Rethinking Communications for the Coronavirus Age
Ever since the massively popular service Slack won workers’ hearts, business messaging apps have become the de facto medium for in-office communication. These apps put instant messaging, text messaging, private forums, video calls, file sharing, and sometimes screen sharing, into one hub for collaboration. The result is a single place to chat with colleagues, both in real time and asynchronously. Now that COVID-19 is here, teams will also need to think seriously about how to stay in touch with members who are quarantined, can’t travel, want to eschew face-to-face meetings, or are otherwise separated. Business messaging apps can be key part of the solution.
You can have one-on-one conversations, group chats that are by invitation only, and public conversations with anyone who wants to join them. When used appropriately, team chat apps are among the best productivity tools because they make conversations easier to track, improve teamwork, and help maintain company culture.
Business messaging apps have several advantages over the productivity black hole that is email. Firstly, they encourage brevity. Due to these apps’ layouts and evolving etiquette about using them, messages tend to be succinct, unlike email where many feel compelled to overexplain. Secondly, most discussions occur on an opt-in basis. You can join conversations that are applicable to you, and you’re equally welcome to skip anything irrelevant. If you’re needed, someone can put an @ sign before your name to flag you. That’s much clearer than being CCed on an email when you have no idea what your role in the conversation should be. Thirdly, messaging apps allow for persistent, ongoing conversations, which isn’t a strong suit of email. Open a forum called “Brainstorming,” and people can add an idea whenever it strikes them.
What are these apps and what makes them different from one another?
Everyone Loves Slack, Right?
Slack is one of the most well-known and loved of all the team messaging apps. There are plenty of alternatives to Slack, but this app made significant headway in adoption early in its life. Once Slack found its legs, a healthy marketing push didn’t hurt either. According to CNBC, the company spent $104 million on marketing in fiscal year 2017, and the figure has doubled since then.
Aside from getting the word out early, Slack also became something of a darling because it was so different from email. It embraced playfulness with emoji, reacji (emoji used as a reaction to a post), and animated GIFs. The app has also grown its feature list steadily and with real value-adds. If you’re familiar with Slack, you might remember when it added customizable status alerts, threaded messages, or the ability to forward emails into the app. Plus, Slack integrates really well with dozens of other online apps and services. If you need to get alerts about activity from another app, chances are you can get them in Slack
If you’re already a fan of the app, we have 45 Slack tips to help you get the most out of it.
Of course, not everyone adores Slack. Some find it too busy, too noisy, although there are tricks to making Slack less distracting. Others acknowledge that Slack has plentiful features, but not the features they need. Another feature-packed app, Glip by RingCentral, offers a bunch of tools you won’t find in Slack (unless you add them through an integration). Glip has collaborative document editing, for example, plus a team calendar and task management tools. Glip also gives you tools for marking up images and PDFs. If your team already has the VoIP service RingCentral Office, you’re already paying for Glip, which is nicely integrated. Give it a whirl if you haven’t already.
Other Slack Alternatives
There are other apps to consider, too, which cater to different needs. Twist by Doist is a great example. It uses a unique layout that supports the needs of a distributed team, meaning people in different time zones. When people work different hours, their communications app needs to be designed in a way that keeps conversations orderly and organized. When team members in the Philippines start work and read conversations from their Canadian colleagues, they shouldn’t feel left out merely because they were asleep when the chat took place. Twist is designed for this type of scenario. It’s worth noting, however, that Twist looks a lot like email in many respects.
Flock is another alternative. It doesn’t feel quite as frenetic as Slack, but it has many of the same features. It’s just not overloaded with them. Flock also costs less than Slack. The app has a tidy interface, an integrated to-do list, and the option to make a read-only message board, which could be used to broadcast information from a legal department, HR, or company executives.
Best Value for Small Businesses
Many small organizations can get away with using the free version of a messaging app. Usually, the free version limits how many messages it will look through when you run a search, or it will have a low storage cap on uploaded files. Small businesses that need to pay for all the features without limitation should look to Zoho Cliq, the lowest priced app that made this list of the best team messaging apps.
Zoho Cliq’s fees are based on the total number of people on a team using the app. The more people, the lower the per-person price. With 500 or more people, you pay $1 a head per month. As the number of users declines, you pay a little more. So, a group of 10 people or fewer ends up paying $3 per person per month, which is still extraordinarily low.
