Best Online Collaboration Tools

Free and paid tools for online collaboration

Previously, businesses were confined to their offices, where employees dutifully clocked in, worked their eight or nine-hour shifts, then clocked out. Now, employees grab their BlackBerrys, laptops or iPads, find  wi-fi access and are good to go at anytime and anywhere ... with the help of online collaboration tools to get the job done.

To help businesses make the most of their mobile workforce, many collaboration tools have been created with a variety of features to suit any company, whether large or small. Choosing the right tool will help you not only share documents easily but also create the right atmosphere for team-building, regardless of where team members are located. Here are five of the best online collaboration tools available, which help businesses make the most of their mobile workforce through easy document sharing and creating a great team-building atmosphere:

1. Huddle - One of the best known online collaboration tools, Huddle is a platform that lets employees work together in real-time, creating and editing documents regardless of their location. Users can easily create teams who work together in one single workspace by inviting colleagues via e-mail. Once the invitation is accepted, all of those in the team can begin uploading and editing documents and also assigning each other tasks. Huddle keeps track of all the changes made and keeps the original documents available, which is one of its most useful features.

Huddle has a highly intuitive easy-to-use interface, so those who have never used an online collaboration tool will be able to quickly figure out how to make the best of all the features provided. Also, setting up an account with Huddle doesn't take more than a few minutes, so if you're looking for a tool that you can begin using quickly, Huddle could be your choice.

Its free account lets users store up to 100 MB in files, so it is plenty for those who work mainly with word processor documents; however, people who need more storage, will need to pay extra. Prices start from $8 per month and can include a variety of features to suit your business' needs.

2. Basecamp has been used by over five million people all over the world, according to makers 37signals. It is a very simple to use  project management tool, perhaps by far the best tool in this list for those who have never used the collaboration tools (or even the Internet!) before. As with Huddle, sign-up is quick and easy.

The interface is very simple, perhaps too much so, as it is so plain that at times it looks unfinished. But what the tool lacks in looks, it makes up for in usefulness. For example, its messages facility looks like a message board, which lets users keep all discussions about a project in a single place. If some of the messages are not intended for the whole group, users can specify who has the authorization to see these messages. When a new message is posted, the team is notified by email, so no messages are missed. Basecamp even sends a digest email, reporting on the previous day's activities, which makes it easy to track the progress of a project. Like most online collaboration tools, it keeps track of every version of each file uploaded. Basecamp is also great for companies that have employees in multiple countries since it is available in many languages.

However, Basecamp is not the best tool for those looking for a free platform. While it does have a free trial, the product starts at $49 per month.   

3. Wrike - This is an online collaboration tool with email at its core. You can add projects to the platform by CC'ing e-mails that have any tasks to your Wrike account. Once you create a project, you can choose to display the timeline in days, weeks, months, quarters or even years, so reporting for any given period becomes very easy. From the beginning, users will notice that Wrike is a features-rich tool. While the interface is focused on functionality, it is not the best option for beginner users, as it can be a bit overwhelming.

Once you create a task on Wrike, it is given a start date, and you can then input the duration and due date. You can also give the task a detailed description and add any relevant documents. You assign tasks by adding e-mail addresses for your colleagues, and they will then get an email notifying them that they need to take action. Wrike will also notify you of changes to any task that is owned by you, or that has been assigned to you. This way, you don't have to keep logging into the service just to see if any changes have been made.

Wrike is good for both small and large businesses, as it can handle up to 100 users at a time, but at the steep cost of $229 per month. The cheapest plan, which allows for up to five users, costs $29 per month. There is a free trial available, so if you would like to see if Wrike is for you, all you have to do is sign up for one.

4. OneHub - This online collaboration tool lets users create virtual workspaces, which are called hubs. Signing up for OneHub is easy if you have a Google account, as all you need is to use your Gmail user name and password, and allow OneHub to access your e-mail address. Once you have signed in, you immediately have your first workspace, which you can completely customize - this is OneHub's biggest advantage over the other tools. This means that as the hub creator, you can completely control the user interface, making OneHub fit your team purposes exactly.

Uploading files is as easy as dragging them from your desktop and dropping into OneHub's upload widget. OneHub uploads are incredibly fast, so documents are available for sharing almost instantly. On the activity tab, you can keep up with everything that is going on with your hub. It lets you know who added/ changed what and gives a link to the page with the latest additions. It also color codes actions, so it's easy to see the latest updates to the hub at a glance.

The free plan allows for 512 MB of storage and only one workspace. However, if you need more space and functionality, you can upgrade your account for a monthly fee. Plans start at $29 per month and go all the way up to $499 per month.

5. Google Docs - Created to compete with Microsoft Office, Google Docs is also a great online collaboration tool. For those who have Gmail, no sign-up is necessary, as it automatically links to your Gmail account. Otherwise, sign up only takes a few minutes. One of the coolest features of this tool is that it allows co-workers to see each other's changes to documents in real-time, as they are being typed. If more than one person is making changes to a document, a colored cursor follows each person's changes, and the person's name is above the cursor so there is no confusion with who's changing what. Also, Google Docs has a chat facility, so as a document is being changed, co-workers can chat in real-time.

For those who have been using Microsoft Office, Google Docs will be an easy transition. It has a very clean and easy-to-use interface and is a great tool for collaborating on word processing documents or spreadsheets. The one downside is that it is basic in collaboration capability, and is not as feature-rich as Huddle or Wrike.

This is an attractive platform for teams looking for a free web-based tool with basic collaboration capabilities.