Tools of the trade

The major benefit of having an office is the instant feedback you can receive when you are working face to face with someone. I can walk over to someone’s desk and start a conversation which gives me instant feedback. It's easy to understand not only the words but also the intent and this is the standard that we need to achieve for effective remote working. These short and frequent feedback loops need to persist beyond the office boundaries to ensure the effectiveness of a team in a remote-first setting.

The categories we have assessed tools on are ease of collaboration and overall user experience which includes

  • The required actions for the tool can be performed by multiple users, simultaneously

  • Easy Adoption for individuals or teams. If I send a request to my (tech-savvy) 6 year old they can join me in less than 5 minutes (sorry Skype for Business)

  • Easy access across platforms and devices: e.g. macOS, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android

  • How fun or painful is it to use

We have also excluded tools that are not currently been actively developed

All tools in the list should be designed for the remote working world rather than office tools that you keep using when working from home. You can still use Microsoft word but when you compare it to Google Docs you see that one is designed for high collaboration with multiple users being able to update, edit, review simultaneously while the other is Microsoft word. This tool assessment is built for ease of collaboration and user experience and doesn’t assume corporate constraints such as “we only use Microsoft”. Tool selection and ranking is highly opinionated and is based on input and opinion from within the wider Equal Experts Network.

Remember, it’s not all about tools, the remote working culture is as, if not more important as the tools by themselves. You need both to make remote working amazing.

Instant Messaging

For any remote working or office-based team, the instant messaging tool is the centre of your communications universe. When done correctly, internal emails can completely disappear from your inbox, but if you have the wrong tool or your administrator locks it down you will stay in the age of email.

Slack

In our opinion, the best workplace instant messaging tool on the market. It’s easy to create and organise channels and the flexibility it provides quickly makes it a central tool in any remote team’s arsenal. Teams use it for everything from a virtual water cooler to managing environments and events, publishing team calendars or on-call rotas and of course exchanging important context and information about projects. To avoid channel proliferation and noise consider your channel strategy carefully, see our slack usage guide for more detail. One of Slack’s main benefits over its rivals is the extensive ecosystem of extensions that allow you to bend Slack’s uses to your wishes. Users are also given a high degree of control to tailor their Slack experience to meet their own workflow, and not needing to rely on a sysadmin to do basic tasks like create and archive channels, add/ remove users. Even integrating new plugins only requires a light admin touch. Belonging to multiple organisations slack groups is easily accommodated so once you have logged in you can seamlessly switch between personas. The adoption of Slack within Equal Experts defied all expectations and was driven by user appetite rather than corporate mandate, and it's still somewhat of a mystery why Slack succeeded where other tools failed but maybe such a great user experience counts for something after all.

Teams

The darling of the corporate IT world, after all, no one was ever fired for selecting IBM Microsoft. As with Slack, it forms the centre of the remote working “teams” experience and it comes packed with features for both instant messaging and video calling (see below for Teams video calls) and whiteboard (which is extremely basic and not mentioned below). It certainly does the job but it feels like a tool selected by the corporate centre and is a jack of all trades, but master of none. Like the Mac vs. PC ads of old, if you compare Slack and Teams the same stereotype shines though. Teams is administrator lead, whereas Slack has a community feeling. The net result is adoption is often higher and faster in organisations that use Slack. Unfortunately, if you are a member of multiple organisations who use Teams, switching between them is truly dire. This wasn’t a problem when no one was using teams but now more people are, it is increasingly becoming a problem.

Videotelephony

If you spend enough time in face to face meetings you can quickly become exhausted. Now add a little extra lag, poor synchronisation between vision and sound and missing body language to the mix and the 3-hour workshop feels like 3 days. When working remotely, you spend a lot of time on a video call so find the one that addresses these problems rather than settling for the cheap or bundled option.

