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How to choose the right project collaboration software

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Even before we’d heard the words coronavirus or COVID-19, collaboration apps were on the rise in the enterprise. Now, because of the phenomenal increase in remote work triggered by the pandemic, more and more organizations are implementing project collaboration tools to enable employees to collaborate effectively on project tasks from anywhere.

Project collaboration tools include features that make it easier for team members, project leaders, and others involved in a project to communicate, both in real time and asynchronously. Team members and leaders can use project collaboration apps, also called team task management software or collaborative work management tools, to plan, coordinate, and monitor their projects. The software keeps users informed about updates and helps them complete their work on schedule.

The apps also help team members communicate easily, enabling them to identify obstacles early and quickly overcome them. And project collaboration tools provide a secure location where team members can store all their project materials, granting access to users on a case-by-case basis.

While high-end project management software is aimed at trained project managers, project collaboration apps are meant to help collaboration among all kinds of business users working on projects together. “These tools are designed for the everyday end users, not for the professional project manager — not for someone who’s following a strict methodology,” said Mike Gotta, research vice president for collaboration, employee communications, and social software at Gartner.

Advantages and disadvantages

When it comes to using project collaboration software, there are more advantages than challenges, according to Margo Visitacion, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. Here are some factors to consider:

Advantages

Ease of use: Visitacion says the reason project collaboration tools have really taken off, especially since the [COVID-19] pandemic, is because they’re typically very easy to use. “You don’t have to be a formally trained project manager,” she said. “And people enjoy working with them.”

Improved problem solving: Since team members can share files and collaborate on them in real time, they can work together more efficiently to solve problems.

Enhanced team communication: These tools allow team members to communicate effectively during projects via virtual chat rooms and video meetings. Project collaboration tools also let teams brainstorm ideas as they continue to work on their projects, rather than waiting for weekly meetings or sending emails to the project leader or other team members.

Team building: Project collaboration software can bring workers closer together and improve employee relationships. For companies with hybrid workplaces, these tools also help remote employees feel less isolated and get them working together toward a common goal.

Improved organization: Project collaboration software offers a central location for team members to share documents and expertise. This helps team leaders better coordinate projects and tasks that involve numerous people.

Better project management: Project collaboration apps make it much easier for managers to coordinate project activities for numerous projects across different teams and team members. For long-term success, project leaders must control the progress of every project and monitor every stage to ensure all tasks are done on time.

Disadvantages

No top-down deployment: Because various departments often purchase project collaboration tools optimized specifically for their use — e.g., a tool optimized for marketing or supply chain management — it’s harder for organizations to manage the cost, consumption, and compliance of each one and track how often it’s being used.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘sprawl’ because that’s negative, but [buying these tools] is kind of a functional operation or domain-based decision,” Gartner’s Gotta said. “There’s no top-down deployment, and if you don’t have some governance or maybe some portfolio management, then it’s not uncommon to have too many tools in an organization.”

Cost: Most project collaboration apps are SaaS offerings sold on a subscription basis. While vendors typically offer a free tier with limited features, most businesses need the advanced features that come with a paid plan — so they’ll have to shop around and select a vendor that offers a fair pricing model for its software. In addition, there may be extra costs for some features, such as digital whiteboards. To avoid surprises, organizations should read the fine print before buying.

Steep learning curve for some tools: Project collaboration tools should be easy to use, but not all of them are. If the learning curve is too steep, team members will likely be unhappy — and unhappy employees are usually less collaborative and less productive. Companies should read customer reviews to determine how easy or hard a particular tool is to learn.

Key features to look for

Project collaboration tools should offer features that allow team members to quickly find the information they need to get their tasks and projects done, as well as communicate and work together on common business goals. In some cases, these features are offered via integrations with other collaboration tools, such as Slack or Zoom, rather than as part of the project collaboration app itself.

Key features include:

Shared workspaces and dashboards: Team members need a central location where they can find information as well as post and organize information related to their projects and tasks. Workspaces let team members post and share such things as project and team notes, files, and videos.

The best project collaboration tools also include dashboards that update team members about what information they need to know and when they need to know it. A single dashboard view lets team members view all their real-time project data, see what others are working on, see how much time team members spend on tasks, and ensure they meet their deadlines.

Advanced messaging options: The top project collaboration tools give team members and project managers various ways to communicate with each other. The best collaboration tools enable them to make decisions, offer feedback, and hold conversations through a variety of messaging features, including @mentions, which allow team leaders to notify members about important updates, questions, or activities, so they can work faster.

Some tools let team members make suggestions and give and receive feedback alongside their work, including in blogs, pages, files, team and project spaces, and any other content they post. These comments help team members reach better decisions. And the top project collaboration apps also integrate with other widely used chat tools, including Slack and Microsoft Teams.

Project planning and tracking: Project collaboration tools should include project planning and tracking features, such as Kanban boards, Gantt charts, timelines, calendars, time-tracking tools, and tables.

