The best email alternatives
We profile some of the top alternatives to email for businesses and communities
There is arguably no greater plague on productivity within our working lives than email. An endlessly demanding drain on employees' time, many staff spend the best part of their day just trying to tame their inbox.
Email is a 20th-century technology that's showing its age. It's a brutally ineffective means of in-house communication and is best suited to the desktop, rather than the mobile world in which we now live. How much time have you wasted trying to download documents attached to emails over 3G?
In this feature, we profile several potential email killers – modern, mobile-optimised, communications apps that can stop internal emails stone dead. Designed for a generation that's more accustomed to instant messaging than email, they're the types of service that could both boost productivity and help attract and retain the young staff who are the lifeblood of most organisations. Perhaps most important of all, they make communication within teams easier and, yes, can even make it fun.
Each of the services we profile here have their strengths and weaknesses, but they've all killed off email in organisations our writers are part of. And we've used their experience to provide some tips on how they work and are best deployed.
If you're fed up of arriving at work to find dozens of unread messages, or dread the ping of an office email arriving while you're eating your dinner, it's time to consider the alternatives.
Email killer rating: 5/5
Has the potential to kill off all internal and some external emails, although guest access remains a question.
What is MS Teams?
Teams is the latest addition to the growing number of apps available through Office 365. What is special about Teams however is that it provides a chat-based collaboration platform that gives users access to the entire portfolio of Office products. Microsoft has developed a real-time, persistent chat interface, providing a place for employees to group together to work on tasks. The service allows for both public and private chats, as well as cloud storage for collaborative work on a document.
Teams promises to turn an already extensive software suite into a fully collaborative ‘universal toolkit’.
How is MS Teams Organised?
Once an IT admin 'switches on' Teams, the entire workforce will be able to access the service, provided the company has a business or enterprise subscription to Office 365. Much like Slack, Teams allows users to chat with others in a variety of channels and groups, through public or direct messaging. A tab panel serves as a navigation pane through which users can access an activity feed, file management and chat windows.
As the name suggests, its big feature is the 'Teams' tab, which gives the option to create threaded channels and workspaces that are visible to the entire team. Users are able to upload or share documents between 'team' workspaces and jointly work on documents that are stored in the cloud.
Other tabs include a personal organiser that tracks events or approaching deadlines, and a Power BI tab that integrates analytics into the Teams workspace.
Microsoft has stated that over 70 applications have been integrated into Teams, with more to be added over its lifetime. Users are able to access Twitter feeds from inside the Teams app, as well as integration from Skype and Asana.
Teams will also feature two AI driven bots; 'Tbot', which uses a conversational interface to help with getting the most out of chat functions, and 'Whobot', that can be used to find information about users, including professional expertise and their recent chat topics.
What's good about MS Teams?
Teams seeks to solve some of the nagging issues that have plagued other popular chat platforms like Slack. The inclusion of threaded chats means that conversations can be split up into categories if the topic starts to trail off point. This gives greater clarity to conversations; as returning from a break will no longer feel like trying to play catch up on what has been said. This should also help reduce the need for so many different channel threads, as groups of conversations about a general topic can be put together in one place.
The other big selling point is the seamless integration of Office 365 software. Users are able to upload or create a document within Teams that every other user can see and contribute to if they wish. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, SharePoint, Planner, Power BI and Delve are all integrated to allow for this functionality. Users can move between apps and keep that sense of context with others.
If your company invests heavily in Office 365 software for work, the experience will be made so much easier thanks to Teams.
What’s bad about MS Teams?
Teams is currently only available to customers using the Office 365 software suite, and there are no plans yet to sell the app separately. If a business does not use Office, they can't take advantage of Teams, although it is questionable why they would want to.
Similarly, there are currently no plans to offer guest access to Microsoft Teams, for users outside of an organisation wishing to collaborate on a task. This could prove to be a particular thorn in the side of many companies, as services like Slack currently provide free guest accounts for temporary users.
