Working from home has its benefits, but it also makes it more difficult for employees to collaborate with teammates. Digital tools are essential for streamlining teamwork.
By combining tools for communications and content management into a consistent experience, a collaboration suite creates the foundation for teamwork within a business.
When it comes to working within a business, there is no substitute for teamwork, which includes focusing on projects, aligning tasks around deliverables, sharing content in context and optimizing moments for spontaneity and creativity.
What is a collaboration suite?
A collaboration suite combines the following features into an integrated workspace:
- instant messaging,
- presence awareness,
- virtual meetings,
- file sharing,
- content management and
- calendar management.
A modern collaboration suite uses a cloud infrastructure for network connectivity, extensibility and scalability. It relies on cloud services -- including enterprise directory services, two-factor authentication and single sign-on -- for authentication and identity management.
A collaboration suite secures both the flow of content in motion as well as the storage of content at rest. It provides a portal where workers can directly connect to the business applications they need to do their jobs. Beyond business boundaries, a collaboration suite maintains the gateways and APIs to access and retrieve any content stored within remote repositories managed by external organizations.
Finally, a collaboration suite supports both personal productivity tools and team-oriented workspaces. These include shared text editors and spreadsheets, photo editors and graphic design tools, whiteboards and interactive instructional environments, on both PCs and mobile devices. These tools and team spaces bring people together to enable both real-time coworking and delayed-time activities.
Collaboration suite options
Businesses can take two approaches to collaboration suites: a single vendor for all software needs or multiple vendors. The single vendor option bundles together essential collaboration features for team-oriented communication and coordination produced by one vendor. Each component is designed to work with the other, and if a business has trouble with the system, they just need to make one phone call.
The multivendor approach, by comparison, integrates services from multiple vendors to provide advanced features needed to optimize certain types of team tasks. For example, an advertising agency may need advanced email marketing software or a contact center requires advanced knowledge management software and communication tools. In both instances, these businesses may pick and choose tools to create their desired collaboration suite instead of going with a single vendor.
Single vendor approach
Both Microsoft and Google deliver a completely integrated business suite: Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace -- formerly G Suite -- respectively. Each is tightly integrated with its company's cloud service, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud. Each includes email, group calendaring, enterprise directory services, telephony, instant messaging, real-time conferencing, access to shared files and support for personal productivity tools. Yet the two differ in important ways.
Microsoft maintains an application-centric approach to teamwork. With Microsoft 365, workers continue to rely on Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook for personal productivity tools. SharePoint provides file sharing, document management and knowledge management capabilities. And OneDrive provides file sync-and-share capabilities for integrating mobile apps.
Microsoft 365 also includes Teams to support topic-oriented conversations. It is workplace collaboration software that enables employees to message in real-real time, and it is designed to replace email threads and chat streams for group conversations. It also supports real-time video conferencing.
As an alternative to Microsoft, Google Workspace relies on Gmail to provide core services for communications and information sharing. Google adds Docs, Sheets and Slides for personal productivity and -- using these cloud-native services -- makes collaborative editing for real-time coworking easy.
Google Drive supports both ad hoc file sharing as well as file sync and share. Google also includes Calendar for time management, Chat for instant messaging, Meet for real-time meetings of up to 250 people, Tasks for workgroup task management, and Hangouts for real-time conversation of 25 people or fewer.
A multivendor approach focuses on types of teamwork that blend communications and information sharing -- including email, real-time conferencing, threaded conversations, content management and other kinds of digital exchanges.
No single vendor provides the appropriate set of collaborative services a business may want or need. Organizations must consider how best to deliver purpose-built environments that streamline team activities around business requirements.
Content collaboration and file sharing
Box delivers advanced functionality for cloud content management within a business. It is an alternative, independent of both the Microsoft and Google ecosystems, that includes capabilities to integrate with either of them. Box manages all types of digital files, maintains content categories and metadata, integrates content with business applications, supports collaborative workflow and provides content security.
