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Podio of Citrix. The Best Online Collaboration Software of 2016

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Use solid collaboration tools and spend less time lost in email and more time getting real work done. These apps can help your employees be more productive.

When teams use the right tools to work together, they often find improvements in both the process and the final outcome. Using the right online collaboration tools can make teams stronger and more productive. They let remote teams communicate more efficiently. They archive and make searchable old discussions and work history, which helps people learn from the past. They eliminate the back-and-forth nature of email communication. Many of them enable teams to talk about their work within the context of the work itself. And, in practice, online collaboration tools give people a place to express themselves, joke around, and get to know one another on a personal level, too. It all facilitates teamwork and team cohesion, and that leads to greater productivity.

The term collaboration software has a variety of meanings. It's not a single, well-defined kind of utility, but rather a broad category of apps and services. Enterprises, for example, have very different communication needs than small startups. Collaborating is simply a different beast when it happens among hundreds of people across many offices than when it takes place in a single room.

Similarly, a team of only five or six people might be highly focused on what's happening in the moment, whereas a large organization with high turnover may make it a priority to preserve past conversations so that newcomers can quickly get acquainted with what has happened to date.

Many organizations of all sizes have turned to online collaboration and communication tools to get their employees off email and back to work. In fact, one company that deployed a suite of collaboration tools and made a concerted effort decreased email by 60 percent over three years. There are as many uses for online collaboration software as there are benefits.

While project management apps are indeed a type of collaboration tool, we have decided not to include them here and instead list the best project management software separately so that readers can get the most appropriate side-by-side comparison.

Before I list the best collaboration tools, let me break down a few of the types of apps that I include under this heading.

Communication Apps
Communication apps, sometimes called group messaging apps, borrow ideas from all the best forms of modern communication, such as instant messaging and forums, and put them into one space.

The two clearest examples, and two of the best communication tools around, are Slack and HipChat. These apps are real-time communication systems where teammates can message one another, but they're much more sophisticated than a simple text exchange. For example, they store and archive messages, meaning you can search and find an old conversation if you need to reference it. You can use hashtags to mark keywords in conversations so that other teammates, who might not be in on the conversation now, can easily look up relevant chat histories later. The best team messaging apps also have sophisticated alert systems, so the right people's ears will prick up when an important conversation is happening around a topic that's central to their work.

For more on HipChat, read our 5 Tips to Unlock a More Powerful Atlassian HipChat. If Slack is more to your liking, you can get started with 39 Hacks to Help You Say Goodbye to Email.

Task and Workflow Management
One tool in this list of the best collaboration tools, Asana, might be more accurately classified as a task management or workflow management tool. While dedicated project management platforms usually have within them tools to manage work at the task level, Asana is a little different. It's a unique tool that's incredibly flexible, so it can bend to your will. If you find that all the project management tools out there are too rigid for your work and workflows, Asana is worth investigating. If Asana sound like the tool for you, you might also read 7 Asana Jedi Tricks to Become One With the Digital Workflow.

Another kind of workflow and task management tool that's gaining popularity among software developers in particular is the kanban board. Kanban is a style of work management that focuses on keeping teams from being overwhelmed by competing imperatives, and kanban board tools are designed to let you use the system to its best. This type of collaboration tool is best for teams that work with a just-in-time delivery state of mind. Volerro and LeanKit are two examples of kanban board tools that you'll find in this list.

All-In-One Collaboration
All-in-one collaboration tools offer a little bit of everything, from project management to social network for employees. They are often targeted at enterprise companies, but some fit the bill for smaller groups, too. Igloo Software, for example, is a company intranet that offers real-time chat, but also has forums, calendars, templates for organizing specific kinds of work, and more.

Podio is another example. Podio is even more complex than Igloo because it's not only an intranet, but also a highly customizable platform with its own apps marketplace so that you can add tools as you need them. For example, if an entrepreneur finds that her growing company suddenly needs collaboration tools specifically for a human resources department, she explore Podio's list of apps for HR teams and add the ones they need. In that way, Podio scales easily as an organization grows.

If your team is already rather large, then Workfront may be a better fit. Workfront is best for large enterprises that need to be clear about the roles of different users and what kind of information they should be able to access once inside the collaboration tool.

More Points to Consider
When it comes time to actually invest in some collaboration tools, there are two ways of thinking. First, you could get an all-in-one system, which might be a company intranet or work-management platform. If you go that route, make sure the system you buy has features such as included chat, and maybe video calling, if that's important to your team. The second way of thinking is to pick specialized tools for your business and cobble them together. All the tools listed here have APIs that let developers create custom integrations, and many support much simpler, native integration with very popular tools and services, such as Google apps.

If you don't have a wealth of coding skills in your team, try to find tools that are supported by the Zapier network. Zapier is an online service that helps you create simple integrations between different tools without having to learn to program. For example, you can create an integration so that when you receive a new email, the full message will automatically be imported into Slack.

Price Matters
A company or organization's investment in communication and collaboration tools doesn't necessarily require a huge upfront cost. As you can see from the table above, plenty of collaboration systems offer a free level of service. Free versions of collaboration tools, like most other software, typically have some limitations. The package might only support, say, two projects, or it might have a file storage limit. Still, these free versions usually let you and your team test them out for a while to see how well they work for you before you commit to fully purchasing them.

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 be part of the culture.

When it happens, though, and everything clicks, you can expect to see a much greater sense of teamwork and probably some animated gifs and emoji to boot. Keep in mind that collaboration tools work best when people enjoy using them, so don't try to fight the emoji.