Imagine working on a new product launch where the designers are in Seattle, the engineers are in Chicago, and the marketing team is in New York. Getting everyone on the same page and making sure they have access to the latest files can be challenging given their locations and time changes.

Thanks to online collaboration software and its ability to help manage workflow and provide the most recent version of files in real-time, work can get done any time of the day.

What Exactly is Online Collaboration Software?

Collaboration software can take many forms, from simple instant messaging, to conferencing and telephony, to video conferencing. Some applications may focus on a specific element while others try to incorporate more than one capability.

Wikipedia defines Collaboration Software as: “An application software designed to help people involved in a common task to achieve goals.” And for benefits, it goes on to say: “A collaborative working environment supports people in both their individual and cooperative work thus evolving into a new class of professionals, e-professionals, who can work together irrespective of their geographical location.”

There are many tools that might fall in this category, but for the purposes of this article, we define Online Collaboration Software as a software application, platform or tool that is delivered as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), or cloud, and contains a number of capabilities within one platform, either built directly in, or integrated with other applications.

Choosing the Right Tool for You

Online collaboration software isn’t just for companies who have people working in different locations; it’s also a valuable tool for any business that wants to be more efficient and effective. But with so many choices, how do you choose the right collaboration tool for your organization?

To make it easier for you, we’ve created this list of five essential areas to evaluate when researching online collaboration tools. We hope it helps you narrow down your selection and choose the best option for your company or your team.

Pick A Collaboration Tool that Supports All Communication Methods

When it comes to collaboration, communication is everything. It’s important the solution you choose accommodates the way you and your team communicate. There are some groups who can get all their work done over group messaging while others need to huddle on a call and talk through project challenges. Other team members may prefer to be present at a meeting in order to gauge interest from other conference participants.

Understanding the following communication features will help you pick the right collaboration software for your team.

Look for Integrated Messaging Features

Collaborating on work doesn’t always mean two or more people are working on something simultaneously. Often, a document or file is created and needs to be reviewed by other team members. This is when messaging can be incredibly helpful in moving the process along. Users who are viewing a file should be able to leave messages in the file. There should also be an option to share the messages privately or with a group. In addition to leaving messages on individual files, support for Instant Messaging (IM) should also be integrated into the online collaboration tool. Whether it’s a free IM program or one the IT department manages, sending IMs have become a common and efficient way to communicate in the workplace. Find a solution that supports the IM method used in your workplace or has its own form of messaging included.

Confirm Private Communication is Possible

Collaboration often occurs between just two people who are preparing a concept for the group to review at a later time. The online collaboration tool you select should enable this type of communication. Allowing for two people to work on a file together and simultaneously have an interactive conversation about it using their messaging preference (audio, video, or online chat) can increase productivity. Additionally, there are some occasions where everyone in the group doesn’t need to be privy to a conversation. It’s important to have privacy and access settings per individual that can be adjusted whenever needed.

Verify Conference Calls Can Be Conducted Online and Over the Phone

There are plenty of online conferencing options available, such as GoTo Meeting and WebEx, but you shouldn’t need to supplement your online collaboration software with one of these services. The solution you select should offer similar features found in conferencing programs. Verify how many participants can be on a call simultaneously and if it’s a limited number (typically 25). Be sure to inquire about fees for additional participants. How do people call in for a meeting? Will they need to install a separate application on their computer or is it seamlessly integrated into the collaboration software? Will workers need to use a separate application? Determine if it will work on smartphones, as well. Perhaps your organization prefers to keep it simple and use a separate audio/telephone bridge. Determine which method(s) work best for your company and ensure that your online collaboration software of choice supports it.

Understand the Requirements to Host Video Chats

Many workers have become accustomed to using Skype and Google Hangouts to collaborate on projects. Participants often have to manage screen sharing and deal with quality issues that can accompany the use of free products. When there are multiple people on a call working on the same file, it’s useful for everyone to to view and comment on it simultaneously. Remember that video can be a strain on networks. If this feature is important to you, make sure your company and remote workers who are using this solution have networks with enough bandwidth to handle it effectively.

