Collaboration is, at its core, about working with other people. It includes sharing ideas and sorting out what parts of a project team members need to complete for it to be successful.
Many computer programs and services have long sought to help the collaboration process. At a basic level, being able to share an email with colleagues is a form of collaboration. And as computers and networks advanced, groupware emerged -- software that lets individuals collaborate on specific documents and projects.
Over the years, the term groupware faded in favor of collaboration software. Collaboration tools have more features than groupware and have become widely adopted by businesses of all sizes. Today, working on shared documents in Microsoft 365 and Google; updating colleagues in Slack; and meeting in real time online via Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other platforms has become the norm.
What is a collaboration tool? What is its purpose?
A collaboration tool can be anything that lets more than one person work to complete a task. In business, this includes programs and services that let employees contribute to, comment on and revise documents. It also includes chat and video services that let employees meet online to brainstorm or collaborate in other ways. Here are some popular business collaboration tools:
Slack is a messaging app that lets people communicate with each other both inside and outside an organization. Slack is organized by channels that can be dedicated to specific groups or projects. Participants can communicate in real time or send updates to be viewed later. For example, a remote worker in a different time zone might leave a status report at the end of their workday that will help others continue to work on a project.
Google Workspace -- formerly known as G Suite -- is an integrated bundle of collaboration tools. It includes Gmail, Docs, Calendar, Meet, Chat, Drive, Sheets and Slides. Documents, spreadsheets and presentation slides can all be edited and updated by anyone in a group, with permissions and security features included.
Microsoft 365, Teams and Loop
Microsoft 365 continues to evolve its collaboration features, with Teams adding a messaging and collaboration app for online meetings. The company also recently introduced Loop, which has a number of shareable features Microsoft calls "components" -- such as a voting table to help with group decision-making and a status tracker to track the progress of projects. A Loop component with a collaborative table makes it easier to track work on a project by keeping each deliverable in its own row. Anyone in the group can see columns for each owner with the latest status information and due date. Developers will also be able to create additional components for the flexible canvas that Loop provides. Loop pages enable users to add files, links and comments with emojis to enhance the collaborative process. Loop is slated to be released in 2022, though some components are already available for Office and Teams.
Meta is best known for its consumer social media site Facebook, but with Workplace it offers a secure, business-oriented collaboration service with the same familiar social network features. Collaboration tools such as file sharing, video conferencing and chat are included, along with features familiar to Facebook users such as profiles, news feeds, friends and groups.
Learn more here about how to choose a collaboration tool and other products on the market.
Why businesses need to use collaboration tools
If a baseball team had an incredibly fast runner, but never gave him the sign to steal a base, they'd likely score fewer runs than if they gave him the green light. Similarly, any business that doesn't use available tools to help its employees work collaboratively risks falling behind the competition.
Collaboration tools are used more than ever. Businesses hoping to attract the best talent risk losing out if most of what they do is siloed and heavily permissions based. Here are some reasons why collaboration tools are essential:
1. Employee participation and buy-in
Rather than a top-down approach where everyone in a team takes direction from a leader who decides what's best, collaboration tools let all relevant members of the team contribute, critique and improve on each other's contributions. They give everyone a better sense of "buy in" with the result.
2. Meetings anywhere
The advent of online collaboration tools means people don't have to assemble in the same meeting room to share ideas.
"This gives companies great flexibility in hiring, and they benefit from the skills of a diverse workforce no matter where they reside," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
3. Capturing insights
A company can hire great talent but lose many of their contributions and insights when they leave. Collaboration tools capture insights made while managing tasks, projects and resources. They also leave a historical record for future reference in the decision-making process.
How collaboration tools benefit remote work
The pandemic has helped flip what used to be considered the best way to collaborate on its head. While it was once often deemed essential to work in person at a company's offices and having face-to-face meetings, that is no longer the case. Video conferencing technology services such as Zoom, Webex and Teams have advanced to make remote workers more productive and more connected. And a new hybrid model of working appears to have staying power.
"Everything we are seeing and hearing indicates that hybrid will be the predominant way of working going forward and that answers the call of employees who want flexible work options," said Karin Reed, co-author of, Suddenly Hybrid: Managing the Modern Meeting.
While some companies quickly adapted to supporting remote workers, others saw the benefits long before the pandemic. HashiCorp offers cloud infrastructure automation for operations, security, networking and application delivery. The company has more than 1,400 employees spread across 20 countries and committed to supporting remote workers from the start.
"The most important thing for us is that we have a culture of writing. We write to clarify our ideas, share concepts with colleagues and gather feedback," said Kevin Fishner, HashiCorp's chief of staff. "Most of our important decisions are made through shared documents. This enables employees to contribute regardless of their time zone."
Fishner also said that the open source development the company relies on is remote-oriented.
"From day one and through today, our engineering teams and open source community are spread around the world," Fishner said.
In this new era of remote and hybrid work it's important that companies recognize the need for collaboration equity, Reed said. One of the big advantages of working in the main office is direct access to peers and managers. Remote workers can be disadvantaged if they aren't able to participate equally in online meetings, which are a prime opportunity to show their knowledge and ability to collaborate. But the leader of the meeting may show a bias toward those in the room because it's easier to talk to the people sharing the same space.
"It requires a change in mindset and an investment in the right equipment such as excellent cameras and high-fidelity sound to support the remote worker," Reed said.
She also recommends getting rid anything that isn't connected. For example, businesses should use virtual whiteboards accessible to all instead of a physical whiteboard that can only be seen by those in the meeting room.
Industries that benefit from collaboration tools
- Healthcare. A doctor or specialist may be able to diagnose a specific health condition, but healthcare is really a team effort. Patients benefit from new diagnostic tools and access to many specialists, but they need to collaborate with each other to make a better assessment of each patient's health. Zoom and other video conferencing tools let doctors and patients communicate and collaborate remotely as needed.
- Developers. Developers have always shared ideas and progress, but the pandemic moved in-person meetings mostly to online platforms. There are also specific tools, such as cloud-based GitHub, that give developers and project managers task management capabilities, including the ability to review new code, merge changes, be notified of updates and track what each team member is working on.
- Design. Online design services make it easier than ever for designers to share what they're working on and collaborate with others on a desired result. Messaging programs such as Slack offer an easy way to keep comments and updates flowing. Programs such as InVision offer an online digital whiteboard that everyone on the team can contribute to. These contributions are also fluid in the sense that others may join for only part of a project. In the case of automobile design for example, there might be specialty designers and engineers who participate, leave and rejoin at different stages of a project as needed.
- Advertising. Creative professionals benefit from collaboration tools that enable them to share and develop ideas with colleagues. A mockup of an ad or billboard can now easily be shared with a client for approval or critiqued for specific changes.
- Consulting services. As with advertising and other industries, consultants benefit from collaboration tools by using them to brainstorm with each other as well as clients. Where a lone consultant might work on a project such as an IT upgrade, office remodel or company merger, having the tools to collaborate with colleagues means additional knowledge beyond any one individual is shared more quickly.