5 free collaboration tools to improve communication in a project and increase team efficiency

The deadline is approaching, and the project your team is working on has reached a dead end and it’s unlikely that something will change in the near future. Frustration, tension and stress appear. In addition, there are problems with the budget, so you can’t even think about investing in new tools. A stalemate? Not necessarily.

I have good news for you: projects implemented by you or on your request can be completed on time and cost as much as the original budget. And you won’t need expensive tools! What’s more, using free solutions will improve the team’s performance, even if they don’t show excessive interest. You’ll also increase team efficiency. Impossible? Untrue!

What’s the problem?

Most project managers at some stage of their career experience a situation where the project gets out of control. A sensible plan was made and everything should be fine. So why do team members behave as if they don’t know what to do? Problems start accumulating. What was supposed to take only a moment starts to drag on. The team loses motivation to work. Individual tasks start doubling, which not only generates additional costs, but also delays the completion of the project. Chaos ensues, and the atmosphere at work gets worse. What went wrong? Probably communication.

It’s usually the case that the project plan that looks clear and achievable is unfortunately often only seen that way by the manager. The team doesn’t necessarily know what’s going on. Usually, the team members don’t have the full picture of the situation, and they only scan the project plan and then forget about it in an instant. The flow of work makes the time limits seem impossible, and therefore not taken seriously. If you manage a project in this situation, you may get the impression that the team isn’t involved enough in the project. It may be surprising when people don’t report problems in task execution or look for solutions. As a result, at a later stage of the project, it turns out that the elements that were supposed to already be finished still need to be refined. This raises further unplanned costs and extends the lead time. A passive attitude of employees may result from the fact that they simply don’t know what to do. They don’t know the bigger picture, so they only perform their small part, not thinking about the context of the whole undertaking. And that’s where managers come in – we need to help them, remove obstacles, solve problems and support them.

The manager’s role

People are different and it’s the manager’s job to understand everyone’s limitations and transfer knowledge in a way that’s accessible to everyone. One area of knowledge is project progress and awareness of dependencies, dangers and the most important goals of the project. It’s important to show the domino effect – what will happen if some things aren’t done.

It took me longer than it should have to understand that people don’t see the world the way I do. The fact that everything is in the design plan won’t mean that when employees read it, they’ll know what happens next. That’s why I started to introduce various types of facilities to access the status of the project, so that everyone at any time knew not only what to do and when, but above all why and what would happen if they didn’t do their job. Everyone should be aware of how his/her lack of work will affect colleagues’ tasks.

Without good communication, nothing gets done

Managing various types of projects made me aware of the importance of communication in the process of their implementation. Effective information exchange greatly speeds up the work, eliminates misunderstandings and streamlines the operation of the entire team. All this influences the motivation of employees.

There are advanced, but also expensive IT solutions that aid project management on the market. Fortunately, however, their cheaper – or even free – substitutes are also available. Get to know them and find out what they offer and what makes them different from expensive corporate tools.

Each of the tools that I present below has an impact on improving communication in the team. So how effective is it to provide employees with information on the progress of the project?

1. MS Project vs Teamwork for scheduling

A lot of factors influence project implementation. In order to minimize the risk of unexpected changes, it’s worth planning the entire undertaking carefully. It’s good practice to plan using tools that allow the entire team to view the schedule, so that everyone has the chance to be up to date with it.

MS Project is a corporate standard – an advanced, powerful tool supporting project, resource, time and finance management. It’s been constantly improved for over 30 years and, among other things, due to the fact that it has existed for so long, it’s extremely popular. In the event of problems during use, there are many options for getting help – from both the manufacturer and other users. MS Project offers a lot of functions, and it’s well integrated with other products from Microsoft and Skype. However, the program has its drawbacks – less technically advanced people may need training before using the program. The tool is also not available as an online version. This hinders real-time collaboration. Additionally, compatibility problems may arise – documents are saved in a format that can be read only by other computers with MS Project installed.

A cheaper – or even free if the tool is used by no more than five users – alternative is Teamwork. It may not offer such a wide range of functions, but it’s enough to coordinate several cooperating entities. Learning how to use the application shouldn’t cause anyone problems. It’s available only as an online version, and this form facilitates cooperation. It allows you to add tasks assigned to a specific person and place them in the calendar, set the most important goals, and also add notes and exchange messages between team members through integration with e-mail. The visual form facilitates understanding of the whole project. Although the idea of free software is appealing, you should take into account that as the project grows, you may need to expand to a paid version.

2. Skype for Business vs. Google Docs plus Hangouts for distance viewing

Some issues are much easier to explain using images rather than words. If at the moment I can’t physically meet my team, but I want to show them how to do something, I can use tools for video calling and screen sharing. In this way, I can take other people step by step through the process. It takes less time and is much more effective than writing an e-mail or giving an oral explanation of a given issue. There’s also a greater chance that the other person will understand exactly what I expect from him/her. In addition, the ability to view the face and facial expressions of the other person minimizes the risk of misinterpretation of the message.