Although Teams is available on mobile, the UI and functionality make the app feel more like a Slack clone. The app feels feature light, as functions such as video calling or the ability to upload files to OneDrive are noticeably missing.
As the app is still in Preview, it is likely Microsoft will address some of these issues before its wider release in 2017.
How much is MS Teams?
Teams is available free to Office 365 customers currently on one of the following subscription plans: Business Essentials, Business Premium, Enterprise E1, E3 and E5. Prices start at £5 per user per month for the E1 package, up to £25.70 for E5. These prices will dictate the number of software packages available for use, however the overall Teams experience remains the same.
If your business already subscribes to Office 365, consider Teams as a welcome free addition to the package.
Email killer rating: 5/5
Capable of killing all internal email stone-dead. If only it could do the same for external email.
What is Slack?
Slack is "team communication for the 21st century" according to the company's website, which also promises "no more email". What does that actually entail? A real-time chat system in which conversations can be split into different "channels" for sub-teams or projects, or private messages that can be sent between co-workers.
Slack also allows employees to upload documents for discussion and integrates with a host of third-party services, including Dropbox, Google Drive and Twitter.
How is Slack organised?
Your organisation will have one "Slack", which is broken down into different conversation channels. So, you might have different channels for #sales, #marketing, #accounts (channels in Slack are prefixed by a hash), and/or channels for different projects such as #2016annualreport. Only relevant employees are invited to join each channel, theoretically keeping everyone on a need-to-know basis.
There are also private channels, or Direct Messages, where employees can have one-on-one conversations or chats within small groups. These discussions are only open to the channel's members -- even your company's Slack admin doesn't get to view the content of these chats, which might pose problems for companies in tightly regulated industries (so-called "Compliance Exports" of private discussion between employees is only available to customers on the expensive Plus plan).
Each channel, whether open or private, consists of a live stream where the latest messages are added to the bottom, making Slack more akin to instant messaging than email. You can also direct comments at particular channel members by placing an @ before their name (in a similar fashion to Twitter), and they'll receive a notification that someone is talking about them.
Slack is testing a voice-calling service for audio/video conversation with colleagues, which is handy if you're not all working from the same office. It currently only works on Windows/Mac desktops, though.
What's good about Slack?
Slack is beautifully designed. Whether you access Slack via the browser, or by using the Windows, iOS and Android apps, everything is immaculate and spotlessly responsive. Conversations update in real-time on your screen, making it easier to catch up with an inter-office conversation than by wading through an inbox of 30 emails with everyone cc'ed.
It also integrates flawlessly with dozens of other services. For example, post a link to a Dropbox document and everyone in the channel can access the document from within the app and post comments about it. The company's Twitter feed can be integrated into Slack, so you can discuss how to respond to, say, tweets from a customer. YouTube links appear as playable videos in the feed. It's all very slick.
The search facility is arguably Slack's best feature. Faintly recall that discussion you were having last week about "Client XYZ"? Enter their name in the search box and you'll receive a near-instantaneous and smartly formatted list of results from across your various channels, with the search term highlighted in conversation previews. I can't recall ever being unable to find something in Slack, which is more than I can say for Outlook.
It's true also that, at least as far as PC Pro is concerned, it has all but killed internal email. We still need inboxes to deal with external clients, though. Dammit.
What's bad about Slack?
The lack of threaded conversations is a real weakness. Within the #sales channel, for example, someone might start a conversation about a particular campaign, only for the conversation to drift to another topic. If you've been away from Slack for a couple of hours and want to make a comment about the campaign, it will simply appear
at the foot of the current conversation, which can make conversation threads hard to follow. That can lead to people creating fresh channels for every single project, and before long your channel list is longer than your arm. Basecamp's mix of real-time messaging and threaded message boards provides the best of both worlds.
