Authored by Michelle Jenn, Administrative Director

Figuring out the best way to communicate with co-workers, peers, clients, and vendors has become a major issue even for the most established business.  Start with a myriad of options to choose from that continually evolve (email, phone, text, chat apps, collaboration tools, social media, task-oriented apps, etc), add varying preferences among participants, and you end up with an ever-changing toolbox full of halfheartedly used apps and software tools. 

But maybe our trials and tribulations can help you avoid this. Whether you are a start-up yourself, have lots of staff that work remotely, or just want to use technologically to be more productive across teams, we hope our experience is useful.

We took advantage of a small core staff, knowing we could adjust or change tools altogether with little effort, and explored freely tools we stumbled upon or that were recommended.   Now that we are 2+ years into this journey, let’s look inside our toolbox to see what made the cut:

·         Email & Calendar

Google Suite

We started with Outlook, but quickly realized Suite was more powerful and provides better integration with Apple products/software. About half of our staff use Mac and half PCs. We noticed strange quirks in mail exchange between our Outlook account and all other providers. Given more and more orgs are switching to Google, this just made sense. Plus, the search function in Outlook is maddening and absolutely can’t compete with Google. (If you’re smart, you’ve stopped sorting emails into folders and now archive everything for search later). Also, some of our staff prefer to use local email/calendar clients on their computers. This is especially valuable if you travel extensively to places with limited connectivity, as we routinely do. Google works so much better across a range of people’s preferences for local clients.

 ·         Chat

WhatsApp

Great encryption, indicates when a comment has been seen, can create different groups, searchable, wi-fi calling, pdf sharing, and best of all...free. We do participate in other chat groups that are administered through Slack or some of the task tracking apps (Asana, Trello, etc.), but seem to always default to WA. We’ve noticed there is a different platform for different ways of speaking to each other. For example, we try never to use email for internal communications; we try to not task someone in a chat group; and we try not to have conversations in Asana. It really takes some trial and error to get this right, and standard operating procedures to make expectations clear, but ultimately everyone knows where to look for each type of information, increasing our ability to communicate with speed and accuracy.

·         Time tracker 

Toggl: 

The free version provides all the functionality we need for consultants.  We can create various projects and tags for each client and can have unlimited workspaces of up to 5 users each.  The “reports” options allow for meaningful analysis or can simply serve as a time sheet.  However, it works best when the user tracks in real time because manual entry is cumbersome to say the least.

·         Collaboration

Google Sheets, Google Docs, and Dropbox:  

We primarily use Dropbox as internal file storage for collaboration.  But it creates conflict copies if 2 people are editing at the same time.  So, for those times when we are up against a deadline and all hands are on deck, and often for external collaborations regardless, we use Google Sheets/Docs.  It’s a bit less intuitive and Sheets does not have full functionality of Excel, but we can all work on the same document at once without issue. The other challenge with Google Suite is its surprising lack of intuitive file storage. If I create a doc, it lives in my individual drive storage (even with a company account). I must share this document with others to have them work on it. We haven’t been able to create a company space where files can be stored and everyone with permission access them. This is a bit frustrating and often leads to unnecessary back and forth. (Please fix it Google!)

·         Expense reports

Expensify:

We started with this from the beginning and it serves its purpose well.  Some highlights: a photo of a receipt automatically creates a report, admin role can create different work groups with unique clients/projects/tags and rules, ACH direct deposit to employee/contractor’s bank for next-day reimbursement, automatic approval workflows with custom rules, and you can sync to your accounting software.  Basically, for only $9/user/month, they live up to their tagline “Expense reports that don’t suck.”  Our staff that travel all the time swear by Expensify. It really is a game changer.

·         Notes

Microsoft Office OneNote: This is basically a digital notebook where we can all view, add, and/or edit at the same time.  There is no forced structure or page layout.  We use it to keep meeting minutes, notes from phone calls, etc.  It is organized similar as a 3-ring binder with pages organized into sections within notebooks.  Many note-taking options exist today (Evernote, Dropbox Paper, etc.), but there’s a couple reasons why we chose this OneNote. First, we already pay for Office 365 (see below). Second, OneNote offers an offline client.  We are often taking notes in the field, so a web-only interface is just not an option.

·         Documents and Spreadsheets

Office 365, Piktochart, LucidPro:

The reality is that most of the world still relies on Microsoft products (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint), and this is true of our clients and partners. As such, we maintain an Office 365 membership for all our staff so we have access to the latest versions of each software. The big limitations of these products are they are heavy, consume lots of memory and space, and don’t work well on Mac. The Excel for Mac is so limited that our Technical Director runs 2 hard drives on his Apple computer, one with OSX and one with Windows—only for the Excel version. This definitely is not ideal and we hope Microsoft can get it together one day.

For fancier documents and charts (basic) we’ve been relying more on Piktochart and LucidPro. Both are web-based products that allow for much more visually appealing formats and graphics. Both require a subscription for downloading final products, but we tend to turn them on and off based on our needs each month.

·         Project management, Tasks

Asana: 

Where would we be without Asana?  This tool is super powerful as a project manager and task master and is certain to improve productivity.  But the possibilities don’t end there and are limited only by your imagination.   It can be used to keep meetings organized, for event management/planning, to keep pipelines (think recruiting or blog or biz dev), marketing launches, HR onboarding, tracking interviews, etc.  Seriously, I am in love.

Ultimately, we’ve learned that most offerings have one or two things they are really good at, but none are master of all.  Luckily, many of these products interact with one another without requiring an understanding of “APIs” and other scary integrations.  We therefore can use common nomenclature and tags for clients and projects across Expensify, Toggl, and Asana.  We’ve found this to be incredibly useful, and it results in a cohesive communications platform.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

The nature of our business requires team members to travel often and work remotely.  This work also necessitates coordination with many different partners and consultants around the world. 

We’ve discovered some powerful tools available to bridge these geographical gaps, and they are certainly worth the effort needed to get past their learning curves.  Without such a strong communications platform, we’d likely waste a lot of valuable time trying to perform even basic daily activities necessary to run a business (such as time tracking and expense reports) not to mention coordinating work efforts around the globe. 

We may have to navigate several tools to get the job done, but even speaking as a Gen-Xer, reluctant to take this plunge in the beginning, I can see the net positive.   With all this technology at our fingertips, business communication has the potential to be both more effective and more efficient than ever before.  And that’s speaking our language.

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