Thanks to concerns around the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak, more companies are encouraging or requiring their employees to work from home in order to prevent further spread of the illness. Some companies have been prepared for this eventuality. Some are grappling with how to support a remote workforce for the first time.
Not every company has made the move to cloud-based services like Microsoft 365 or Google G-Suite. Organizations that have built their business processes around on-premises based tools (possibly due to regulatory concerns and data sensitivity) may have a less straightforward path to remote work.
While it’s true that accessing on-premises tools can be tricky if the servers and VPNs aren’t robust, an ad hoc network of tools for team collaboration can be cobbled together to see any company through this remote work requirement while they wait to return to an office connected to the company network.
In the aftermath of the coronavirus spread, several tech companies are offering their collaboration tools at no cost so that remote work and collaboration can continue. Of course, while this is a good service to provide, there is also an element of marketing in these offers to potentially carry a company into a paying customer status when everything returns to normal.
The biggest consideration to be made when venturing into building out a temporary network of tools for team collaboration is your data. Ensure that your manager reviews the policies around data for each service and answers these critical questions:
- What are the security and privacy protections for stored data?
- Can data from the service be exported?
- Can accounts and related data be completely deleted when you close that account?
- How long is data retained on the service once an account is cancelled/deleted?
Industries that have regulations around data protection should also check to ensure these services comply with those regulations. The other option is just to use these team collaboration tools to remain in contact with your other remote colleagues and do high level planning for future projects and other work.
Let’s jump in and look at what services could make up your ad hoc collection of tools for team collaboration.
A free version of Microsoft Teams has been available for the last couple of years and is open to anyone with a Microsoft Account. The company is currently offering a six-month free subscription for Teams to support anyone who needs to now work remotely.
Free access to Teams already provides solid features including a maximum of 300 members per team, 2GB of file storage (max of 10GB for each team setup), guest access, 1 on 1 and group audio and video calls, channel meetings and screen sharing. Most impromptu collaborative set-ups will do just fine with this feature set.
The six-month free subscription adds the ability to schedule Teams meetings, record meetings, make phone calls and hold audio conferencing.
Google G Suite
IT admins report that younger additions to the workforce already have a strong background in Google’s free and publicly available productivity tools like Gmail, Sheets and Docs. All anyone needs is a Google account.
For those looking for enterprise-friendly features like an admin console to protect data sharing or employee access, G Suite is an option. Google shut down their free offering of G Suite back in 2012 and moved everything to subscription-based options.
However, if you are a current G Suite or G Suite for education customer, the company is offering more advanced features for those users at no extra cost.
The free access to advanced features of the Hangouts Meet video conferencing ability, which is part of those subscriptions, will allow these enhancements:
- Up to 250 call participants
- Streaming to up to 10,000 viewers within a single domain
- Record meetings and save them to Google Drive
Although the company has not announced any specific service-related access increases as a result of COVID-19 and an increased remote workforce, Slack has always had a free option that can handle many remote working needs. It has been one of the top tools for team collaboration in recent years.
As a direct competitor with Microsoft Teams, Slack has debuted or added many of the same features that Teams boasts. Chat, audio and video calling, custom channels, connectors to have in-channel access to other services, and file sharing are all in Slack’s free option.
If your team is a busy one, the biggest hindrance with Slack’s free service is a limit of 10,000 messages across the entire team. (And yes, posting a reaction GIF counts as a message.) The only way to gain access to all messages is to have a paying subscription.
Other limitations include:
- Integration of other apps via Connectors limited to 10
- 5GB of total storage across the entire team
- Only one workspace available
- No live streaming or multi-party calls; only one-on-one voice and video is available
On the plus side, Slack does offer two-factor authentication for logging in and accessing the free workspace that is in use.
Zoom offers a robust list of features in its free tier, and the service supports group collaboration of up to 100 participants in a live stream and unlimited one-on-one calls. Group meetings are maxed out at 40 minutes in length when there are three or more participants.
Zoom also provides video and web conferencing features in this free tier including desktop application sharing, local recording, private and group chat, full screen and gallery views of active speakers, and the ability to join by telephone.
Cisco is offering enhanced access to their team collaboration services due to the coronavirus outbreak.
These expanded capabilities are offered globally in all countries were Webex is available and will provide unlimited usage, supporting up to 100 participants per meeting and toll dial-in access via telephone.
Webex Meetings offers face-to-face video conferencing, screen sharing and all the usual chat and collaboration options from any device. Webex Teams provides a similar environment to Microsoft Teams and Slack to provide messaging, file and screen sharing, video meetings and whiteboarding to users.
The free tier of Webex includes 1GB of cloud storage.
While one of the most sparse and limited tools for team collaboration, the free plan from ZoHo Meeting could be a viable option for a small team that doesn’t necessarily need collaboration features such as general messaging and file sharing.
Meeting participants are capped at 3, which includes the person presenting, and just 10 attendees at webinar style presentations/live streaming.
WhatsApp and Skype
Other tools for team collaboration include WhatsApp and Skype. Both services include versions for Android and iOS on mobile plus Windows and Mac programs on desktops.
The apps and access to the services are free although they will use your device's data connection. That means you might incur charges depending on your service provider and availability of wi-fi.
Standard features include messaging, groups, voice and video calls, file sharing and even a voice mail option to leave a recorded message for contacts.
Google Docs and Microsoft Office on the Web
Google’s web-based document creation site consists of Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Forms while Microsoft’s Office on the Web has Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint,
By sharing your document with a colleague, both individuals can access the document at the same time to create and collaborate the finished product.
Note: Our colleagues over at Information Week recently wrote about how IT can enable remote work to make sure their employees remain as efficient as possible during the coronavirus situation.
They are writing about official channels to support remote work and, if possible, this should be the method to keep employees productive during remote work periods. The tools we are listing in this article, focus on options that are at no cost and will at least give your team an interim solution for collaboration and productivity.