Team communications services
Team communications services can reduce the reliance on email. Slack, for instance, provides a conversational environment by combining threaded conversations organized by topics with private chat streams, telephony, real-time meetings and instant messaging. Slack adds team communication services to many different cloud business applications, such as integrating with the Salesforce cloud.
Slack competes with Microsoft Teams, but there is one important difference. Slack appeals to organizations that have not standardized on the Microsoft ecosystem, while Teams is tightly integrated with other Microsoft 365 tools and services.
Collaboration software for specific use cases
The multivendor approach often promotes ad hoc information sharing for targeted business purposes. Here are some examples.
- Akumina focuses on business process automation within an organization by organizing content around predefined tasks and activities. Using Azure and Microsoft 365, it provides a service hub to integrate multiple data sources, and also access information maintained by disparate structured and unstructured repositories. Thus, a restaurant franchise can channel the flow of content -- such as service bulletins, promotional assets and training guides -- to reach restaurant managers and franchise owners who need the information.
- HyperOffice delivers a collection of prepackaged collaborative services that target the needs of SMBs with no internal IT support. Atlas Intranet Collaboration Suite, its legacy offering, automates office activities -- including document management, task management, contact management and business chat -- based on a managed services infrastructure. A second product line -- uShare.to -- brings together Zoom and Slack to provide an integrated collaborative environment that can include ad hoc participants such as contractors and clients who only work on specific projects.
- Igloo Software organizes collaborative content around business activities such as knowledge management, employee engagement and corporate communications. Hosted on Azure, it provides predefined templates to define, manage and secure content snippets. Team members can find relevant information updates that are tailored to their tasks.
Pricing out collaboration software
Subscription costs for collaboration suites vary, depending on the number of users, cloud storage size and the collaborative features businesses receive. In the single-vendor marketplace, Microsoft and Google offer multiple editions, where productivity tools and team workspaces are integrated services bundled into their respective cloud offerings.
Google Workspace prices are as follows:
- Business Starter -- $6 per user, per month.
- Business Standard -- $12 per user, per month.
- Business Plus -- $18 per user, per month.
There is also an Enterprise plan that offers unlimited storage and no limit on the number of users.
Microsoft also offers multiple tiers but, unlike Google, requires an annual commitment.
Microsoft 365 prices are as follows:
- Business Basic -- $5 per user, per month.
- Business Standard -- $12.50 per user, per month.
- Business Premium -- $20 per user, per month.
Microsoft 365 also has plans for medium and large organizations, where per-seat prices vary depending on the range of services, file storage and desktop applications provided.
Multivendor options also have tiered subscription plans, based on number of users and cloud storage requirements. For example, the cost for Box starts at $5 per user, per month for up to 10 users and 100 GB of storage. There are also customized subscription plans for business accounts.
Paid Slack subscriptions begin at $6.67 per user per month for SMBs. Pricing for business accounts depends on the range of features provided.
Subscriptions to Igloo depend on how organizations expect to use the platform. It costs $12 per user, per month for intranets and $3 per user, per month for extranet connections, with volume and nonprofit discounts available.
Trends for collaboration suites
In the post-pandemic workplace, organizations will increasingly rely on collaboration suites to support distributed teamwork, ensuring that workers can easily communicate and effectively share the content they need to do their jobs. Within a business context, keeping things simple is hard to do.
Organizations can expect many more purpose-driven collaboration suites that target specific types of business operations, processes and activities. Collaboration software will be task-centric rather than application-centric and produce integrated workspaces that are more like social media experiences than office tools. Software will include rich media -- photos, images and video clips -- that capture visual, emotional and sensory aspects of digital work.
Finally, distributed teamwork will depend on self-evident file plans, intuitive file-naming conventions and relevant content tags that map to team- and task-oriented taxonomies. Collaboration software will rely on well-defined information architectures, and -- using artificial intelligence -- automate how businesses tag, manage and continuously enrich content.