Discussion forums: These forums enable team members to share opinions, expertise, and feedback. The best tools let teams add discussion forums to workspaces or pages, which members can use to ask questions on a particular subject or get comments on an idea.

Document management: This feature enables team members to draft and store project-related documents that they can easily access and edit. The ability to edit a document with other team members in real time maximizes collaboration. This feature should also offer real-time syncing to ensure that every change that’s made is reflected on each members’ device. The best project collaboration tools also let team members track the history of each change through versioning.

Workflows and forms: Using workflows and forms, team members can collect, review, and approve work processes. Teams can work more efficiently and make faster decisions when they use forms to collaborate, collect data, and expedite approvals. The best collaboration software lets teams create custom workflows that complement best practices and enable team members to work together more transparently and efficiently.

Videoconferencing: Videoconferencing capabilities should include schedulable virtual meetings with screen sharing for large and small groups, as well as one-on-one calls for spur-of-the-moment chats between team members.

Security: Organizations need to equip their remote teams with tools that protect confidential customer and corporate data and comply with security and privacy regulations. At the very least, project collaboration software should provide identity and access management tools and offer enterprise-grade encryption of data in transit and at rest. Look for a page (or pages) on the vendor’s site outlining its security, compliance, and privacy practices.

12 leading project collaboration tools

There are dozens of project collaboration apps on the market; to help you begin your research, we’re highlighting the following products based on discussions with analysts and independent research. Inclusion in this list is not a buying recommendation, nor is exclusion a sign not to buy.

Airtable: A low-code platform that allows groups to create and edit databases, Airtable also functions as an online project collaboration tool, enabling team members to store, share, and edit information collaboratively. Airtable’s project collaboration features include file sharing, team dashboards, iOS and Android mobile apps, and the ability to connect projects between teams and display changes in real time without refreshing pages. The software also provides task lists, Kanban boards, shared team calendars, task collaboration, and client access. Additionally, Airtable offers integrations with a number of apps and services, including Slack, Dropbox, and GitHub apps. (See Airtable’s security details.)

Related: Airtable CEO talks up automation, low-code and team collaboration

Asana: Web-based Asana helps teams organize and manage their work, including daily tasks and strategic initiatives. Asana offers tasks, custom fields, progress view, and portfolios that update in real time, enabling teams to make better decisions faster at every stage of their projects. Teams can use Asana to manage any type of project or process, including marketing campaigns, work requests, and product launches. Project leaders can assign tasks to team members, create timelines, and track project progress through boards. Also available for Android and iOS devices, Asana offers integrations with more than 200 apps and services, including Microsoft 365, Google Workspace, Salesforce, Zoom, and Box. (See Asana’s security details.)

Related: What is Asana? Task management tracking made easy

ClickUp: Cloud-based ClickUp is designed as a one-stop shop for team collaboration, document management, task management, project management, and performance tracking. ClickUp’s features include task assignments and statuses, alerts, a task toolbar, and communication tools. Users can access ClickUp on any device, including desktop, mobile, and voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa. The tool allows project managers to track team members in real time so they can stay current with the latest updates. ClickUp natively integrates with Slack, Dropbox, Google Workspace, and other tools. (See ClickUp’s security details.)

Monday.com: Monday.com helps teams work together to effectively plan, execute, and deliver complex projects on time. Users can access Monday.com as a web app or via iOS or Android devices. Monday.com offers an integrated Kanban board, time tracking, automated notifications, and workflow automation. This software offers a collaborative environment where team members can communicate, create knowledge bases, and share files, images, updates, and feedback in real time. Monday.com’s integrations include Dropbox, Google Drive, MailChimp, and a variety of calendar tools. (See Monday.com’s security details.)

Project Manager: A SaaS work and project management app supporting the needs of hybrid teams, ProjectManager lets team members collaborate on tasks with built-in messaging, social media-like engagement (e.g., likes and emojis), and easy approval workflows. ProjectManager lets project teams collaborate in the space where they are working, eliminating the need for continuous — and often confusing — email threads. The tool allows project leaders to add projects and assign work to their teams, and it lets team members share feedback, comments, and files in real time. ProjectManager integrates with Slack, Microsoft Project, Google Drive, Google Calendar, and more. (See Project Manager’s security details.)

Smartsheet: A collaboration tool for businesses of all sizes, Smartsheet makes it easy for team members to share work or collaborate on specific tasks by keeping all related notes, files, and project information in a centralized location that’s accessible via any browser, device, or operating system. Smartsheet combines the familiarity of spreadsheets with such features as automated workflows, file sharing, visual timeline management, and discussion threads. Smartsheet integrates with a variety of web services, including Box, Salesforce, and Google Workspace. Because the software is highly customizable, organizations can remove the collaboration features they don’t need and add the features they want. (See Smartsheet’s security details.)

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