Zoom

If you want a high-quality video and voice tool that allows you to see your full team, run virtual workshops or webinars then zoom is a great tool choice. Out of all the video conferencing tools it seems to deal with low bandwidth and short drop-outs better than the others making for more natural and easier video calls. The free version is a time-limited version of the full licence which limits calls to 40 minutes for team meetings … but for some meetings, this may be a desirable feature. For running large workshops having the ability to easily create and manage breakout rooms is essential, as this can help create more intimate spaces for smaller groups to collaborate. There is a growing number of tools you can integrate into zoom via their App Marketplace which ranges from simple calendar integration in Google Calendar, Hubspot integration for webinars, live transcription integration (see Otter.ai below) and many more, all of which help join it up with the rest of your office life.

The extremely basic whiteboard tool still needs improving, it makes you draw like a five-year-old and doesn’t allow real-time collaboration, so this is not a replacement for having a good quality whiteboard in your toolkit. If you have concerns about the zoom security check out our security review to help make a more informed decision.

Google Meet

The ubiquitous video conferencing tool for G Suite users seems to be celebrating a bit of a resurgence with recent updates. One of the major drawbacks that have been fixed recently was the lack of a dial-in option for users outside the US, which can be an essential fallback for participants on the move or in areas of poor broadband coverage. Google Meet’s simple interface has always been one of its benefits, lacking many of the bells and whistles of dedicated VC products. The features it does have it does well – Google Calendar integration, screen sharing, text chat and the ability to mute other participants. It also has features not seen in many other tools such as live closed captions. There are also a growing number of add-ons for Google Meet that help plug some of the gaps of other video conferencing tools, the most noticeable being Google Meet Enhancement Suite. There are a couple of main drawbacks of Google Meet, however, which are (1) the video and call quality is noticeably inferior to Zoom and (2) browser compatibility issues (especially with Firefox) which can limit available functionality for some users.

Jitsi Meet

Jitsi is a collection of open-source projects that focus on providing secure video conferencing solutions. It offers an alternative to Zoom and Google Meet, called Jitsi Meet (https://meet.jit.si/), which is browser-based and doesn’t require sign-up/ sign-in to use. There are also iOS and Android apps available in their respective apps stores, although we haven’t tested these. Being Open Source, it is also possible to host your own instance of Jitsi Meet either on-premises or in the cloud.

Jitsi Meet offers the standard capabilities that you would expect – including screen sharing and text chat, and a couple of extras that you wouldn’t expect in a free offering. Notably, this includes Google Calendar integration, video recording (although this requires a DropBox account to work), and international dial-in options. There are some fun features too, such as speaker stats which shows you how long each participant has spoken for during the meeting, YouTube video sharing, and background blur (still in beta).

We found video quality and performance to be acceptable, but noticeably not as good as Zoom. The quality of the meetings seems to be heavily dependent on which browser you use, with Chrome and Chrome-based browsers (e.g. Brave) performing better than Safari and Firefox. In fact, we had significant technical difficulties with Firefox on Mac that we would recommend using alternative tools if Firefox is your browser of choice.

We should point out that in our tests Jitsi Meet seems to work your PC/laptop hard, with all participants in our tests noticing temperature increases and increased fan and disk noise. We also experienced occasional problems when switching between screen share and video, but these were quickly fixed with a page refresh.

Overall, Zoom remains our preferred choice for video conferencing but Jitsi Meet is a credible alternative with a great feature set for the price (free!). It seems the numbers back this up too, with over 10 million average monthly users at the time of writing.

Slack Calls

Slack might be best in class as a team messaging tool, but it also has a built-in video conferencing feature. This can be convenient for a quick call with a teammate but it can only be used to make calls to other members of your workspace, and to members from external organisations that you're sharing channels with. This causes a problem when it comes to collaborating outside your immediate Slack universe (yes there is a world beyond Slack). It is easy to use and the quality is on par with most of the other non-zoom competitors but has limited features e.g. when you are having a video call you loose the video of the person who is sharing the screen and because of the lack of wider team collaboration, you will need another option to speak to the rest of the world.

