The Best Online Collaboration Software for 2021

What Is a Collaboration App?

Collaboration apps are changing the way people work—and it’s about time. A collaboration app is any piece of software that helps people get work done together. These apps save us from having to email one another, knock on doors, and leave voicemails every time we wrap up some piece of work and pass it along to the next person. They let people know about activity on work that pertains to them. They ensure that the right people have access to the assets they need. These productivity apps emphasize and enable teamwork and especially remote teamwork—a critically important function now that so many of us are working from home and unable to simply talk to our coworkers in person.

The current trend in collaboration apps is to use cloud-based software that multiple people access via their own logins, similar to any social media app you might use. Heck, even Facebook could be considered a collaboration app if you use it with other people to accomplish something, such as planning a party or collecting photos for a scrapbook. In fact, there’s a work-specific version of Facebook called, Workplace by Facebook.

A Word on Overlapping Categories

“Collaboration software” isn’t exactly a clear-cut category because it overlaps with so many other software categories, too, from team messaging apps like Slack to video conferencing services like Zoom.

For the purpose of this article, we include apps from closely overlapping categories, such as project management software, to-do list apps (as long as they have ample sharing and collaborating features), and kanban apps.

Best Project Management Apps for Collaboration

Of those overlapping categories, project management software is the most competitive. PCMag has three Editors’ Choices in that category, all of which have made it to this list of the best collaboration apps. They are: 

  • LiquidPlanner for very large organizations that need to manage both projects and resources,
  • Zoho Projects for small and growing businesses on a budget, and 
  • Teamwork (formerly Teamwork Projects) for small and medium size businesses that need to get started with project management quickly.

Several high performers in the project management category were narrowly edged out, however, and deserve honorable mention. They are: Wrike, ProofHub, Celoxis, TeamGantt, and GanttPRO.

Best Multipurpose Apps

A few of the entries on this list don’t fit neatly into any one category. In a way, that’s what makes them special. They are flexible, customizable, multipurpose tools. 

Podio is one. It’s an online hub where any organization or team can get any kind of work and communication done. When you create an account, you choose what kinds of apps you want to have from across a variety of business purposes, such as HR, management, sales, IT, and so forth. If there isn’t an app that fits your needs, you can build it or simply use one of the existing apps as a starting point and change pieces of it.

Another example is Asana. Asana started out as a task-management tool but has grown to include excellent options for managing workflows, ideas, projects, and more.

Basecamp belongs under Best Multipurpose Apps, too. It is one of the stronger apps when it comes to balancing work management and communication. Plus, there’s a lot of flexibility over what you use Basecamp for. You can manage projects or non-project work. It’s also a great place to have asynchronous discussions with in-house colleagues as well as partners on the outside, such as contractors and clients. It all depends on what you need the tool to do.

Best Collaborative To-Do List

Todoist is the PCMag Editors’ Choice winner for to-do list apps, but it’s also a highly valuable collaboration tool if your team needs an inexpensive tool that helps a group of people write down, prioritize, and manage everything they need to do.

What makes Todoist better than other collaborative to-do apps? For starters, it has apps for every major platform that all work reliably and sync effortlessly. Additionally, Todoist gives you a ton of tools for organizing tasks, such as priority ratings and labels, without creating a cluttered interface. That keeps the app easy to use and highly accessible to newcomers.

Best for Working With Databases

Two apps on this list specialize in changing the way you manage and interact with relational databases. They are Airtable and Smartsheet.

Before the word “database” turns you away, just know that Airtable is an entirely approachable collaboration tool with a variety of uses. You can set it up to manage information, such as an editorial calendar, or any kind of collection, such as inventory or a personal vinyl record collection. You can use it to track and monitor work as it goes through a process or workflow, where a piece of work moves from one person to another for edits or approvals and so forth. It’s surprisingly easy to use, highly customizable, and downright versatile.

Smartsheet is another app that lets you work with relational databases, though it’s a bit beefier than Airtable. At PCMag, we actually cross-list Smartsheet under project management software because it can do that, too. What makes Smartsheet powerful, however, is its support for automations, something like “when X occurs, do Y.” For example, “when new information comes in through a client intake form, alert the team manager and automatically assign the junior team member a task to follow up with the new client within three days.” Using this example, you can set up a rule in Smartsheet so that as soon as a client intake form arrives, the rest happens automatically. When you automate rote tasks, it saves the entire team time that they can spend on more important work.

Best for Kanban

Kanban is a system for working used in a variety of fields, though it’s especially popular among software developers and other kinds of technical workers. Without explaining kanban too deeply, it uses a board and cards on that board to represent tasks or ideas. The board contains columns, and each column is (usually) a stage or step in the work process. So you might have a board with the columns To Do, Doing, Done. You write down all the tasks that need to be done and put them into the To Do column. When you start a task (symbolized by a card that contains the task name and other details about it), you move its card to the Doing column. When you finish, you put the card in the Done column.

Trello is one of the friendliest kanban tools on the market. Anyone can sign up for an account and start using it quickly. It isn’t especially feature-rich out of the box, but with a paid account you can choose Powerups, or add-on features, to make it more powerful.

Many collaboration apps have started adding kanban views so that you always have the option to work in kanban if you want. Asana, Zoho Projects, Teamwork, and even Todoist all have some kind of board feature now.

Culture Is Key

One important point about all collaboration and communication tools is that they must have a company culture behind them. Throwing a new tool at a bunch of people and telling them to use it instead of email doesn’t work. To start using a collaboration tool successfully, all the key players on the team need to buy into it. It has to become part of the culture.

When you’re up and running with a collaboration app that fits your needs and everything starts clicking, you may be amazed at how much more productive and organized your team has become.

About Jill Duffy

January 22, 2021
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