Get on the Same Page: Collaboration Tools for Small Business

Business.com / Work Life / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

There are many tools for team collaboration. We look at some that allow brainstorming and organization at a distance.

Even if you go into an actual office every day, you’re more than likely dealing with colleagues and clients working from home, in global offices and in other distributed work locations. 

For that matter, even within an office, people are shooting each other emails and documents.

Whether members of your team are in the next cubicle, in a Starbucks or somewhere across the ocean, you all need to be on the same page, often literally.

That need is why just about every document creation and editing tool touts a collaboration tool.

Related Article: Can a Gamified Work Environment Get Your Employees to Better Collaborate?

As Matteus Pan, a product manager at Dropbox, puts it:

Work today is really fragmented. It happens across multiple content types—be it images, code, tables, even tasks. I might be working on PowerPoint…Someone else may be writing code, another in Google docs—teams have really wanted a single surface to bring all of those ideas into a single place.

Below we discuss some collaborative content tools that provide that surface. We also consider some old familiar standbys to consider, because they are worth a second look.

Paper

Paper by Dropbox

This is a Dropbox app currently in beta that is for now only web accessible, though a mobile version is planned. Previously called Notes, Paper features a minimalist interface with only a single font in three sizes, with the usual text formatting options of bold, italics, underline and strikethrough. Multiple users are distinguished by color. 

In addition to text, team members can add lists and assignment sheets. You can paste in a URL to get a preview of an Excel or PowerPoint file, even Google Docs, which is pretty cool considering that Google Drive is a Dropbox competitor. If you’re a programmer, you don’t have to think about reformatting code so non-geeks can read it; Paper automatically puts it in the appropriate format. Plus you can drop and drag just about any image, video or audio file. To make it easier to follow updates and source materials, there’s a shortcut to access a sidebar off the main page where everything can be tracked in chronological order.

Large organizations may hesitate to adopt a product that is still under development. But for small businesses and/or small projects, and particularly for those who are using Dropbox, it might be worth the experiment.

Conceptboard

Conceptboard is a kind of virtual, real-time whiteboard that easily expands as content grows. Like a whiteboard, it’s a great tool for brainstorming. The main feature is a sticker system called Live Pointers that lets you drop and drag elements much like you would move around magnets on your refrigerator. 

Related Article: The Future is Now: Online Collaboration in the Virtual Workplace

These stickers are color coded with the name tag of the individual user, so it’s immediately clear who is adding or discussing what. Moreover, stickers can move around in real-time, just as if someone was standing at a whiteboard with a colored marker. The built-in video conferencing tool can handle up to six video streams and 50 participants. Boards synchronize across all participant devices, and can seamlessly switch from one device to another.

Scribblar

Scribblar demo

While aimed primarily at the education market, Scribblar's combination of multi-user chat room and virtual whiteboard could easily be used by businesses for creative brainstorming. Pricing for small groups of up to 25 users each in up to 25 “rooms” is affordable for mid-sized businesses. Blinklist recommends its “great qualities.”

The user interface is well designed and simplistic in order to allow virtually anyone to learn it in a very short amount of time. The integration for personal websites can create a great deal of opportunities. And the seamless interaction between devices of various users creates a great atmosphere to conduct a variety of meetings.

Slack

Slack screen

Slack is a messaging app that allows you to drag and drop and share almost any kind of file. It also links to documents stored in Google Drive, Dropbox or Box. Files are automatically indexed and archived for quick searches defined by team member, dates and keywords. It also has an extensive and customizable notifications tool.

PC Magazine, however, cautions that it requires a bit of a learning curve to get used to. In other words, Slack’s claim to fame that its app was used by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to put robots on Mars may imply you need to be an actual rocket scientist to use it. Then again, the free version could be ideal for small teams and it has a free version.

Microsoft Office 365

Then there’s the white elephant in the room that some love and some hate: Microsoft Office, rejiggered as Office 365 to emphasize a cleaner interface and cloud-enabled collaboration. According to Tech Radar:

Sharing documents is simple and users can easily collaborate (they can even edit the same document simultaneously, in the Office desktop applications or the Office Web Apps)…With further additions to Office 365 come site mailboxes, a tool with which one can drag items from the desktop into and Outlook-based site mailbox which is then run in tandem with SharePoint, so new information is constantly present for viewing by a work team. Information is stored securely and is made viewable to colleagues at the discretion of the team. Impressively enough, Microsoft 365 now has a somewhat twitter-like component to it: suggestions on whose documents to 'follow' are provided on SharePoint, and the capability to follow documents comes as standard on all sections of the business part of Office (Lync, SharePoint, and Exchange).

Related Article: Embracing Something New: 5 Ways to Make Innovation Part of Your Business Strategy

Google Docs

For those who do hate Microsoft Office for whatever reason, or simply don’t want to pay for it, Google Docs is an alternative. PC World notes:

Not only can multiple users view and chat about the document, but all of them can also be actively editing the document at the same time. Each user is represented by a different color cursor so others can see where they are working at the moment (hovering your mouse over one of the cursors will also show you the name of the user), and changes are reflected instantly to everyone so there is no confusion and no issue with conflicting changes overriding each other.

And did we mention that it’s free?

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