Teams Video Calls: It is similar in quality to many of the other non-zoom video options but allows for wider collaboration that Slack Video calls as people outside the organisation can join as guests. It can be slow for people's pictures to come through, especially on startup and somehow it seems to amplify participants' background noise to a point where it can be very distracting. The integration into the Teams chat channels works well and provides a better ‘chat’ facility than most, however, permission settings can get in the way of this working for participants, which can make things confusing. The good news is they are releasing fast, with a recent feature release increasing the number of faces you can see of a video call which is a big step forward. All round, it's OK if you want a quick chat, but any long or big group meeting can quickly become fatiguing.

Virtual Whiteboards

Virtual Whiteboards divide into several subcategories based on their origin stories. We have tools that took the Visio concept and adapted it into the collaboration space such as Lucidchart. They are really diagramming tools rather than a virtual whiteboard and they are great for more formal system design. Then we have those boards that follow the physical whiteboard lineage. These tools copy the basic principles of physical whiteboards, put it online with a sprinkle of virtual collaboration. You can draw basic boxes, scribble lines and write (type) some notes and add virtual post-it notes but it's just a whiteboard that’s online. Then we have the new breed that has thrown away the original constraints and reimaged the whiteboard in a remote-first world.

Storm Board

Storm Board is a copy of an office whiteboard which comes with many of the limitations that other products have addressed. It has a limited canvas and working in it feels a bit claustrophobic as you spend your time fighting the user experience. Its UX feels dated and most (but not all) things are more than one click to edit. It does provide a good selection of templates but even these don’t offer the flexibility of the market leaders. The 2-way integration with Jira and Azure is good, but you need to be on the expensive Enterprise plan to access this feature. Storm Board does have version history on sticky notes so you can keep a record or changes and the real-time collaboration feels responsive which is critical in a virtual whiteboard.

Miro

Miro is a virtual whiteboard that allows multiple users to simultaneously view, update and edit in real-time. It’s great for sketching out and collaborating on ideas and using as the basis for running workshops. You never run out of space on the canvas and there is a growing selection of templates that can help set up and inspire your next remote meeting. It’s easy to draw out your ideas with pre-canned boxes and lines or you can take advantage of the smart draw to make your trackpad drawing look less ‘pre-school’. Even on a large board with a lot of simultaneous users, it performs well. It's extensible with ‘apps’ that allows you to add tools like countdown timers, voting and surveys and it's easy to embed links and media.

Miro does have a free plan but overall the pricing and team structure are confusing and you have to be careful on how you set up teams if you don’t want to accidentally share a board with the wrong people.

You’ve spotted that the text is similar to Mural’s? That’s because they both perform the same role well and pricing is similar so it is down to personal preference.

Mural

Mural is a virtual whiteboard that allows multiple users to simultaneously view, update and edit in real-time. It’s great for sketching out and collaborating on ideas and using as the basis for running workshops. It has a large canvas so running out of space is not an issue and there is a growing selection of templates that can help set up and inspire your next remote meeting. It’s easy to draw out your ideas with pre-canned boxes but it lacks a ‘smart draw’ feature so any freehand drawing looks pre-school. It typically performs will with a lot of simultaneous users, although we have noticed from time to time a lag in updating when the board gets big. It has features like a countdown timer that is built-in and in big team meetings you can use Mural’s ‘Summon’ feature to bring everyone together (recently released into Miro as well).

You’ve spotted that the text is similar to Miro’s? That’s because they both perform the same role well and pricing is similar so it is down to personal preference.

Google Drawings: It is never going to win a beauty competition but does the job of a basic virtual whiteboard. The canvas size is small and really it’s just a drawing tool with great collaboration capability which allows multiple users to simultaneously view, update and edit in real-time. If you want a fancy count-down timer, embedded links and media or even just nice-looking ‘virtual sticky notes’ then keep looking. But if you don’t care about style and simple shapes and lines with a sprinkle of text is all you need to convey your idea then look no further. As you would expect, Google Drawings integrates well into the other Google products like Google Slides and Google Doc and the change history feature is excellent for tracking the evolution of your diagram.

Bonus

Not everything falls into neat categories so here are our bonus tools that are worth considering when working remotely.