Skype for Business offers a number of useful solutions that are helpful when you want to present content at a distance. This package is within Office 365, which means it allows the use of applications such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and others. It can easily handle up to 250 participants. It can also be integrated with Skype Meeting Broadcast – a functionality that allows you to broadcast meetings to online audiences of up to 10 000 participants. Skype for Business guarantees greater security for many reasons, including the introduction of an administrator role that can grant and receive permissions to individual users.

The free version of Skype can also be useful during a project, but rather for smaller teams. In the free version, up to 25 participants can participate in a group meeting. Skype allows videoconferencing, screen sharing and chat. Another free alternative to Skype for Business is Google Hangouts. This tool supports up to 10 users at the same time. Like the other two tools, it has the option of screen sharing, video calls and chat conversations. The downside is that you must have a Google account to use the tool. What’s more, when using it on smartphones, you have to download the appropriate application (also free).

3. Confluence from Atlassian vs. Google Docs to broadcast on the same wavelength

You probably know this picture: you explain the task to the other person, he/she nods and gives the impression that he/she understands everything perfectly. After a few days you get the finished thing and it turns out that although it was basically done according to the guidelines, it wasn’t the result you wanted. This situation causes frustration on both sides. You get annoyed by the prospect of spending extra time and money on the patches, and your co-worker feels that his/her work has been in vain. Therefore, it’s worth making sure at every stage of the task that everyone knows exactly what results are expected.

Confluence from Atlassian is a great tool that can’t be matched by any free application. It’s great for collaboration, building a knowledge base and creating a clear structure for documentation. It’s integrated with tools such as Jira, Google and Slack. It gives the possibility of adding deadlines for the implementation of individual tasks, labels or the use of templates. Unfortunately, the tool isn’t free, and adding additional features is associated with additional costs.

If you have a small team and just want to collaborate in real-time, and comment on and access online materials, Google Drive along with Google Docs should be enough for you. Its clear, huge advantage is that it’s easily available – all you need is a Gmail account. Google Docs allows for easy import and export of data, and changes made to documents are automatically saved. However, to use the tool, Internet access is necessary.

4. Jira vs Trello as a Kanban board

Kanban is a method of visually managing tasks, projects, teams and time. The idea is very simple – it’s based on a board divided into three categories: “to do”, “in progress”, “done”. All the tasks that make up the project are put in the “to do” category. When starting work on a given task, you place it in the “in progress” column. When you’re done, move them to “done”. In this way, it’s very easy to find out where you are and what else needs to be done to finish the project.

I don’t know a better software development management tool than Jira. It allows for the analysis of individual aspects of the work, it integrates with many other plugins, and it’s perfect for visual project management. In the full version, this tool is dedicated to software developers and will be perfect for them. Teams working on other types of projects can use it as a Kanban board.

The program based on the Kanban board for a more general purpose is Trello. It’s a good solution if you don’t need so many functions and you just want to follow the progress of the project and unblock the topics that got stuck at some point. Trello is one of the most popular tools of this type, and it works quite well as a Kanban board as well as a project management tool. The simplest version is available for free. The application, however, doesn’t give you the opportunity to use the on-premise model, but can only be accessed from the cloud. For organizations with higher security standards, this may be a limitation. Trello also doesn’t offer the option of reporting or creating charts.

5. Evoko meeting room booking plugin & panel vs DIY solutions

An efficient room booking system is a solution that will avoid misunderstandings when your business is based on frequent meetings with clients or you often organize meetings for individual teams.

There are many Outlook plugins on the market that allow you to book a conference room. The Swedish company Evoko offers a very good solution, and using this, you can reserve a room through Outlook and then view the reservation on the panel. This plugin also offers a very useful solution in the spirit of a smart office – you can book a room “on the run” straight from the panel. In addition, the tool impresses with its beautiful design. Unfortunately, its price scares people off. You have to pay £1000 for the panel itself.

No one should be surprised that in a software company, nobody wanted to pay so much, and the developers decided to take matters into their own hands. They used a free plugin for Google Calendar, and then displayed the results on a spare tablet. Of course, the effect was not as beautiful and it didn’t have the function of panel bookings, but it cost ten times less and the effect was quite adequate for a small company.

The software isn’t everything

Different tools greatly facilitate work on a project. This is true not only for managers, but also employees themselves – after all, nobody likes to waste time, and technological solutions can limit this to a large extent. However, no solution will implement itself. You need to change and introduce appropriate habits in the company, such as:

  • Morning stand-ups from Agile to unlock tasks that are stuck and set priorities for the day; in such meetings everyone participates, regardless of where they work.
  • Once a week, a progress meeting – a meeting about the progress of the project, to look at and update the plan (tools like Teamwork that remind workers of the approaching deadlines are very helpful in this).
  • Collaboration spaces and the possibility of sharing feedback.

It’s also necessary to set clear rules in the company, eg to determine which meetings you have to attend in person and which can be arranged by phone. Above all, however, to make communication in the company run smoothly and move projects forward, it’s necessary to create a safe environment for exchanging ideas. Every idea is valuable, regardless of who had it. A good manager can release creativity in employees, and this cannot be overestimated.

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