Another way to keep costs low is to use a team messaging app that comes bundled with another service that your organization is already paying for. Three examples are Google Hangouts Chat, Microsoft Teams, and Glip by RingCentral (which we already mentioned, but here it is again… tada!).
Google Hangouts Chat comes included with a business G Suite account. In other words, if your organization uses Gmail for email or Google Docs for word processing, then you already have Google Hangouts Chat. You don’t have to pay anything extra for it. It’s already there for your team to start using.
The same goes for Microsoft Teams, which comes bundled with applicable Office 365 Business or Enterprise accounts. Teams is a little different from Hangouts Chat because you can use Teams for free even if you aren’t a paying business customer of Microsoft Office; you just need a free Outlook.com email address. If you’ve been using Slack and your company already pays for Office, take a look at what makes Microsoft Teams and Slack different. It may help you decide whether to switch.
Organizations may have other collaboration tools that include chat and messaging functionality. For example, you usually get someplace to discuss work in any project management software. Those tools do a great job of supporting discussions related to the project at hand, but they are not suited for more general conversations, such as letting other commuters know about traffic problems or discussing ways to improve office policies. So, there are some advantages to having both messaging apps and other collaboration tools that contain more ways to communicate.
The most important thing a team messaging app can do is to support everyone on a team by giving them one of the many tools they need to communicate and get work done efficiently.
Pros: Rich set of tools and options. Highly customizable. Integrates with many other collaboration and office tools.
Cons: Expensive. Can be overwhelming for new users. Audio and video call quality need improvements.
Bottom Line: Slack is an excellent and powerful team messaging app with a rich collection of settings and options. It’s among the best, but it’s also the most expensive.
Pros: Includes collaborative document editing, PDF markup tools, and team calendar. Good channel and team admin options.
Cons: Can only have one account per email address. No reacji, keyword notifications, or threaded conversations.
Bottom Line: Glip by RingCentral adds a few special components to business messaging, but is slipping behind the competition due to some missing features.
Pros: Shows more than one chat at a time. Forking option for branching discussions. Neat broadcasting tool. Inexpensive.
Cons: No keyword notifications. Better options needed for Out of Office and Do Not Disturb modes.
Bottom Line: Zoho Cliq borrows many of the best features from team messaging apps like Slack, and adds the ability to see multiple channels in one window, all for a very low price.
Pros: Highly customizable. Tightly integrated with other Microsoft Office apps. Plentiful integration options. Included with Office 365 business accounts.
Cons: Really set up to be used in a Microsoft environment, not elsewhere. Compartmentalized design gives an air of formality and rule-following that may inhibit open dialogue.
Bottom Line: Microsoft Teams provides features galore, including tight connectivity with Office 365. It’s a great team messaging app if your organization is a Microsoft shop.
Pros: Well suited for distributed teams. Excellent time-off feature. Solid editing tools. Reasonable price.
Cons: No audio or video calls, screen sharing, keyword alerts, or pinning. Limited integrations.
Bottom Line: Twist by Doist takes on team messaging and adds an air of calm to it. The app’s excellent for teams that are spread across multiple location and has a few standout features, but also room to grow.
Pros: Apps for all major platforms. Offers a good number of integrations.
Cons: Limited customization options. Lacks polish and panache.
Bottom Line: Team messaging app Flock provides reliable collaboration tools, but a slow pace of improvement and a big price hike make it a less attractive option than it was the last time we tested it.
Pros: Conversations contained visually with no need for threading/forking. Tight integration with other G Suite apps. Good value if buying G Suite.
Cons: No free option to try; only available with G Suite business account. Few notification settings. Limited integrations and bots.
Bottom Line: Google Hangouts Chat is Google’s take on team messaging. It’s a middling app that won’t compel you to buy G Suite. If you’re already paying for an account, though, you might consider it.
Pros: Flat $99-per-month price for an unlimited number of team members. Combines conversations and task management.
Cons: No free plan. Subdivision of conversations make discussions harder to track. No keyword notifications. Minimal customization.
Bottom Line: The formerly free Ryver team messaging app and service has added task-management tools, but it’s just average for the field and would benefit from a more-thoughtful design.
Pros: Free for small teams. Secure messaging. Consistent, attractive design across platforms.
Cons: Expensive. No integrations. Lacks audio or video call capabilities. Few customization options. No web interface. No push notifications on mobile. Occasional stutters on desktop in testing.
Bottom Line: SpiderOak’s Semaphor offers snappy, secure messaging capabilities for teams, but it does not support integrations, audio or video calls, nor does it offer much in the way of customization options.