With so many people working from home, it’s no surprise that the last few years have seen significant increases in the range of collaboration tools available online. They didn’t just capitalize on a growing trend; they helped to propel it. Here are ten great, free tools for collaboration, including some of those we use here at Lifehack.
Ta-da List is a collaborative list application. If you need to make up any kind of list with your team, this app is free and does a good job, primarily because there’s no feature-creep and it’s not bloated software. This is what we use at Lifehack to keep a list of article topics going among the editorial team, and also a convenient way to receive article assignments in a loose format.
TimeBridge is a scheduling app that integrates with your Google Calendar, Exchange or Outlook availability and enables easy scheduling of meetings across timezones. This is another app we use at Lifehack to schedule meetings across four different time zones, which we then hold in…
Campfire, from the makers of Basecamp and Backpack, is a web-based cross between instant messenger and chat room that has been designed for business groups and collaborative teams. The free account only allows four simultaneous chatters, which is enough for our editorial meetings. Campfire has one of the best transcript storage features I’ve seen.
If you’re looking to have a free discussion with more than four team members, I’ve found Skype to be decent at the job — except for its poor transcript implementation (if you Skype guys are reading, a transcript feature makeover would be great!).
Google Docs & Spreadsheets
The giant in any collaborative tools list. Google Docs has one of the best web-based collaborative document editing implementations around. That said, I reckon 50% of a good collaborative word processor is a loud and obnoxious note that tells you someone else is working on the document already! These days Google Docs also has quite an extensive collection of templates that’ll help you shave off a few minutes of basic document setup time.
If you want something a little less heavy than Google Docs, Writeboard is lightweight and simple yet provides excellent control over the revision history of your document and allows you collaborate with others on a simple document in a fluid and intuitive way. It’s impossible to ever lose a great idea using Writeboard, which is one of the few free offerings from 37signals (the makers of Campfire, Basecamp and other products).
Evernote, the fantastic note taking software, has sharing capabilities so you can bounce documents back and forth with other users. You can flesh out ideas or even write entire collaborative books this way. While you can do this with Google Docs too, it’s a huge hassle to get notes from one app to the other when it’s not necessary (and Docs, while handy, is not optimal for taking notes).
While TimeBridge is very handy for scheduling meetings across timezones, it relies on everybody selecting a few times they can make a meeting and then the software picks the best matches. Mixin takes some of the guesswork out of the process and instead of forcing you to try and “feel out” where your collaborator’s gaps and availabilities may be, allows you to see it all visually. It doesn’t replace TimeBridge, but it’s very useful especially when nobody in the group can seem to find a time that works for everyone.
There are heaps of task managers that are web-based. I don’t think you could count them all if you tried. But Task2Gather is an option that is better suited to project management and team collaboration than most other options out there. If you want the app that marries project management for teams, with personal task management, try this one.
The wiki software that powers Wikipedia is well-known amongst geeks as one of the ultimate collaborative systems, allowing you to do everything form collaborate on documents to leave messages for each other that are attached to those particular documents. If you’re the type who gets an email about a project but forgets all about it by the time you go to work on the project next, that particular frustration disappears with the help of the Talk page.
I’ve also found MediaWiki excellent in setting up training documentation for teams. Use a wiki to tell your team of bloggers how to format their entries correctly and which CSS classes to use in images, and provide a style guide while you’re at it.
MediaWiki requires a bit of geekery and knowledge to get set up, but it’s worth the effort if you’re willing to put the time and effort into learning it.
If you work in any kind of environment where links fly back and forth for people to review, Delicious is more useful than you may think. The bookmarking service that once had a bunch of dots peppered throughout its name has multiple collaborative uses.
Many bloggers, myself included, allow readers to tag their bookmarks as for:username (such as for:joelfalconer) so we can review them in batches. Bloggers constantly get readers and other bloggers suggesting links, most frequently for self-promo, and it’s very helpful to our job but often is hard to manage.
Most fields require that teams be up to date on news, new products, industry opinion and so on and Delicious’ for: tagging system allows the people in your team to keep each other up to date without throwing links in their inbox every five minutes.
If you’re looking for a collaboration-friendly blog, WordPress recently got some great upgrades that make it an excellent choice. I wouldn’t suggest anything else for a multi-author blog. As I mentioned earlier, half of a good collaborative system is a warning that someone else is editing the article in question, and WordPress supplies that. But even better, it now has a revision history system that allows you to peck through and find that obscure quote you accidentally deleted while you were fixing image sizes. Or if a disgruntled blogger on your team vandalizes everything before leaving, it’s pretty easy to fix everything up.