Slack does also live up to its name somewhat. Perhaps it's the instant messaging-like nature of channels, perhaps it's the ease with which you can paste in animated GIFs, but I find that people will waste more time on non-work-related conversation in Slack than any of the other services tested here. That watercooler-style conversation can have benefits for team building, especially if team members don't work in the same office, but it can definitely prove a distraction. "He spends all his time on Slack," is not an uncommon complaint in the office.
How much does it cost?
Slack is free at the base level, but that does come with some potentially show-stopping limitations. Only the last 10,000 messages are retained in the archive -- older messages are expunged -- and you can only integrate ten other apps (such as Dropbox and Google Drive).
The next step up is the Standard plan, which hikes the cost to $8 per user, per month ($6.67 if billed annually). That includes an unlimited archive and app integrations, two-factor authentication, priority support and more.
Those in the finance and other tightly regulated industries that need records of inter-company communication will need the Plus plan, which is $15 per user, per month ($12.50 annually) and also includes a 99.99% guaranteed uptime SLA.
Email killer rating 4/5
Unlikely to kill all internal email due to its focus on specific projects, but a great way to collaborate within teams.
What is Basecamp?
Basecamp describes itself as a "web-based project management and collaboration tool". It rolls together instant messaging, message boards, to-do lists and document stores for teams of employees. Although it brands itself a "web-based tool", there are Basecamp apps for iOS, Android, Windows and Mac. However, these are sometimes little more than a wrapper for the website.
How is Basecamp organised?
Basecamp has its own quirky, and initially confusing, terminology for common features. Different teams can be organised into different Basecamps – so you might have a Basecamp for sales, another for marketing, with employees able to join more than one Basecamp at a time and easily switch between the two (or more). Basecamps can also be set up for communication with clients, with clearly marked sections for internal communication that the client can't see, and for talking to the customer.
Each Basecamp has a Campfire, a real-time chat window where messages from all team members appear in chronological order. As with Slack, you can get someone's attention by putting an @ sign before their name in a Campfire message, which will notify the person in question that their presence is required.
Then there are Message Boards, which are best used to kickstart a discussion on a specific topic, rather than the general flim-flam that normally ends up in Campfire. A third messaging option is Pings, where you can have a private, one-on-one chat with another member of that Basecamp.
Events such as physical team meetings or training can be added to the Schedule, while deadlined tasks can be assigned to team members using the To-Dos. One of the best features of Basecamp is that automatically generated reports can tell you what tasks are due that week, which are overdue, and even what an individual team member has "on their plate" and what they've been doing that week. This allows managers to easily check if projects are falling behind schedule, whether a particular team member is overloaded or not pulling their weight. Or spending too much time chatting around the Campfire...
Finally, there are document stores, where you can create or upload Word files, spreadsheets and presentations, and allow everyone to submit their comments on them.
What's good about Basecamp?
Basecamp has almost killed email dead among the staff and board of the non-league football club of which I'm a director. Previously, we'd have a dozen different conversations flying around on email, with people not always reading to the end of the chain before interjecting and often with several documents attached to one message. Frankly, it was a mess.
Now, email has been virtually eliminated at Lewes FC. Decision making has been accelerated, because people can quickly give their approval. Papers submitted for board meetings are uploaded to the central store, so everyone can review the documents beforehand and post comments or questions they might want addressed at the meetings. Staff and board members can also be assigned tasks with clear deadlines, allowing the board to see what's been done and what's still outstanding.
Best of all, if you're out for the day -- we're effectively volunteers, so all have day jobs -- you don't return to an inbox of 58 messages, half of which are irrelevant by the time you've got to them.
What's bad about Basecamp?
The company launched Basecamp 3 last year, but users of the previous version weren't automatically migrated to the new version. In fact, at the time of writing, migration tools from Basecamp 2 to 3 still didn't exist (they're due to arrive this summer), meaning long-term users face the choice of ditching their archives or missing out on new features, which isn't great.