FunRetro

A tool that does one thing well, and that’s run (fun) retrospectives. If you are happy with a standard Retro format, then FunRetro provides an easy way for a team to collaborate. You can choose from a number of retro templates which are all just variations on the same thing. Team members can add cards, upvote, comment, merge and reorder cards. It's a high quality, easy to use tool that helps make retro’s fun.

Icebreakers

Icebreakers play a significant role in events in which communication and participant comfort level are important factors. They help you ensure that all attendees are equal participants and they fully engage participants when you want them to own the outcomes of the meeting or session. There are lots of variations but here are ours that are free to use. https://icebreakers.equalexperts.com/ or go to session labs and search and search through their library of facilitation techniques.

Otter.ai

A transcription service that plugs directly into zoom to automagically takes your speaker notes. You can share the transcript, edit it and playback so you can hear the voice and see the text. This has three clear use cases.

  1. Accessibility, for those who are hard of hearing then having realtime transcription is useful.

  2. Keeping the flow of meetings, if you miss some gold that someone has just said you can copy and paste their words verbatim without disrupting the flow of conversation.

  3. Meeting recap, if you need to provide a summary of the meeting just highlight key text in real-time and at the end, use these highlights as the basis for the meeting notes!

The transcription isn’t perfect which can lead to some comical mistakes, but you can playback and correct the transcript and it is still more accurate than most humans and doesn’t get bored halfway through taking the notes.

Loom

A simple, reliable screen recording tool. Great for taking and sharing videos of show-and-tells, quick how-to-guides and just sharing knowledge in a more engaging non-text format.

Task Management

Physical boards to track workflows through the team gave a big boost to teams transparency and productivity.

Atlassian Jira

Jira is on this list because it is so pervasive across client projects, rather than it necessarily being the best tool in this category. It’s a mature issue and project tracking system heavily influenced by Kanban (but you already knew that). What Jira does, it does very well, but there are other tools out there that may be better suited to your team’s delivery workflow. Where Jira excels though is in its rich ecosystems of plugins and integrations. Jira goes beyond the standard Slack, Github, PagerDuty integrations and offers its own extensive marketplace of plugins for other tools. Jira’s other big draw is the extensive and well-documented APIs that it offers, allowing users to quickly create custom reports, automate tasks, and add missing features. Jira does draw some criticism though: the most common being that it can feel ‘heavy’ – the UI has so many fields and configuration options it can lead users to over-complicate their workflows and create user stories that start to feel more like full-blown specification documents. This heaviness can be addressed through custom configuration, but this often requires elevated user permissions and a more detailed knowledge of the product, which can be significant barriers when the tool is centrally managed.

From a commercial perspective, when your teams start to grow beyond a few users, the pricing model seems to reward customers who use on-premise instances rather than Atlassian Cloud, which is surprising given it is 2020. Additional add-ons can also push your subscription costs up significantly. Overall, Jira is a steady choice of tool to manage your backlog and with a shallow learning curve for most developers due to such widespread familiarity with the tool.

Trello

For running, organising and prioritising your home project or teams workflows Trello is intuitive to use and therefore easy to adopt for almost any team. It is easy to customise your workflow, add detail to cards, move and order cards without having corporate ‘best-practice’ imposed on you. There are lots of great features like creating task lists within cards, assigning users or tags, and importantly none of these get in the way of doing your job. It also has lots of ‘Power-Ups’ which provide extra features such as agile dashboards and integrations to your favourite messaging or automation tools. Using Trello for large projects might start to push it beyond its design limits but what it does it does well.

Documentation, Wiki’s and Repo’s

It’s not just developers who pair on code these days, having an easy way to simultaneously work on documents with co-workers then make these documents accessible is vital for any remote team.

Google Docs

When Google Wave, which showed the world how to collaborate online, was retired the best bits were incorporated into Google Docs. All these years on it still feels a little like magic when multiple team members are collaborating on a document simultaneously which is helped by the lack lag between fellow editors updating and that update appearing on your screen. If you ever need any level of collaboration on a document, be that jointly authoring or just asking someone to review and edit then Google Docs goes out of its way to make it easy. If you compare it to the desktop version of MS Word then it’s fair to say that it misses some features but these days the missing features are of limited value such as ‘word art’. Like all the Google suit, sharing is easy and there are plenty of integrations into the wider remote working ecosystems.

