device wipe was particularly important to us to protect our data in the event that someone’s work laptop were lost or stolen. We can easily erase any sensitive data from the hard drive, no matter where the machine ends up.

Zoom

Zoom Homepage

Video conferencing is still a mess in 2017, but talking “face to face” is a critical piece of remote work. When we want to have a 1 on 1 or a team meeting, the tool that’s been the best for us is Zoom.

It’s relatively inexpensive, and much more reliable and stable than Google Hangouts. Hangouts consistently timed out, had bugs, and was always frustrating for one reason or another.

Zoom has a few cool features like dedicated meeting rooms, meeting recording, and smooth calendar integrations that we use pretty often too.

Github

Github Homepage

Github is our code collaboration tool. We use it to manage customer code and all of our internal development projects cause we’re fancy. We’ve looked at a lot of the other git repositories, but when Github moved to a per user pricing model with unlimited private repositories, it became the no-fuss solution we were looking for.

We used Bitbucket for quite a while, and things like Gitlab are certainly interesting, but for our needs, Github hits the sweet spot for ease of use and cost.

Wrapping Up

There are several other tools we use to run the business side of our business, which I’ll write about in another post, but these are the online collaboration tools we use pretty much every day to get work done as a remote team.

The last thing I’ll mention is that we’re constantly reevaluating all of this. This isn’t the end-all be-all list. None of this is set in stone. If we feel like a tool isn’t meeting our needs, or the company behind it takes a strange direction we don’t like, we’ll find a replacement and move on. Simple as that.

If you’re using anything in your current work that you’re particularly frustrated with, make some notes about how it could be better and share them with the vendor. If they don’t take the feedback to heart, that particular tool may not be a long-term solution for you, and I can almost guarantee that what you’re looking for is probably out there somewhere (I didn’t intend on ending this article with something that sounds like a message you’d find on a singles mixer fortune cookie, but here we are).

Which tools are you using for your remote work collaboration and why? Do you love them? Hate them? Wish you had a better alternative for any of them? I’d love to hear in the comments!

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8 Comments

  1. Karina

    I use Kanban Tool ( https://kanbantool.com/ ) because it’s efficient and easy to use. Each member of my team can see who works on which task, so we don’t overlap our work anymore. We also have a much better idea of where we are with our projects. I like Kanban Tool a lot more than other collaboration tools we’ve tried.

  2. PoojaG

    You may want to add one more collaboration tool, TurboMeeting. It runs flawlessly with on-premise security.

  3. Alexandra Grayson

    A great rundown on a complex subject. Looking back at how we started https://acewriters.org/ and ow long it took us to get it right, it is amazing it worked as well as it did back then [some of us recall bang addresses and pathalias..] and has successfully scaled orders of magnitudes above its dreamed demand/size. Without collaboration we would NOT have reached anything!

  4. Bruce Lewin

    Interesting comments about why you moved away from Slack… Check out Zulip which is a has a much better approach to chat and has a “stream & topics” structure which provides a great antidote to the unstructured problems associated with Slack…

  5. Seán

    Interesting use of TextExpander, Ryan!
    I also managed Microsoft Exchange Servers in another life and it still makes me cringe when I think of it.

  6. Steven

    Nice list of tools and is mostly similar to what we use, TextExpander is one I need to use more as I can see that saving me a lot of time!

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