The 2020 State of Remote Work report was released shortly before COVID-19 forced home office skeptics to reevaluate their convictions on productivity and team communications. Even then, 98% of the 3,500 interviewed subjects said they'd like to work remotely (at least partly) for the rest of their professional lives. The survey reveals that schedule flexibility, the ability to work from anywhere, not having to commute, and spending more time with family members are the most valued advantages of remote work.
The predilection for a remote work model is bound to stay after we've overcome the pandemic. More than ever, we rely on tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom to facilitate professional interactions. As a matter of fact, the research calls attention to team communication and collaboration as one of the main struggles for remote workers, sharing the top spot with loneliness. Although no software can fully address these very human problems, both issues can be improved by tools that motivate team members to engage with one another.
Even though remote work was already appreciated by most workers in industries that allow for this arrangement, it wasn't until COVID-19 that most executives understood the value of collaboration and communication services. Meanwhile, product flaws keep coming to the spotlight, and developers dash to cater to unaddressed needs. Considering the role that these tools play in our new reality (which, to an unknown extent, is here to stay), you'd better understand what each app can offer before making a decision that'll cost you money and affect your team or customer experience.
We've researched all you may want to know about the three most popular communication tools currently. Each service has unique purposes and features. We hope to help you identify which one better serves your needs; just keep in mind that functionalities are announced and even halted daily.
Slack was created with an ambitious goal: to replace e-mail exchanges within companies. It sure is a tall order, but the platform has been doing exceptionally well. Founded in Canada in 2009, Slack had a revenue of US$ 401 million last year. As demand swells, chances are Slack will thrive even more throughout and after the pandemic.
At first glance, Slack seems like just a chat service: workers can interact with one another via direct messages and dedicated spaces known as channels. These can be small group channels, company-wide or team-specific channels, and even channels with external partners (shared channels).
Channels can be set as public within the organization or as secret spaces for invited members. More than just chatrooms, channels centralize communications and facilitate access to past decisions and other relevant information better than an e-mail chain would. Users can tag others to call attention to specific issues, as well as create in-channel threads, pin messages and attachments, and quickly locate previous content.
Users can choose from plenty of inbuilt emojis and even upload their own. All can be included in messages and used as reactions – a simple, but prized feature, as platforms typically offer a limited selection of feedback emojis.
GIFs are also supported and can be easily accessed, thanks to an integration with Giphy's online library. All you have to do is write the command /giphy + image name on any channel. Although there's no single view of all available GIFs, you can explore other options by clicking on the Shuffle button. Your colleagues won't see any GIF until you hit Send.
Besides manually setting their accounts to Active and Away (which automatically happens when one is, well, away for some time), users can communicate their availability and show a bit of personality by leaving a status note and adding emojis. Perhaps you want to signal that you're on vacation 🌴, or that you're taking a break to indulge in your love for doughnuts 🍩.
Granular preferences help users avoid interruptions that may not be as pressing as deadlines that can't be missed.
Users can select a light or dark interface, and also choose from themes for the top and side navigation menus.
Workflows can be significantly improved thanks to a massive selection of integrated apps: G Suite, Dropbox, Jira Cloud, Salesforce, Skype, Zoom, Trello, HubSpot, and AWS Chatbot are a few examples.
Additionally, Slack supports helper bots that can execute tasks automatically and upon request (e.g., analytics bots and deployment bots for developers).
Teams can communicate with voice and video directly via Slack. Paid plans include screen share and control, and allow for group calls with up to 15 members.
Slack can be accessed via a browser (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Microsoft Edge) or app, available for the following systems:
Launched in 2017, the platform pledges to be a "hub for teamwork." Microsoft Teams, or simply MS Teams, offers chat, video, storage features, and app integration – perhaps the product's highlight. Among the hundreds of tools ready to be integrated into MS Teams is, of course, the company's Office suite. Recently rebranded as Microsoft 365, the suite includes apps that every home, business, and enterprise user came to know over the years (such as Word, Excel, and Powerpoint). Besides, MS Teams allows users to collaborate on files easily.
Like Slack, Microsoft's platform is booming with the crisis. As of April 9, meetings via Teams had increased by 200%, reaching an extraordinary 2.7 billion meeting minutes (or 45 million hours) per day.
Most chat features can be enabled and disabled by admins. Examples:
As in Slack, MS Teams conversations can happen between two members, a small group, or broader channels within the organization. Users can be tagged, documents can be shared, and past information can be located.
External partners can be invited to any channel. As Teams offers extensive admin customization, additional permissions can be set for guests.
You can add more personality and fun to conversations by using emojis (in messages or as reactions), GIFs (via Giphy database), stickers, and memes. Microsoft Teams users can also customize memes and stickers with new captions.
When it comes to GIFs, content safety is a cause for concern. MS Teams addressed this issue by allowing admins to exclude adult content from their organization's GIF search and choosing between Strict, Moderate, and No restriction rating levels.
You can set your status to Available, Busy, Do Not Disturb, Be Right Back, and Away. Just select from the menu options or type the appropriate commands (/available, /busy, /dnd, /brb, /away). Unlike Slack, emoji personalization isn't possible (at least for now).
