12 must-have tools for working from home

These work-from-home tools can increase productivity and accountability while reducing seclusion

Man on hammock working

When offices first began to shutter their doors over a year ago, the sudden shift to remote working provided an opportunity for a new, slower way of life. Working from home definitely has its advantages, whether it's being able to take your dog for a walk, cook a fresh meal in your own kitchen, or spend more time with your loved ones. Moreover, the majority of those who were able to swap their office desk for the kitchen table proved to be more productive, using the time normally spent on their commute as work time.

That is why it shouldn't come as a surprise that many employees, as well as employers, are not going to be returning to the old way of working anytime soon. These companies include Dropbox, Panaseer, HomeHero, and 3RSP, with the latter's business development director Stuart Melling telling IT Pro that he "can't imagine why we'd force people to return just for the sake of it".

Earlier this week, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said that he estimates that at least half of the CRM services provider's employees will continue to work from home after the pandemic. With the constraints of 'stay at home' orders finally easing in many areas of the world, the company also introduced the option of 'flex' working, which blends office with remote working, allowing employees to experience the best of both worlds. In fact, Salesforce isn't alone: other companies which are also embracing the new approach include Microsoft and KPMG, with the latter offering its staff a 'four-day fortnight'.

Whether you team is opting for hybrid or remote working, ensure that they are at peak productivity with these must-have tools for working from home. 

Time Management

Time management is tricky, even in the best of times. When you're working from home, you've got other potentially distracting issues, like kids running around, doorbells ringing, televisions blaring in the background and spouses interrupting your workflow. These distractions can make it seem virtually impossible to get anything done while working remotely.

Fortunately, there's no shortage of time-management tools to help you plan out your days and weeks.

ProofHub 

Pricing: $50-$99/month or $540-$1,068/year 

Free Trial: Yes, 14 days

ProofHub is an all-in-one package handling time and task management, project reports, file proofing and even time estimates for tasks. ProofHub features Kanban boards and Gantt charts that make it easy to plan and track tasks visually so deadlines go unmissed. These visual boards and charts ensure the team's aware of a project's status at a glance. 

ProofHub is more than just a task tracker, though. It also helps with team collaboration through its chat feature, which allows one-on-one and group chats. 

Other key ProofHub features include: 

  • Proofing interface that offers project feedback using markup tools
  • Custom roles to ensure everyone on the team gets the proper access to projects
  • File and document sharing
  • Multilingual interface for international teams
  • IP restrictions to prevent unauthorized access

Hubstaff

Pricing: $0-$20/user/month or $0-$200/user/year

Free Trial: Yes, 14 days

Hubstaff creates a dashboard for time tracking, employee activity monitoring, task management and collaboration. It gives companies visibility into workers' productivity, keystroke numbers and mouse movements, and it even snaps periodic screenshots to ensure employees aren't abusing company time. If the employee forgets to log out and is on a personal website or activity, they can delete the screenshot and delete the time from their productivity.  

Hubstaff works through desktop, web and mobile apps. Plus, it integrates with up to 30 other apps, including Asana, Jira, Github and PayPal, enhancing its flexibility. 

Other helpful Hubstaff features include:

  • GPS tracking for on-the-road and in-the-field workers
  • Automatic time tracking with geofencing so the clock starts once a worker is at their worksite
  • Integrated payroll tracking
  • Online scheduling app to track attendance and who's scheduled that day
  • Project budgeting and invoicing

Harvest

Price: $12/month/user or $129.60/year/user (with discounts for large teams)

Free Trial: Yes, 30 days (limited to one user and two active participants)

Harvest may not be as robust as some apps on our list, but it has its place for many businesses and individuals. It helps them manage projects and their teams by tracking project time and expenses and creating easy-to-read health reports. It also eases billing with custom invoices clients can pay online. 

Harvest also manages employee time with timesheets that show how long employees are working on various projects. It pulls the raw timesheet data and presents it in a visually appealing format for easy consumption and analysis. 

Other helpful Harvest features include:

  • Forecaster for forecasting the team's future time
  • Integration with many other productivity apps, like Asana, Trello, Basecamp and more

Team Communication

What do employees do when they can't just walk over to a team member's office or cubicle to ask a critical (or not-so-critical) question? In the world of remote work, organizations need some form of online chat to keep communication easy and accessible. If it's affordable and a little fun too, that's a bonus

Here are a few of the top options for keeping your remote teams in constant communication. 

Microsoft Teams

Price: $5-$20/month/user (included with Microsoft 365 Business)

Free trial: Yes, one month of Microsoft 365 Business Standard or Business Premium

Teams within larger organizations may already have Microsoft 365 — formerly Office 365 — as a part of their software toolbox. If som you already have Microsoft Teams, as the only way to get is with Microsoft 365. 

Microsoft Teams' biggest offering is its chat feature. Employees can instantly chat with other folks within a company as a group or one on one. Within these chats, employees can also share images and files, virtually eliminating the need to send email attachments and wait on a response. Users can also organize their teams and files, so communication and collaboration is easier. 

Microsoft Teams also has a Meet feature that allows users to host or attend online meetings with 2-10,000 users. If a participant is on the road and can't join the video meeting, there is also a global call-in number to join via smartphone audio. Users can also share documents and their screen within a meeting, making collaboration a breeze.

Another useful benefit of Teams is its collaboration interface that allows participants to perform real-time changes to documents and images. 

On top of all these features, Teams also offers all the other goodies included with Microsoft 365, like OneDrive, SharePoint and premium Microsoft Office apps. 

Other useful features within Microsoft Teams include:

  • Custom backgrounds
  • Shared meeting backgrounds
  • Available in 53 languages
  • App and workflow integration

Google Chat

Price: $4.20-$18/month/user (included with Google Workspace)

Free trial: Yes, 14 days

Similar to Microsoft Teams, companies that already use Google Workspace have access to Google Chat. 