Store Project Conversations in a Central Location

One of the latest trends in online collaboration software is having all the conversations about a project stored in a central location. Think of it as a bulletin board or Facebook for business, but without the ads. Instead of inviting people to an event where everyone leaves comments and additional commentary on specific messages, team members have a similar messaging center for a particular project.

Choose Easy-to-Use Online Collaboration Tools to Increase Adoption

Introducing a new tool in the workplace has plenty of benefits. It can increase productivity, help employees work smarter, and in the case of collaboration tools improve communication. But sometimes adding more tools is not necessarily a good thing when you’re looking at online collaboration software. Getting everyone to use the same program is essential and eliminates the need to support multiple tools or deal with the complexity of everyone using a different tool.

To help increase adoption of a new tool in the workplace, ease-of-use is critical. People are busy and don’t have a lot of spare time to learn new tools from scratch. And if a new tool proves to be complicated to learn or hard to use, people will abandon it, making it a fruitless effort. However, if the new online collaboration software has an interface people are familiar with, is easy to quickly learn and use, adoption will be more successful.

Pick a Product with a Simple and Intuitive Interface

Look for a solution that has an intuitive interface, one that is familiar and simple to navigate. The solution should also not be overly complex nor overly simple. It should conform to the way each individual chooses to work. Additionally, the solution should integrate with and support other programs or methods currently in use. If a program isn’t easy to use, the people in your organization aren’t going to adopt it.

Choose Software with Workflow Management Features

Collaborating on work doesn’t just stop at leaving a comment; it also involves workflow. The online collaboration software you select should help automate your workflows. It should track the location of a file or document, who has made changes to it and when, and even help move it along in the process via task management features.

Look For a Product that Provides A Digital Workspace for Brainstorming Sessions

Plenty of phenomenal ideas come out of a good brainstorming session. In today’s work environment, where people may be working at home or located in different offices around the globe, getting everyone in front of the whiteboard is challenging. The good news is that with the right online collaboration tool, you can gather everyone together on a virtual whiteboard. After all, collaboration is about the people, not the location.

Research the Type of Mobile Support Provided

Thanks to smartphones, tablets, and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, people don’t stop working when they walk away from the computer. Many workers want to be able to use their mobile devices to check-in on projects while on the go. Be sure to consider the type of mobile support available. Besides just being compatible or having a mobile app for Windows Phone, Apple iOS, and Android devices, find out if there are any limitations. For example, when using the mobile app version, will team members only be able to view changes on a document or can they also add comments?

Make Sure It Works on Multiple Platforms

It’s not uncommon to find multiple computer platforms in the workplace. Designers may be working on Macs while the business team uses PCs. Also, consider the employees who work away from the office either full-time or after traditional work hours. They may use an entirely different platform at home than they do at work. The online collaboration software you select should work seamlessly on all platforms: Macs, PCs, and even Linux (if that’s part of your environment). A solution that is initially compatible with multiple operating systems (OS) will likely be scalable and support future OS updates.

Ensure Your Choice Has Scheduling Features to Help Keep Projects on Track

An essential key to any successful project is scheduling. In addition to meeting deadlines, it can also be a useful tool for team members to help manage their work. While collaboration is about reviewing files and making changes or adding comments in real-time, it’s also about taking accountability for your deliverables. When workers can add their status updates on their tasks, it saves the project manager time, and everyone knows the state of the project. If all of this is in the cloud - in real-time - then everyone is on the same page.

Confirm it Can Create Task Lists

To help monitor all the moving parts of a project, the online collaboration software you choose should have the ability to create task lists. This is more than just a lengthy to-do list. When creating task lists, start by analyzing a project’s deliverables and assign task owners responsible for each item. Look for an online collaboration tool that can assign tasks to individuals, along with due dates, and sub-tasks, as well as the ability to attach files to a specific task.

