Remote Work: The Best Tools for Working From Home

The Work World in Transition

Although experts think that some cases may have been present as early as November 2019, COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, was first reported to the World Health Organization on December 31, 2019. Since that time, the disease has spread globally to become present in every country. The impact of the pandemic, and the responses it has evoked from governments around the world, have been powerful enough to shake the foundations of our daily lived experience and create a new normal. Part of this new normal is working from home, and telecommuting or remote work has moved from the fringes of the work world to become a standard operating procedure.

Millions of people are living under lockdown quarantine regimens. Global supply chains have been disrupted and international travel halted. Schools are closed, university students have been sent home, and social gatherings and interactions of all types curtailed and transformed. Businesses in every sector of the economy are absorbing a heavy impact and being forced to make rapid changes as emergency conditions continue and anti-infection measures become increasingly drastic.

Organizations across the globe are canceling major conferences, enforcing employee travel bans, and shifting to new means and methods for getting work done. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and OSHA aimed at helping non-healthcare businesses prevent workplace exposures to COVID-19 both recommend that companies adopt flexible work policies and strategies to support social distancing practices. One of the recommended courses of action is the implementation of flexible worksites in the form of telecommuting. This has resulted in a sudden massive addition to the cohort of millions who were already working from home pre-pandemic.

Accelerating the Pace of Change

It is quite possible that the advent of COVID-19 is simply serving to accelerate a trend that was already building. United States Census Bureau data from 2018 revealed that around 5 million employees were working at home half-time or more. The Bureau of Labor Statistics produced data indicating that 56% of employees do at least some work that could be done remotely. The future of many types of modern work is being shaped by the development of technologies such as online video conferencing and team collaboration tools that have supported the rapid growth in freelancing and the increase in decentralized and distributed approaches to getting things done.

At the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence conference in New York in early February, Alibaba CEO Yong Zhang noted (by remote presentation) that the SARS epidemic 17 years ago permanently changed the behavior of Chinese consumers, powering tremendous growth in e-commerce and an embrace of digital tools for taking care of many aspects of daily life and work. In Zhang’s view, the coronavirus is likely to have a similar effect. Consumers and businesses alike will learn to do things in different ways, and businesses may find that the outcome is new efficiencies and increased profits once the initial blow from the pandemic has been weathered. Positioning more employees to work from home may be one strategy that offers companies significant benefits as we move forward into a changed future.

Tooling Up for Remote Work

Many people making the transition from office to home will find that the essential remote work toolset is not much different than what they have already been using. Particularly those who are accustomed to working in teams are likely already familiar with various types of online communication, collaboration, and project management platforms. Technically, all three of these could be placed into the overarching category of collaboration tools, and online support for remote collaboration is what makes it possible to work from home.

Collaboration software can be divided into three core areas of functionality:

  • Communication
  • Project & task management
  • File sharing & management

Within each of these realms, there are plenty of products out on the public web and readily available to the remote work newbie, including many that are usable on a free or freemium basis. Although each platform tends to stress one feature set over others, most collaboration software offers multiple functions, and the best have integration capabilities that allow them to be combined with other popular tools.

Many newly-minted remote workers can simply rely on collaboration tools already in use at their companies. Others may need to choose software to fill in gaps, and some teams will be starting from scratch to put together a complete suite that meets their needs. It’s a good idea for new remote workers to keep it simple and make it easier for team members by first picking out 2-3 tools that have multiple capabilities. You can always refine things or add specialized solutions later as needed.

If you fall into that group of new remote workers who need to build a set of online collaboration tools, here is a selection of some of the best tools for working from home.

Video Conferencing

The value of video conferencing is well-established, and for many enterprises these tools have been a business essential for years. But now, in a time of stress, fear, and enforced isolation, having some face-to-face contact time is important for reasons that go beyond merely getting the job done. Even if meetings are not necessary, your team may want to consider using one of the following tools to have a quick daily get together purely for social and psychological purposes.

Jitsi Meet Jitsi is a completely free, fully-encrypted, 100% open-source video conferencing tool that can be used all day, every day with no account needed. Jitsi offers a full feature set and can be used on the web or downloaded so you can host your own conferencing solution. Integrations with Google Calendar, Office 365, and Slack are available, and the number of participants is theoretically unlimited.

CISCO Webex Meetings CISCO is a powerful name in the enterprise world, and most people may not know that the company’s web conferencing tool offers a solid free option that can serve for barebones video conferencing. You can conference with up to 100 participants in a single call of unlimited duration, with no limits on the number of calls and 1GB of cloud storage included with a free account. Screen sharing, video recording, and file sharing are all available.

 Google Hangouts – soon to be Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet – this tool is available to anyone with a Google account. Gmail and G Suite Basic customers can meet with up to 10 people and chat/voice chat in a video call. The tool can be used in a browser with no download needed, and participants can join a conference via email or a shareable link. A benefit of Hangouts is the integration with the Google Docs tool suite that fulfills a variety of file sharing and collaboration needs.

 Skype Most everyone will be familiar with this venerable VoIP app by now, and the Skype video calling feature was expanded in 2019 to allow free video conferencing for groups of up to 50. Familiarity is an advantage Skype offers, and it has a useful cloud-based call recording feature that can be selected by any participant on a call. The downside of Skype is that each participant has to sign up and download the app in some capacity, whether for desktop or mobile.