Also similar to Microsoft Teams, Google Chat allows you yo have one-on-one chats, group chats. You can break the group chats down into "rooms" to ensure only the intended people can see the chats and documents shared.

Document sharing is simple via Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. When you share a Doc to a room in Google Chat, everyone in the can view the Doc.  

Google Chat works as a standalone app on your desktop or mobile device, but it also works right from Gmail, reducing the number of apps you have open at once.

These features are all in addition to the other offers included with Google Workspace, including:

  • Custom and secure business emails
  • Up to 250-participant meetings
  • Up to unlimited cloud storage
  • Advanced security
  • Google Meet (covered below)

Slack

Price: $0-$15/month/user

Free trial: No, basic service is free

Slack is one of the biggest names in the team chat space. It's easy to use and allows users to filter conversations easily to avoid getting bombarded with irrelevant messages. Plus, it has many fun options, like emoji reactions. Plus, it's Donut app introduces employees to each other and encourages in-person or virtual get-to-know-you meetings. 

Slack is also one of the more scalable team chat offerings, with its services ranging from a surprisingly robust free edition to a large-corporation-ready Enterprise Grid package. 

The free edition is a great starter for small businesses thanks to its one-to-one video calls, 10 app integrations, access to the last 10,000 messages a team has sent, up to 5GB of storage per user, and more. Moving into higher packages adds unlimited message history and app integration, 10 GB of storage per user, customized sections, support for HIPAA compliance, and more. 

Video Conferencing

No matter how annoying meetings can be, they're sometimes unavoidable, and a phone call may not cut it. An in-person meeting may be the only option in normal times, but virtual conferences have replaced those in today's socially distant workplace.

Here are some of the top video conferencing options for your distributed workforce. 

Google Meet

Price: $4.20-$18 monthly per user

Free trial: Yes, 14 days

Like Google Chat, Google Meet is an included part of the Google Workplace suite. Also like Google Chat, one of its best features is the ease of sharing and collaborating on files while in a conference. Plus, users can launch a Google Meet straight from a Google Chat, if needed.

Flexibility is another key benefit of Meet, as it offers a mobile app and dial-in numbers for meeting participants who are on the go. 

Organizations can also integrate other apps they use with Google Meet.

Zoom

Price: Free-$40/month/license

Free trial: No, basic package is free

No company has benefited more from the remote work revolution than Zoom. It went from a relative unknown to a household name in just weeks and for good reasons. 

Zoom's free plan offers unlimited one-on-one meetings and group meetings with up to 100 people and a 40-minute cap. For some small businesses, that is all they need. 

The paid plans offer more features, like up to 300 participants, uncapped group meetings, social media streaming, cloud recording, managed domains, and a phone feature with unlimited calling in the US and Canada. 

Zoom also goes above and beyond with features geared to make meetings a little more fun, like background images and soon-to-come AR holographic meetings.

GoToMeeting

Price: $14-$19/organizer/month

Free trial: Yes, 14 days

Another standalone video conferencing app that provides good value is GoToMeeting. At the $14 Professional price point, one organizer can have up to 150 participants, and participants don't need their own GoToMeeting accounts to join. 

The Professional level offers a pile of features for its price, including HD video, screen sharing, dial-in lines, unlimited meetings, uncapped meeting length, a mobile app, SSL and 256-bit encryption, and multiple app integrations. 

Moving into the Business level adds other useful features, like co-organizers, transcription, slide to PDF, drawing tools, keyboard and mouse sharing, cloud recording, and more. 

Project Management

Project management software is a must for just about any company, as it's important to track who's doing what and how far along each project is. With teams working remotely, it's even more essential to have a great project management system so everyone can track a project and know when it's their turn to jump in. 

There's no shortage of good options here. Here are some of the most popular:

Asana

Price: $0-$30.49/user/month or $0-$299.88/user/year

Free trial: Yes, 30 days

Asana is a streamlined project management system that makes it easy to organize and follow projects. Users can even set up team pages for conversations and idea exchange. Users can also adjust the settings so they only get notified for important things instead of every movement in the system. Asana integrates with Google Suite, Dropbox and Github, too.  

Asana offers several ways to track projects — Kanban cards, visual timeline, and more — so everyone can view their tasks the way they prefer. 

Monday

Price: $10-$20/seat/month or $96-$192/seat/month (minimum of three seats)

Free trial: Yes, 14 days

Monday brings the visual aspect to the project-management game with color-coded boards making it easy to follow projects at a glance. Teams can communicate through boards and filter out what isn't relevant to clear the noise. Businesses can even invite clients to certain boards to watch the progress of their projects. 

Trello

Price: $0-$17.50/user/month or $119.88/user/year (Busines Class only)

Trello's calling card is its simplicity. For organizations seeking project management software that's easy to set up and use, Trello's a good place to start. 

Trello allows users to create cards for the tasks they need to complete and columns representing the steps of a project. Users move the cards through the steps and make notes so everyone involved knows what step is next. It also offers a calendar view and a map view for businesses on the go. 

The free plan is worth checking out for smaller operations, as it offers up to 10 boards per team, unlimited cards and lists, and 10MB attachments. If the free tier isn't enough, it's simple to upgrade later. 

The right tools bring a team together

Even though your team works remotely or is a hybrid of remote and on-site work, there's no reason productivity and timeliness should suffer for it. These remote-work tools help to bring teams together and keep projects clicking along, even if there are hundreds of miles between team members.

While remote work was certainly the future, nobody foresaw the world moving to remote work to such a great extent in 2020. Luckily, this technology is available to help us thrive in this new normal and change the way we work moving forward. 

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