See How it Manages Scheduling and Tracking Multiple Tasks

Projects typically have multiple moving parts and plenty of dependencies. That’s when scheduling is key. It’s one thing to add deadlines and tasks to the calendar, but the ability to keep track of them and have them automated can help workers meet deadlines. The online collaboration software you choose should monitor the status of tasks and project milestones, and even send out automated reminders or an alert to team members when a deadline is approaching or something has fallen behind schedule.

Ascertain if it Supports Gantt Charts

For project managers, Gantt charts are visual roadmaps that identify potential bumps in the road so they can plan accordingly. At a glance, a Gantt chart can show if tasks are being completed in the right order; if deadlines are being met, if the right dependencies are in place, and if something is falling behind. Depending on the tool you use to create a Gantt chart it can also send out alerts and reminders to specific team members. When it comes to collaborating, it’s a useful tool for seeing the status of a particular document and where it is in the workflow process. While online collaboration software isn’t synonymous with Gantt charts, the ability to at least view a Gantt chart for a project can help keep team members in the loop so they always know the status of their work.

Verify the Tool Will Integrate with Your Calendar Apps

Once tasks are assigned, and milestones and deadlines set, one of the easiest ways to view that information is in the calendar. There’s no reason to re-invent the wheel. Look for a solution that uses a standard calendar view that workers are already accustomed to using. Additionally, it would be great if tasks assigned to team members could appear in their individual calendars. Many programs integrate with existing calendar apps such as Google, Outlook, or iCal, and will automatically add appointments and meetings to those programs.

Choose a Dynamic File-Sharing Solution

Online collaboration software isn’t about a group of people working on a single file. It’s about a team working on a project, which has multiple types of files. Depending on the project’s scope it can include a variety of file types such as PDF, Excel, Word, PNG or JPG (images), Google Docs, Power Point, Project files and more. The ability to have an online repository where all project files are stored, accessible and editable by team members is essential.

Certify the Product’s Security Features are Inline with IT Requirements

When making files available to a group of workers both internally and externally, security is essential. You’ll want to make sure the solution you pick conforms at the very least to the security requirements set forth by your company’s IT department. Additionally, if you want to manage the level of access that each user has to see particular details or make changes to files, look for an option that offers role management. This can be used to assign permission levels easily.

Check that the Solution Works with the Type of Files You Use Most

Since online collaboration tools can also serve as a repository for all the files in a project, confirm that it supports all the file types you use. Create a list of all the possible file formats used in different projects and use that for reference when researching features.

Confirm the Ability to Attach Feedback to Individual Files

Sometimes you don’t want to add a change or a comment directly on an attached file. Instead, you might wish to start a discussion about the contents of a file and have that commentary associated with it. This feature is at the heart of collaboration software, so look for a solution that allows users to post comments on folders, files, and even leave messages. Team members should be able to use virtually any device (smartphone, tablet, or computer) to leave comments. Better yet, find a tool that can produce reports to let you know which files are generating the most discussion.

Select a Tool that Seamlessly Integrates with Apps your Company Uses

When introducing a new tool into the office it’s important that it works well – or is it deeply integrated – with other applications and programs already deployed throughout your organization. If workers can still use many of the tools they like in conjunction with the new product, adoption will be higher. Take an inventory of the apps already in use at your company. For example, if your organization uses cloud storage (Box, DropBox, Google Drive, etc), Google Apps, and other productivity programs, you should still be able to use them within the new collaboration tool.

Choose a Product with Real-Time Collaboration

There are many benefits to using online collaboration tools to complete projects. It gives team members the opportunity to edit project files, provide feedback, leave comments, and chat with each other all in real-time (i.e. without having one file that has to be ‘checked out’ and ‘checked in’, or tracked for version control). It helps to consistently maintain one current version at all times, no matter who’s working on it or when they’re working on it. While this method can save a lot of time and move the project along quickly, it can also create some challenges if the collaboration software isn’t correctly managing and tracking changes. When evaluating an online collaboration tool look for these keys features to handle version control and file protection.