These can be substantially fine-tuned. You can opt for in-app or e-mail notifications and switch them off (entirely or for specific chats or channels) whenever you'd like. You'd still get notified if mentioned by a peer, regardless of notification preferences. This can be quite helpful, as you wouldn't want to miss out on relevant messages and updates.
Dark and default themes are available, as well as a high-contrast option. There's not much flexibility otherwise.
MS Teams users can choose from a growing selection of add-ins. These apps have the potential of simplifying your team's workflow and can be effortlessly installed. The list currently comprises 457 apps, including Sentry, MailChimp, OneNote, Adobe Creative Cloud, and Git Hub Enterprise. There are also heaps of bot options, from Whobot to Polly and Workbot.
The platform supports voice and video conferencing with up to 250 participants and live events with up to 10,000 (!) attendants. Users can also join meetings by calling from their phones.
Features such as cloud recording, whiteboard, shared notes, and screen sharing can take team productivity to the next level. However, these can be turned off by the admin, following MS Teams' "maximum control" style.
You can access Microsoft Teams via web client or app download, available for:
Many of us hadn't heard of Zoom before COVID-19. Now, you've most likely used the tool at least once – be it to work, take classes, or touch base with friends and family. Founded in California in 2011, the video chat service had its stock price and user base soar in recent months: from 10 million daily meeting participants* in December 2019 to 300 million by the end of April 2020.
Unlike the other platforms we've discussed, Zoom wasn't developed as the be-all and end-all of team collab. Still, the current crisis had its worldwide popularity rise beyond expectations. From startups to big corps, self-employed professionals, therapists, doctors, language instructors, schools, and movement teachers, heaps of users are flocking to Zoom. Moreover, the platform has been working on supporting the education, finance, government, and healthcare sectors.
This abrupt growth wasn't swift. Zoom's developers had to quickly address security flaws such as Zoombombing: meetings invaded by uninvited people who usually engage in disturbing actions. However, you can choose to set up a password for all your meetings and to enable other features to avoid intrusion, such as locking a session once all participants have joined.
* Users may be counted multiple times if they join more than one meeting per day.
Each Zoom member has a customizable Personal Meeting ID (PMI). It works like a unique meeting room that peers can request to join at any time. Still, we'd recommend having the system generate a new meeting ID and use a new password each time. Those who can't connect via web client or app can dial into a meeting, as long as the host enables this setting.
Attendants can enable automatic appearance touch-ups and set up virtual backgrounds to protect their privacy, eliminate distractions, and add more joy to business. In addition to password protection, hosts can add another layer of security by enabling waiting rooms, so that each attendant must be approved before joining a call.
Users can also opt between Active Speaker and Gallery views. The latter displays up to 49 participants at a time; if more people attend a meeting, you'll have to swipe to see them.
One user can share multiple screens, and more than one person can share screens at the same time. This aims to facilitate collaboration, but we find it a tad confusing. Zoom's co-annotation feature, however, can be quite useful for a more collaborative approach.
Although the chat feature isn't Zoom's high spot, users can create private and public groups, have one-to-one chats, add contacts, and exchange files. It's also possible to find previous content and exchange messages during video meetings.
Zoom developed a simple, but handy virtual hand-raising feature for video calls, as well as polling and Q&A options. However, some of the most exciting functionalities are the auto-generated transcripts, video and audio stream play without file sharing, and meeting recording. Hosts can opt for automatic recordings or initiate them during the session. It's also possible to ask for each participant's permission, making sure that the recordings are GDPR-compliant.
Emojis & GIFs (via Giphy) are supported in the chat.
Users can be Available, Away, or set a Do Not Disturb status for a custom period. An optional profile photo and a custom note can also be added.
Zoom offers efficient granular notifications. You can disable push notifications for all messages, choose to be notified of private messages or mentions only, and create exceptions for channels, keywords, and time frames (to name a few possibilities).
Despite being a no-frills platform, Zoom offers light and dark themes. The platform also allows users to preselect reaction skin tones, which makes us happy. After all, representation matters even when it comes to emojis, and a lot of us are tired of seeing images that represent no one but the dominant culture.
Zoom provides in-app integrations and add-on features for browsers and third-party applications to make it easier to schedule and initiate meetings. Examples are the Zoom Scheduler extension, Gmail and Google Calendar add-ons, as well as Dropbox and OneDrive plugins.
Although you can join a meeting via Zoom's web client, some users have reported trouble doing it and end up downloading the app, compatible with the following systems:
We understand you may still feel unsure even after reading our in-depth product breakdown. These communications tools provide several overlapping features, but there's no need to feel even more confused. If you're hesitant to opt for a paid Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom account, we'd recommend signing up for the free options to test the waters. Although the free plans might not cover your needs, they can provide a better feel for each interface, so you can finally go for the one that you, your team, or your clients might feel most comfortable using.
Our wish is that we all stay connected during and after the crisis, embracing and optimizing work models that are here to stay, and that have the potential to considerably improve our quality of life.