The 5 most popular FREE collaboration tools: and which one wins for small business!

Graphic of three people working on computers around a table with a cloud of productivity software apps connecting them
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

In the past ten years, I have been exposed to some fantastic examples of team collaboration and project management. On the flip-side, I’ve also seen even more examples of it done wrong – and the negative impact it can have on both team and business! There are so many tools out there that are designed to help boost productivity, from super basic “to-do” list software to integrated, customized software developed specifically for your business.

Most small to medium businesses get the most benefit out of something in between – it needs to be comprehensive enough to fit your requirements, but not so complex that your team can’t figure out how to use it. Cost is another big factor, as most of us just aren’t ready to fork out too much money for something that doesn’t provide a tangible value. Especially when there are LOTS of free options around!

Anyhow, I’ve been asked several times recently about my preferred collaboration solution, so I thought I’d throw together a quick run down on some of the top project management tools on the market for your viewing pleasure.

Top 5 Productivity Applications in a Nutshell

I took a look at five of the most popular productivity tools around, to see how they measured up. Let’s have a look at how they fared when pit against each other in a battle for my #1 vote!

Slack – my #1 pick for when communication is key.

This tool is great for teams that are spread out, work flexible hours, or want to promote lots of discussion and communication. It doesn’t offer project management functionality, so it will need to be integrated with another app if this is what you’re after. It also has a very popular mobile app, which can make a big difference to how much your employees actually use it. If Microsoft integration isn’t important to you, I would rate it as one of the best communication tools for teams. Want to know more? Check out my review of Slack!

slack productivity software app icon

Yammer – Slack for hardcore Microsoft users.

Yammer is more suited for large organisation that are already heavily invested in SharePoint, rather than for small business. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a bit like a version of Facebook that is only available to members within your organisation. If you have very strict IT policies it is a safe choice, but in my experience it is generally underused even when available. It provides a bit more structure than Slack, so if the computer-literacy of your team varies greatly it might be an option to consider. The goal of Yammer is still the same – to provide an avenue for your team to communicate and share information online.

yammer collaboration software icon

Trello – An “alright” project management solution for Slack users.

Trello is OK for teams that only have a few projects, and need to track a lot of information. The interface can be a bit confusing, particularly if you don’t have someone making sure that projects are followed up! It does integrate with Slack, so if you are already using Slack it is an option worth looking at. Personally, I would take a look at some of the newer products before adopting Trello, because it can be a bit cumbersome.

Trello productivity software app logo

Asana – Better for large enterprises (or really small ones!)

Asana is an extremely versatile and powerful productivity application that does pretty much everything except wash the dishes. It is also prohibitively expensive for small businesses if you need premium features – such as having more than 15 team members. If you are guaranteed to only ever have a small team the free version will get you by pretty well. Because of the number of features it can be a little daunting at first, so if individuals in your team aren’t particularly computer literate, perhaps consider a simpler alternative.

asana productivity software app icon

Producteev – My former#1 pick for Project Management.

I recently switched to Producteev after trialling a few other applications. I really like the simple user interface, and how intuitive it is. The ability to create separate networks is really useful, and so is the labels feature. If you are looking for a no-nonsense app to track tasks, this one is pretty great. The free plan has very few limitations and is great for small businesses, regardless of team size.

producteev project management software app icon

Things to Consider When Choosing Productivity Apps

There are a few things that I always take into consideration when deciding on whether or not an application is suited to a specific business. Here are the criteria I always try to keep in mind when I compare different products, that you might not have thought about.

Limitations of free versions (and cost for premium features)

Many of the tools that are available offer fairly comprehensive free versions, and for some small businesses this is all you will ever need. One of the big things to watch out for is the number of team members permitted, as you don’t want to become reliant on a piece of software only to outgrow it in a year or two. One classic example of this is Asana, which is only free for teams of 15 members or less. If you only have 3 or 4 staff it might be a great choice, but if you’re already at 10 I’d consider some other options first that don’t hit you with a ridiculously high annual fee for a starter subscription. Another feature that is often withheld in free versions is the ability to create “secret” projects or tasks. There are often ways around this though, particularly for small teams.

Simple to use, nice to look at.

If you want people to use something every day, you’d better make it a pleasant experience. In a recent study it was found that a whopping 91% of employees agreed that simplifying enterprise apps would increase their efficiency and productivity. That seems like a pretty good reason to choose a tool that is easy to use! When you consider that the average number of applications used by employees has grown by a quarter over the past two years, we really need to focus on making sure software experiences are pain free and simple.

Privacy and Security – Protecting your IP

While you might consider the work your team engages in pretty mundane, you need to consider how you feel about customers, competitors or ex-employees being able to view your tasks and projects. It seems like a pretty obvious thing, but I have seen examples of extremely large corporations unwittingly using open Trello boards for their project management. Face Palm. Most applications have privacy options you can set via the administrator account, but they may not be on by default. You also want to be able to remove people from your team if they leave your business.

Has it Got Potential?

Two key things I look for in a piece of software, regardless of it’s nature, are whether it is easily integrated with other applications, and whether it will meet my needs in the future. Using Wunderlist might be fine for your family to create shopping lists and keep track of movies you want to watch, it’s probably not suitable as a project management platform. When there are just a handful of people in your business, one shared network might be enough – but what about in two years time when you decide you need a dedicated marketing team? Or you want to keep your office projects and field projects separate? In the future you may also want to integrate with external applications such as OneDrive, Skype or Office Online. Some of the tools, like the ever popular Slack, have hundreds of compatible apps that they can integrate with to improve your workflow, such as Manifestly (for recurring checklists), Google Calendar, Lucidchart and Screenhero.

Reporting and Exporting Data

Finally, (because I’m still a nerdy data analyst at heart) I also took into account what options the various tools have for tracking, visualising and exporting your project data. For example one of the newer kids on the block Producteev make it very simple to export a list of your tasks both current and completed into a .CSV file. Perfect for when you need to throw together a fancy chart to impress your client or boss, showing how many tasks you’ve completed on that big project! Other tools, such as Slack or Yammer, are more focused on collaboration and communication so they can be a bit trickier to get useful analytics from.

Has this helped you to make a decision about a productivity tool you’ve been considering? Is there a fantastic product you use that I’ve missed and needs to be on this list? Let me know!