Document handling could also be improved. If another team member uploads a Word document, for example, you have to download the file to read it: there's no live preview in the browser window (although it exists, oddly, on mobile devices). You also have to use something like Google Docs, which is supported within Basecamp, if you want to collaboratively edit the same document.
The mobile apps are a little buggy, especially in Campfire chat windows, where the cursor can suddenly zing back into the middle of a paragraph, or incomplete messages are accidentally submitted.
The terminology used – such as Campfires and Pings – also put off some of our team members.
How much does it cost?
Each Basecamp costs $29 per month for internal teams, or $79 per month if you wish to use Basecamp with external clients. There's no per-user fee, so there are no creeping costs if you hire more staff. That includes 100GB of file storage. The Enterprise-grade version, with 2TB of storage and a guaranteed uptime SLA, costs from $3,000 a year.
Email killer rating 3/5:
Could kill off email threads about projects/deadlines and stop endless revisions of documents -- but it's a supplement, not a killer.
What is Trello?
It's a project management tool that focuses on all aspects of projects in an at-a-glance way. Trello is a collaborative tool, suitable for one-off projects or tracking ongoing work. It's primarily web based, but there are mobile apps for iOS, Android and - somewhat curiously – Amazon's Kindle Fire, too.
How is Trello organised?
The taxonomy of Trello is: Board | List | Card | Checklist. You can add all team members to a board, create lists for each element of a project, cards for each task and checklists for each element of that task.
However, that flexibility means you can organise projects in whichever way you want. Boards can be set up for specific clients, teams or projects; lists can be used in an agile way, with cards moving across the board from "To do", to "Doing", and finally "Done". You can have an unlimited number of lists per board, so Trello can be organised with a board for each client and a list for each project or team that works for that client. Coloured labels can be easily adapted to mark the progress of cards, or to signify they're part of a group.
Typically, in my company, we use boards in two different ways. Each client has a board and each discipline has a list of tasks – one card for each task. Labels are used to inform the rest of the team about progress of the task (rather than moving the card to a different list) and cards are archived as they're completed.
We also have agile, task-based boards to which clients can add task requests. These have lists labelled for each sequence of the task, in our case: Backlog, In Progress, Internal QA, Staging, Deployed/Completed, Blocked. Each task is added to its own card in the backlog and is moved across the board as it's worked on.
For both types of board, people are assigned to a card while it's their responsibility and then take themselves off the card when they've completed their task, adding the person it's now with. This makes for clear progress on tasks and a simple way to determine who is causing a blockage and who needs prompting to complete their task.
Discussions take place on cards. There are no messaging or chat options, so conversations are public to all on the board, even if they're not added to a card -- you'll need to find another method of communicating if there's a conversation to be had that you don't want everyone to see. As with Basecamp and Slack, you get the attention of another member by using @.
What's good about Trello?
The flexibility is Trello's real selling point, as you can shape a board to work how you want it to and therefore they can be used by all kinds of organisations and companies. I use it daily in my digital marketing and web-development company, but have also used it as part of pre-production for a film and as a way to visualise tasks in a small charity I helped set up.
There are so many features – from labels, to card ageing (those that have been inactive for a while grey out), card filtering (by label, person or date), adaptable backgrounds (so you can tell boards apart at-a-glance) plugins and extensions. With the paid system there are many more of these, including GitHub, Slack, Salesforce and Evernote.
A new Chrome extension from Trello allows you to create a card and send it to the correct board directly from the website you're browsing (with the option of linking to the URL). This is beneficial for those of us in web development, who can link straight to an error on a page – and, crucially, in the back-end of sites as well -- but also means Trello can be used a bit like Pinterest, creating cards for each item you see across the web.
The upload limit, even for free sign-ups, is generous and you can upload a wide variety of files – including Word, Excel, PDFs and JPEGs. This allows all elements of a project to be in one place.
What's bad about Trello?
When you work across numerous boards as I do, the number of notifications can get unwieldy since they're not split by board – you get one long list of all of the times you've been added to a card, mentioned on a card and so on. This can make it easy to miss things when there's a high volume of activity.
