Even if you’re a dog working on the Internet, you need tools.
Of course, some CEOs — like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer — don’t look too kindly on working remotely. But with the right tools, you can be just as productive from a coffee shop or your kitchen table as you can from an office.
Some tools are nice-to-haves, the software equivalents of cup holders in cars, but some are the essential engines and steering wheels of your chosen occupation.
Working remotely these days is different than it was even a few years ago. Working without offices has become common in many businesses, and as remote work consultant Phil Montero told VentureBeat, it’s different now because mobile puts “broadband in your pocket.”
And cloud-based apps mean we’ve come to expect things like the ability to sync our data across devices. Having access to files from any device is a minimum requirement by now.
Here, then, are our top choices for helping you work from anywhere, whether you’re a freelancer or a telecommuting employee.
VentureBeat is researching cloud platforms, and we’re looking for your help. We’re starting with marketing — specifically, marketing automation. Help us by filling out a survey, and you’ll get the full report when it’s complete.
Productivity apps: Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides
Free for individuals, collaborative, and compatible with Microsoft Office files, these productivity apps — word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation — have become the favorites of small businesses. Many companies and remote workers are using Docs as a complement to, not a replacement for, their local versions of Office, and Google itself has said that it “makes Office better.”
Minneapolis-based Liz Presson is a marketer and the founder and CEO of WorkingRemote.ly, a company that “started out as a content resource for remote workers” but has now evolved into a consulting service to businesses on how remote workers can be more productive.
She described Google Drive, the umbrella product for Docs, Sheets, and Slides, as “the king of collaborative work.” She particularly likes to use a free app called Kaizena in conjunction with Docs files, since it easily adds voice comments — a useful feature when you’re working with a collaborator in Tanzania, as she does regularly.
For Presson and a number of her remote team members, Google Docs “has taken over for Microsoft Office tools,” since they “rarely use Office anymore.” The only drawback, she noted, is “when you can’t get a good connection,” but, in that classic case of remote worker anxiety, one can always export local copies of Docs to Word and then back again when the connection returns. In any case, Presson said, “Clients don’t always use Docs,” so exporting back and forth is not uncommon.
Communication: Skype and Google+ Hangouts
Since the veteran Skype and the newer Google+ Hangouts are complements for many remoters, this category is tied.
Laura DiDio, an analyst with industry research firm Information Technology Intelligence Consulting, described Skype as “definitely a top tool,” and added that she uses it for instant messaging, video chats, and long-distance phone calls.
Like many others, DiDio frequently uses Skype for long-distance calls, as in her regular talks with a friend who works at the University of South Florida but prefers not to use the school’s phone.
Hugh Osborn, located outside New York City, is the senior director at the North Carolina-based education consulting firm, KNS, Inc. He said, “When the line quality is good, Skype is great” for phone calls, although the line quality is the province of the ISP.
For Presson, Skype and Google+ Hangouts are “essential tools you need for working remotely.” She loves that Skype can run in the background, and she primarily uses Skype for chatting via its IM. But she prefers to use Google+ Hangouts for groups “because its user experience is friendlier, and the interface is set up so you can point to things in Google Docs.”
Phil Montero, a consultant with TheAnywhereOffice.com, works with companies looking to move into virtual teams or to get better at using them. He pointed out that it is important for him to have at least one video chat with the people he works with remotely, because it’s “amazing what a difference it can make in the business relationship.” He described Skype as a hugely important tool for that purpose since “so many people have Skype accounts,” although he also uses Hangouts. “One thing I like about Google+ Hangouts,” he said, “is you can have up to 10 people” free of charge.
Although you have other things to think about, you must think about automatic, offsite backups. Think Crashplan.
KNS’s Osborn relies on Crashplan to do his automatic backups, especially since “it’s really kinda invisible” in providing regular and complete backups. “I sleep better because of Crashplan,” he said.
The AnywhereOffice.com’s Montero unabashedly proclaims his love for Crashplan, since it “works on PCs and Macs, is very affordable, and works seamlessly in the background.”