 Zoom This popular video conferencing suite is oriented toward enterprise-level users but it has a free option that allows conferences of up to 100 users, with a 40-minute time limit. There is no limit on the number of meetings, so if you don’t want to pay for a premium plan, simply hang up and start a new call after a break. Call recording and screen sharing are available, and Zoom lets users join a call via the web, dedicated app, browser extension, or by phone.

 Communication and Project Management

Sending quick notifications and messages, sharing files and documents, and organizing tasks are important capabilities that a remote worker needs access to. Software platforms in this space tend to lean either toward the communication or file management side.

Basecamp This popular web-based project-management application is used by tens of thousands of organizations and was created by a team of web designers and application developers who have over 20 years of experience with working entirely remotely. Basecamp supports messaging, group chats, to-do lists, document and file sharing and creation, scheduling, team check-ins, and more. The tool also allows for communicating and sharing work with clients and other non-team members. Basecamp is simple, intuitive, and easy to learn. A downside is that the free version is very limited, with support for only 3 projects and 1GB of storage. However, at only $99 per month for unlimited users, the business version is quite affordable compared to the competition.

Asana Teams looking for more specialized project management tools may want to consider Asana. For large teams, it’s more expensive than Basecamp at $10.99 per user, but it offers an extensive suite of tools including marketing and sales support, timelines, milestones, and other workflow management functions, reporting tools including Gantt charts, human resources management and more. Asana is used by many large organizations including NASA, and it has an API function as well as the capability to integrate with many of the most popular apps. A downside for the work-from-home user is the tool’s relative complexity, and it may take some time to get all team members using the tool efficiently.

Slack This is a popular group messaging and team collaboration app that helps teams keep their communications organized, archived, and easily searchable. It is one of the few business collaboration products that is also popular with private user groups connecting for pleasure and entertainment. Slack features include open and private group discussions, direct messaging, and file sharing. The Slack workplace directory will be useful for very large teams.The free version of Slack stores up to 10,000 recent messages and integrates with up to 10 other apps including Google Drive and Office 365. The standard version at $6.67 per user (paid yearly) offers unlimited integrations plus video calling.

Trello If you are looking for a basic online bulletin board and to-do list tool that has light file sharing capabilities in the free version, Trello is a good choice. One of the best features of this tool is its near-immediate usability – there is not much of a learning curve involved in mastering the primary functions. Along with supporting collaborative work, Trello is also a good choice for individual use as a personal organizer and task tracker.

Miro For pure team communication work that goes beyond video conference screen sharing, check out the Miro online collaborative whiteboarding platform. An online whiteboard application that supports real-time or asynchronous teamwork presented via graphics and text, Miro features tools useful for various styles of presentation and ideation. Drawing and writing, sharing photos and videos, creating mind maps, and integrated video and chat functions let team members work together in real time as if they were at the same table.

File Sharing

Simple file sharing should not be an issue for the remote worker simply because there are so many options now available. Most of the collaboration tools listed above have at least basic file sharing functions, and many Microsoft Office 365 users will have access to cloud-based storage and other sharing tools.

Google Drive Anyone with a Google account will have access to Google Drive, and many people are already familiar with the program because it is used extensively in school settings. With support for collaborative work that includes real-time editing of documents, presentations, and spreadsheets along with commenting and messaging, Google Drive makes it easy to put things together even when team members are apart. Plenty of free storage space means Google Drive is great for creating a team file cabinet that is accessible from anywhere at any time with no downloads needed.

Dropbox This is one of those applications that is widely used in both personal and business contexts. Made for storing and organizing files, Dropbox can be used on the web or through a desktop application. Using Dropbox is as simple as drag and drop, and it is great for saving backups and sharing files that are too large to attach to email. Simply send an email link to share a file or folder. Once a shared folder is created, everyone it is shared with will have access to all files in it. Documents can be edited collaboratively in Dropbox, with changes tracked. The free version of Dropbox does a lot, while paid versions offer massive storage and many functions to support team collaboration. The downside of Dropbox is that it is on the expensive side compared to cloud storage competitors like Google Drive.

Team Up from Home

Working from home is not as isolating as you might think once you get in the swing of it. You might find yourself keeping in closer touch with your office mates or team members than you did when you went to the office every day. With a good video conferencing platform plus a webcam and headset, you can work face-to-face for hours at a time if that suits you. And with the right collaboration software, you just may get more done at home than you do at work where there are often more distractions.

Remember, the key to choosing collaboration tools is to pick software that everyone on the team can and will use. Your tools need to be simple, user-friendly, and tuned-in to the skill level of the proposed users. They should fit your team’s culture and goals. Consider factors like:

  • How many people will be collaborating?
  • What types of projects will you be working on?
  • Will you have remote access to any company tools and resources?
  • How do you and your co-workers or team members normally handle communication and workflow?
  • Which communication modes are most useful and comfortable for everyone?
  • What are the steps involved in a typical task or project?
  • Where do you normally store project files when working in the office?
  • Will you need space for social interaction as well as work- and project-related discussions?
  • Do you need to archive all communications?
  • What are your security needs?

Wodu Media Knows Remote Work

Do you need a consultation and some advice on working remotely or transitioning your employees to remote work? Maybe you should consider doing an evaluation of your company’s online infrastructure as we move forward into a new era when web presence and the capability to conduct business and work digitally is going to take on far greater importance. Get in touch with us here at Wodu Media. We work remotely 24/7 and have been doing so since 1999. Contact us by chat, email, or phone (800-909-WODU) for help getting through the present crisis and growing on the other side.