Trello attempts to solve this in two ways. You can set up notification emails to let you know of this activity (either aggregated or an immediate message for every activity), but that defeats the object. The other option is to use the Activity log on the right-hand menu of the board, but there can be a lot of "noise" in this column so, again, it's easy to miss things.
How much does it cost?
The base Trello service is free, allowing you to create unlimited boards and integrate with Box, Drive and Dropbox. However, file attachments are limited to 10MB.
The Business Class tier costs $8.33 per user, per month, when paid annually, and increases the attachment limit to a more workable 250MB. It includes integrations with Google Drive, MailChimp, GitHub and many other professional services, and also gives you better data security by allowing invites to be restricted to those within the company.
The Enterprise tier ($20.83 per user, per month) introduces two-factor authentication, a dedicated account executive, improved support, file encryption and intrusion detection, among other features.
More Email Killers
Snapped up by Microsoft for more than $1 billion in 2012, Yammer has now been folded into Microsoft's Office 365 offering. Out of the three main services we've featured, it's most similar to Basecamp, providing a means for teams to communicate and share documents (it can be integrated with Microsoft's SharePoint stores).
Yammer has a more corporate feel than Basecamp, Slack or Trello. Access to a Yammer network is determined by the user's domain; you'll need a yourcompany.co.uk address to join, while Basecamp lets admins invite anyone to join a team.
Yammer allows both group and private conversations within teams, although its basic premise is that "when people work in the open, everyone benefits". To that end, its "Social Graph" feature claims to "surface relevant conversations and work of others at the company, providing greater visibility that enables you to make better decisions".
As you'd expect from Microsoft, there's a host of document management features, with teams able to share, comment on and collaborate on Office files, PDFs, images and videos. Files can be marked as "official content", which is read-only and takes priority in inbox search results.
Asana is a close pretender to Trello's project-management crown. Like Trello, it's very task-orientated, allowing you to assign tasks to employees, set due dates, and have conversations about specific tasks with colleagues.
Asana has a calendar view, so you can see your upcoming deadlines on a month planner. There's also a dashboard with attractive-looking graphs showing the progress of various projects and tasks, allowing project managers to keep on top of workloads and avoid deadline-day meltdowns.
Each team member has their own inbox, which lets them know when new tasks have been assigned or a comment posted on a task or team conversation. It also gives updates on the progress of projects. Attachments can be uploaded, allowing you to get approval of wireframes for a website, for example. There's a 100MB limit, although bigger files can be shared from Dropbox or Google Drive.
Asana has a clean design with a stark white background that's shared across the web and mobile apps. Asana is free for teams of up to 15, but premium features -- such as data export and unlimited boards -- and support for bigger teams can be unlocked for $8.33 per user, per month.
Another project manager, Teamwork stands out for the granularity of its task-setting tools. The hierarchy is deeper than most rivals, running from Project | Milestones | Tasklists | Tasks | Sub-tasks. Each project can have unique settings and features, so if you don't need billing or messageboards on a particular project, you can just switch them off.
Tasklists can be private, so if there's sensitive data on a particular project -- such as proposed redundancies or financial details during a potential takeover deal -- then they can be restricted to selected team members only.
Tasks can be set as dependencies, so if A needs to be done before B can be completed, the task can be marked as such. Teamwork can display this information in a Gantt chart, so that project managers can get a clear idea of the likely bottlenecks in any project and assign resources accordingly.
Communication tools include group or private messages, and comments on notebooks or tasks. There are also invoicing and billing tools built in, giving you one less reason to reach for your email. Outlook is further pushed out of the picture with the Calendar facility, which not only tracks task deadlines but can be used for other business or personal appointments.
This is powerful stuff, so after 30 days there are no freebies. Packages range from $12 per month for five projects and 1GB of space to $249 per month for 500 projects and 400GB. There are no per-user fees.
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