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With a growing number of companies adopting a permanent work-from-home structure, a tool that promotes team coordination and enhances productivity is essential. Work doesn’t have to suffer just because a team is geographically distributed—real-time collaboration software bridges any gaps. With advanced content and task management features, collaboration software solutions have come a long way in recent years.
The pandemic has created a massive uptick in vendors offering collaboration software. Because of this, businesses of any size, industry, and budget can find a tool that best fits their needs. This buyer’s guide provides insight into what collaboration software is, its features and benefits, and the best vendors to consider when making your choice.
What is collaboration software?
First known as groupware, collaboration software enables multiple users to share, process, and manage projects, tasks, or other data types in one streamlined system. Team members collaborate from any location or device in real time. Having a collaboration tool is vital to ensuring processes run smoothly for those who are geographically distributed or working remotely. Everyone can work on a project together and avoid traditional roadblocks including:
- Being unaware of who’s working on what
- Having unclear deadlines
- Lack of a centralized repository
Social collaboration software is a catch-all phrase used for anything relating to communication within a team. It can be a single platform that serves an entire enterprise, department, or team, or it may be a combination of solutions that together form a collaborative, virtual work environment.
For bigger businesses, enterprise collaboration software is exactly what it sounds like—a collaboration system that specifically supports enterprises with communication such as the sharing of documents, video conferencing, email, and project management tools.
The collaboration software market grew substantially in 2020. While COVID-19 also contributed, an increase in worldwide business digitalization has played a large role in expanding the market. Fortune Business Insights reports that by 2026, team collaboration software will be worth $18.3 billion. To put this in perspective, the market was worth $8.53 billion in 2018. With the increasing adoption of software as a service (SaaS), communication and IT departments will experience the biggest gains in market share.
This growing trend is partly due to the accessibility of collaboration software for businesses. Gone are the days when the only option for software hosting was on-premise deployment with large upfront costs. Now, businesses can take advantage of subscription-based models with everything housed in the cloud. This is a major advantage for companies working with teams scattered across states, countries, and continents. In 2019, cloud-based collaboration solutions accounted for 64 percent of collaboration software, and on-premise accounted for 36 percent. Just three years ago, the split was 50/50.
Cloud-based software is also great for mobile device users. This is becoming increasingly practical as users don’t have to be around a computer to send a quick note to their coworker about a due date on a project. However, some companies with high security needs prefer on-premise deployment.
Typical collaboration software features
Choosing the right collaboration solution can be confusing if you don’t know which features your business needs. This isn’t an exhaustive list of features, as collaboration tools have a wide range of functionalities that encompass different aspects of projects, from communication to group work. Instead, these are the most common features in collaboration tools.
Managing projects can get convoluted when it’s unclear who is working on which tasks. The task management feature in a collaboration tool should let you:
- Assign tasks to teammates
- Set deadlines
- Check completed items off a list
- Reprioritize tasks when necessary
Using this feature can keep projects on track and reveal where bottlenecks occur. Items checked off the to-do list or an approaching due date will trigger a notification sent to appropriate users via email. Some collaboration tools provide a Gantt chart feature for those who prefer a visual representation of task timelines.
File sharing is useful for securely sharing files while being able to adjust access level to the files. Some users may be able to edit or modify the files, while others can only view them. Users can share documents, videos, and images to receive feedback or ask for approval. These files are stored and organized for easy access when you want to look at that one document from last year.
Content management features give you the ability to edit, create, rewrite, and give feedback on content between multiple teammates in real time. This can save you time in sending different draft versions to colleagues for revision notes. Collaboration happens in real time, reducing miscommunication and enhancing productivity.
Communication features are vital to a good collaboration solution. Features such as instant messaging and discussion forums keep all teammates in the loop and projects on track. Video conferencing is great for face-to-face communication to ask questions, brainstorm ideas, or share your screen to train a teammate on a new process.
When considering a collaboration tool, it’s important for the tool to integrate with solutions you’re already using. These can include email providers, messaging tools, or additional project management tools. Integrations streamline processes and eliminate duplicate information across multiple platforms. A good collaboration tool will offer significant integration capabilities.
Benefits of collaboration solutions
Saving time and promoting engagement and group collaboration are obvious benefits of collaboration software, but several other advantages also make it worthwhile.
Streamlining all projects into one place increases productivity. Getting approvals or answers to questions no longer requires shuffling work back and forth. Teammates are on the same page with visible timelines, project details, and deadlines for everyone to see. Face-to-face meetings that waste valuable time aren’t necessary when teams are up to date on project status and tasks.