Office 365 Word (desktop/ web)

Using the on-line version of MS Word allows users to collaborate, view, update and edit in real-time in a similar way to Google Docs. It allows collaboration in both the browser and in the full-blown desktop version of Word which is easy to launch, (if you have a licence) when you hit one of the many limitations you will find when using Word in the browser. When using the Word in the browser it is pretty basic with no native diagramming options, although if your company settings allow, you can use some third-party tools which can then be imported. Because of the degraded features in the browser when users collaborate with a mixture of browser and desktop the browser users can end up with a different view of the document and may end up with missing information. This problem goes away when all users are using the desktop version only. Either way, the update time between users is laggy, especially when importing images or drawing boxes and there is a noticeable lag even on entering basic text. As with all Microsoft Office products the login flow is clunky, especially when you need to switch between accounts

Atlassian Confluence

Atlassian’s wiki and blogging product is a popular choice among enterprises due to its clean UI and good integrations with the rest of the Atlassian tools like Jira. It allows users to organise pages in ‘spaces’ which are often mapped to projects, teams, products, or any other logical grouping that you want to organise your information by. Creating new pages is straight forward, with a wide selection of templates that should cater for a variety of different roles: AWS Architecture Diagrams, creative briefs, business plans, DevOps Runbooks, and impact assessments are just a few of the options available. Editing pages is also easy for less technical users with an integrated WYSIWYG editor, providing basic formatting capabilities. Each page also has version control/version history. As with Jira, there are extensive options for integrating Confluence with other 3rd party tools via the Atlassian marketplace. Our main bugbear with wiki software is that they tend to quite quickly become information silos that are poorly maintained. Atlassian has tried to address this with features like activity feeds and Slack integration, but in our experience, this has had limited success. For living documentation, a model such as GitBook would fit better into a team’s workflow to encourage regular maintenance of documentation.

Gitbook

If you are a developer, you will really ‘get’ Gitbook – a SaaS solution for creating and managing your documentation. The mechanism used to commit changes follows the same paradigm as Github, with which it has an excellent integration. It uses Markdown files as its source and allows these to be stored in your own Git repository, allowing system documentation to be part of the deployment pipeline. This also means you get all the benefits of Git’s version control but for textual markup. But what about non-developers? Well, it also has an excellent and simple to use WYSIWYG editor, meaning that it allows the whole team to interact with the knowledge base on terms that they are comfortable with. It has a simple, yet stylish look and feel, which along with the brevity of markdown brings some constraints but in many ways this keeps your documents looking good, or consistent at least. You can also use your own custom domains with Gitbook, as you can see with our Secure Delivery and Remote Working Playbook.

OneDrive

An also-ran in the Cloud storage space, OneDrive is Microsoft’s offering that is bundled with their software and tightly integrated with the Office suite. If you have an Office365 subscription, OneDrive comes with an impressive 1TB of storage space. It’s not that OneDrive doesn’t hold its own against the competition, and if you live in a Microsoft World (i.e. Windows, SharePoint, Office365, Teams) then OneDrive will provide a convenient experience. Beyond Microsoft’s walled garden, we feel there are better options available. Dropbox: One of the pioneers of cloud storage that has outlasted its peers (remember box.com?). Dropbox offers a file repository that’s good for both collaboration and integrating with other tools. As it’s a standalone product, it is not biased towards any specific operating system or product suite at the detriment of others. However, this also means that collaboration is not as straightforward because it lacks native web editing features (think G Drive and Google Docs). It does provide a preview capability for most common formats (e.g. Microsoft Word), and their web front end makes it easy to open documents in their native editors. It has native sync capabilities for all the major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, and Linux) which allows you to access and edit your files like any other file or folder on your computer. Its version history feature is also very useful, and its sharing controls are simple to use. Dropbox also offers native apps for iOS and Android to give you access to your documents on the move.