Illustration of a women working from homeWorking from home, Belgium - 01 Apr 2019

For many businesses, a crisis-mode lockdown 10 years ago would have made for a very different proposition than it does today. 

While the physical world may be under attack, some companies suddenly thrust into a “distributed” team environment find digital resources, like apps and online services, to be their lifelines. 

Below are some fundamentals to help keep colleagues on the same page, no matter where they are.

Real-time Messaging

E-mails are asynchronous by nature, which means that the sender has no idea if or when a message will be seen. Real-time chats are more efficient. They also allow for some water-cooler moments that can bond employees and offer some relief in stressful times. Various apps work fine for personal use, including Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and Skype.

Among companies, Slack is the trendiest, most popular choice. Available as a downloadable desktop or mobile app, as well as via web browser, it offers channels for group chats, as well as direct-messaging for one-on-one conversations.

Slack is a message board on steroids, complete with themed channels, team chat, direct messages and a large list of compatible apps that integrate right into the chat window.  Courtesy image

Thanks to loads of integrations, other apps and services can connect directly to Slack, so employees can launch a video chat, connect a Trello card, keep tabs on tweets from particular accounts or stay up to date on relevant news right from within its walls, among many other things. 

A side benefit of Slack and similar apps is that their use winds up reducing e-mail inbox clutter, ensuring important message between coworkers and managers won’t get buried.

Companies already deep into the Microsoft ecosystem may opt instead for Microsoft Teams, which has out-of-the-box integration with Office 365 and availability as part of the 365 package. 

Team Workflow

Trello creates a virtual, visual paste board that can track nearly any kind of project.

Cards represent particular steps or tasks, and they can be organized in columns or move from one column to the next to represent progressive steps. Managers can assign staffers to particular boards or cards to receive alerts, communicate on specific project details, upload artwork or other files. This structure keeps all project-related messages and documents in one place or pegged to specific tasks. There’s also a calendar that shows the deadlines. 

A sample Trello board for project management.  Courtesy image

Managers who depend on status updates and reporting or manage loads of projects may prefer SmartSheets, which is capable of Gantt charts and grid views. Others who favor to-do lists might pick Asana instead, as its smart task list lets managers assign duties and deadlines. Notably, both offer card views as well, though Trello arguably may be more visually attractive.

They’re all effective solutions, since they make it easy for users to quickly see a project’s status at a glance. And because they work with other apps, they can offer a centralized place for productivity and various levels of reporting.

File Sharing

Company I.T. departments generally favor corporate-level accounts with enterprise-grade services like Box and Citrix, depending on their needs or level of required encryption or other security. Others opt for more consumer-oriented services like Dropbox and Google Drive. 

In weighing the choices, consider specific needs, like collaboration. Some make it easy to leave comments on certain parts of a document or allow simultaneous editing of files for multiple users. 

For light needs, plenty of businesses depend on Dropbox or Google Drive. Many people are already acquainted them or even have their own free accounts. These services have both ratcheted up efforts to appeal to businesses with extra features — such as much larger storage options, administrative control over sharing and more integrations with other apps.

Video Conference

The list is long, covering everything from Zoom and Webex Meetings to Google Hangout, Skype and Facebook Messenger. 

The latter three by the big tech firms weren’t developed to cater to businesses specifically, so features like dial-in options, recording and others uses can vary. But they are easy to use, available on web browsers or apps and most people already have accounts with at least one of those services. Hangout and Skype also allow for screensharing, which comes in handy for business chats. 

Webex Meetings is one of the most used corporate video conferencing tools.  Courtesy image

Larger companies typically choose video conferencing tools developed specifically for businesses. But often, they require a separate download or plugin to work properly. There are other nuances, too, especially at the basic level: Free users of Zoom, for instance, can only host meetings of 40 minutes maximum, while Webex Meetings free accounts have no limits in length. Both offer online white boards, screensharing and filesharing. 

For paid tiers, Zoom is more affordable than Webex, and more than 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies use it. But security questions arose after a flaw was discovered last year that may have allowed outsiders to eavesdrop on call. Zoom reportedly patched the hole in January.

Other Tools

Password managers are highly recommended for everyone, whether individuals or businesses. Lastpass, 1Password, Dashlane and others feature high levels of encryption, while still making it easy to save, create, organize and share logins for any web-based portal and supporting apps. Even better, they can rescind access.

A featured capability is that administrators can share credentials without divulging actual passwords. The tool merely auto-populates login details with the password blotted out. 

Think about specialized teams as well, since they usually have unique needs. Video, for instance, can be a major collaborative effort.

These days, brands are relying even more on video as a way of staying connected with their customers. Frame.io enables remote review, comments, approvals, sign-offs and downloads. 

Frame.io allows review, comments and approvals for remote staff across desktop and mobile devices.  Courtesy image

For customer service or help desks, Zendesk is popular for keeping those teams organized. Jira — a bug-and-issue tracker that developed over time into a more robust project management tool — does the same for I.T. workers, engineers and various other project managers beyond technical teams. 

There are many more tools available, depending on the specialty and need. But equipped with at least some of these basics, companies can stay on the same page, identify their most urgent matters and collaborate on how best to approach them. 

Such services can also give some much-needed structure to remote employees, especially as they adjust to working from home during this critical time. These staffers may not have an office or a water cooler anymore, but they can still feel connected and supported.