Especially helpful for remote teams, a centralized repository for files, documents, tasks, and messages eliminates a lot of time digging up information or investing in a separate knowledge management tool. A centralized database presents all important information needed for projects or workflows. Some systems offer a searchable database, making centralized information all the more valuable. Because it’s all visible, all documents and files stay up to date with no repeated work.
A lack of centralized information, task management, and file sharing features make projects fall behind. Due dates may be verbalized, but without a visual timeline for everyone to see, it’s difficult to know the actual status of a project. You can ask questions in real time and make it visible across the team. Confusion, misinterpretation, and miscommunication practically vanish with a good collaboration system that streamlines communication.
Collaboration software best companies
Collaboration tools vary widely in terms of features, pricing, and overall capabilities. Some systems focus on communication, while others place an emphasis on document collaboration and file sharing. These systems may extend past the collaboration category into project management or task management software. No two collaboration systems are alike.
G Suite might be one of the best-known tools for collaboration, and for good reason. As the name implies, G Suite is a suite of different applications from Google that is used by businesses, schools, and non-profit organizations alike. Some of these apps include:
- Cloud storage
- Word processing
- Video and voice conferencing
Apps like Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides allow for live collaboration, version history, link sharing, and access control, and you can add comments and highlights to other documents like PDF or jpeg files uploaded to Google Drive. G Suite also comes with strong security features like user permissions, multi-factor authentication, automated security alerts, and context-aware access control.
Previously known as Office 365, Microsoft 365 is a suite of cloud-based business applications from software giant Microsoft. Here you’ll find web and mobile versions of Microsoft Office apps you already know, like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Just like G Suite, Microsoft 365 also comes with tools for cloud storage, email, and video and voice conferencing through Microsoft Teams.
Being cloud-based, Microsoft 365 allows for real-time collaboration, link sharing, and access control for apps like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. However, depending on which plan you choose, some applications are not available as cloud-based solutions. Microsoft Access, for example, a database management tool, is currently only available as a desktop application.
If you’re looking for something a little bit lighter, Slack is a lean but powerful collaboration tool. Known to most as an internal instant messaging tool, Slack also comes with features for file sharing, integration with other applications, and voice and video calling. Using Slack, businesses can create their own workspaces to create a unique login page with individual accounts for every user.
But Slack goes beyond simple instant messaging. One of the system’s most useful features is commands, which lets users execute a number of different functions by hitting the backslash button into the message bar. Using commands, you can set reminders for yourself and others, set yourself to active or away, toggle do not disturb mode, create polls, and more.
Slack apps also help you get more out of the tools you already use, with apps for Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, Jira, Zoom, HubSpot, and more.
ClickUp bills itself as the “one app to replace them all.” A cloud-based collaboration tool for teams of all sizes, ClickUp comes with a long list of tools including:
- To-do lists
- Project management
- Docs and wikis
- Email and chat
While ClickUp doesn’t offer its own spreadsheet app or email client, it can replace many apps you probably already use. Even if you don’t want to replace certain apps, ClickUp might be able to integrate with them. For example, ClickUp does offer a native time tracking tool, but it also integrates with popular time tracking apps like Harvest and Toggl.
Beyond offering a number of different features, ClickUp also lets you create custom views, which you can share with anyone. You can organize information as a list, a board, a Gantt chart, a form, and as an embed. This lets you set up workflows and dashboards for the way you work, and ClickUp also comes with pre-built templates to help you get started faster.
Built to mimic the look of spreadsheets and the functionality of databases, Airtable is a powerful collaboration tool that helps teams stay organized while they work together. You can add unique field types to your tables to view all of your information in one place. Add fields for a single line of text, file attachments, links to other records, checkboxes, and more. Visualize them the way you like using a grid, calendar, gallery, or Kanban view.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of Airtable is that it works like a database. This means you can link records between tables, creating relationships between data and reducing the need for duplicate data entry. Airtable also integrates with a wide variety of other tech products, including Asana, Google Drive, Stripe, and Zendesk.
Choosing the best collaboration software
With the number of products available, knowing which one will best suit your business can be tough. Be sure the system you choose integrates with systems you already use to streamline processes. Write down the features that matter most to your business instead of choosing the most popular software. Watching a product demo video is also helpful in making your choice. These videos show common features and give you an idea of the system’s general workings.
If you need help deciding, use our Product Selection Tool at the top of the page. Enter your software requirements, and we’ll send you a free list of five collaboration software recommendations that best fit your needs.