Find Out If You Can Add Unlimited Collaborators

Whether your company is big or small, one of the first questions you should ask when looking for an online collaboration tool is if there is a limit to the amount of collaborators who can use the product. You’ll also want to know if there is a limit to how many people can collaborate simultaneously. Collaborating on projects isn’t limited to people just within the company. Many project contributors or team members from outside the company, such as partners, vendors, and customers, require access and input to the project plans. It’s important to understand if there are any limitations for these users. For example, if someone making changes to a file isn’t a part of your organization, find out if you will you need to pay a fee for them to use the tool. Also ensure you can control what they can view or edit. The online collaboration software you choose should account for all users, no matter where they are.

Understand How it Handles Track Changes Made by Different People

In true collaboration, multiple people work on the same project plan or files simultaneously. When this occurs, two people might be making edits to the same section. An intelligent collaboration tool will let each person working on the file see where the other person is making changes - even if they are occurring simultaneously. What about when a team member works on a file offline? When it is returned to the online environment, the file should still denote what changes were made offline and by whom and automatically sync up to the latest version.

Identify the Types of Users Who Can Overwrite Changes

When multiple people work on the project plan or file, a lot can happen. Sometimes the project owner may not agree with all the changes made and wish to reject changes or revert to a previous version. Perhaps the project manager wants to include a section removed from the third version of the file. It shouldn’t be a complicated process to find that version and merge it back into the document. When overwriting changes, look for a lock feature, so the final version really is final.

Understand You and Your Company’s Needs

Empowering workers with collaboration tools can increase productivity, help keep deliverables on track, and improve overall workflow. There are plenty of online options available regardless of industry. Some products are for designers and more creative types who need virtual whiteboards and interactive brainstorming tools. While other collaboration solutions are ideal for businesses that rely heavily on office productivity tools to get the job done. Still some options have a healthy mix of features that would appeal to both designers and executives in the company.

Although, it’s great that there are so many options, picking the right one can be daunting. To help narrow your search, do a little research at your company to get a better idea of how people would use online collaboration software. Start by identifying the type of projects that it could be used for. Take the time to talk to the people who will be using it and find out how they handle workflow and communication on a project. What are the steps involved in the project? How many people are working on it? How many departments? What content will be used? Some workers will prefer to store discussions in a centralized location, while others may only want to be able to make comments on specific files attached to the plan.

During this research period, meet with project owners or managers to learn more about style preferences and how team members currently interact while working together. What methods of communication and tracking do they use? Where do they store project files? How do they each like to work? This will provide great insight to the type of features that will benefit your company most.

Additionally, create a list of apps that the company frequently uses. You’ll want to make sure that the online collaboration software you choose will integrate with what is currently in use. Above all, figure out if the program you select will actually help automate your team’s work.

Now that you have a better idea of how to research, and what to look for when picking an online collaboration tool for your organization, start your search by deciding which features are the most important. Don’t make this list alone. After all, this software is designed to help people work together. Get others involved in the decision and ask them about their process, what would make it easier for them to work with others, and the apps and file types they currently use. Once you have this list, rank them in order of importance. This will help you identify your needs, which will serve you well when doing your research.

We hope you found this article a useful framework for choosing an online collaboration tool for your organization. When considering the tools available, consider Smartsheet.

Using Smartsheet as an Online Collaboration Tool

Smartsheet is an online work management tool that has advanced collaboration features built-in, and it is quickly becoming an essential tool for over 50,000 companies across the globe. Smartsheet brings together all of the elements you need to manage your work into one platform. It’s usage spans across all disciplines and departments, and conforms to the way each individual user works, not the other way around. Smartsheet meets the majority of the requirements laid out in this article and integrates with the most used apps in the market.

You can find out for yourself if Smartsheet is the right online collaboration tool for your organization. Sign up for a free 30-day trial today. There is no obligation and trial users have access to a number of templates, training, and support resources to get up and running quickly.

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For more collaboration tips and tricks, visit our Resources page.

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