Cloud-based file-sharing services are popping up every day, but Dropbox is one of the most popular and easiest to use, offering storage and document syncing between computers. If you upload to Dropbox through the desktop app or mobile app, there’s no limit on the file size.
Although a big fan of Google Drive, Presson said she uses Dropbox as well “for those times when we create presentations or other docs outside of Google Docs” and need to share them with others.
Dropbox is “extremely easy to use for people sharing files” and works with a variety of apps, said Montero, “so that everyone is using the same version, which is something email attachments don’t do very well.”
Remote workers connected to a sizable company often use the enterprise-focused Box.
Info collection: Evernote
If only relatives and lovers praised each other as much as remote workers praise Evernote, this would be a happier world. The sharing functions of the note-taking, clipping, and information-organizing app make it a particular favorite.
Montero describes Evernote as “an amazing app, my go-to app, my digital brain,” adding that he tends to keep everything in the app. He praised its capability to share specific notebooks and to sync versions across devices.
Cora Rodenbusch is the corporate communications manager at online-meeting company PGI Meetings, where half of the employees take advantage of “flex working.” In 2011, Rodenbusch took the company’s remote-friendliness to a new level when she and her husband travelled the world on their own dime while she remained an employee, visiting and filing reports on nearly every one of the company’s 23 offices around the globe.
Evernote, she said, “was way high on my list” of essential tools on her ambitious trip. She praised its performance on mobile devices as well as computers, its syncing of versions between devices, and its integration into iMeet, PGI’s enterprise, browser-based web-conferencing tool. Sitting in a hotel or coffee house in some country, she commonly sent notes from her remote meetings to everyone’s Evernote folders.
Cloud-based Freshbooks is “a great tool” for invoices and tracking expenses for Presson. She added that she “lives and breathes” by the cloud-based app, which also offers time tracking and accounting reports.
An app called Concur is Rodenbusch’s preferred tool for expense reports, since she can just “snap a picture of the receipt and upload it.”
Social collaboration: Jive
Rodenbusch picks social-enterprise platform Jive for her top-three toolkit of essential cloud tools, since her company “uses Jive as often as iMeet.” She employs it for private team meetings, on the road as well as in the office. “It’s a good place to share things,” she said.
But virtual socializing can only go so far, so Rodenbusch also praises a community-based cloud tool called WorkSnug that enables people to recommend the best place to work outside an office in a given area on a given day.
Task management: Trello and Wunderlist
Again, an unavoidable tie. Ross Rubin, the principal analyst at industry research firm Reticle Research, uses Wunderlist “for my own stuff, which is focused on to-do lists,” while Trello is “better for teams” because of its capability to delegate tasks.
Presson said she “really loves” Trello, which provides to-do lists that a user can track in silos. She said she’s a big believer in “bucketing my to-do lists” into the lists of things that she can do in under an hour, and so on.
Project management: Basecamp
In the cloud-based project management realm, there are up-and-comers — Citrix Podio and Zoho Projects among them — but Basecamp’s relative simplicity, popularity as a project management tool, and useful mobile version makes it an essential part of a remoter’s toolkit.
Montero calls Basecamp “an excellent tool,” although he personally prefers Teamwork PM.
Although there are a wide variety of ways to hold a meeting online, Citrix’s GoToMeeting continues to be a common choice for video conferencing, sharing a screen, and audio conferencing from any device. Montero said that it’s an “excellent product, but then again, all Citrix products are excellent.” When asked if he would prefer, as a remote worker, to use GoToMeeting instead of, say, WebEx, he said it “depends on the client.”
Because of their popularity with clients, GoToMeeting and WebEx are essential tools, but that doesn’t mean they’re always best solution to meeting online. Some users consider them clunky, last-generation, and sometimes difficult to set up, and many are holding meetings through Join.me, Google+ Hangouts, AnyMeeting and others.
For meeting remotely, Presson also praised the MindJet Web app, a “virtual whiteboard [that is] great for visually showing people what you’re talking about.”