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The best productivity tools for small business: streamline workflow and increase collaboration – CNBC

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If you’re tired of relying on email to manage projects or day-to-day work issues and want to learn a project’s status without having to hop on a call or schedule yet another meeting, productivity software may be the answer.

The day-to-day of running a business requires that people juggle multiple tasks and projects, often communicating with different teammates to hit deadlines. Productivity tools, specifically the ones aimed at collaboration and improved communication, make it easier for employees to work together all while letting business owners get a macro view of what’s going on.

During the pandemic, productivity and collaboration tools became essential for companies transitioning their staff from in-person to remote work. The global market for collaborative software is expected to grow 17% in 2021 and will likely keep trending upward into 2022, according to the business research and insights firm Gartner.

To determine the best productivity software for workplace collaboration for small businesses of anywhere from 2 to 50 employees, Select reviewed over 10 applications and zeroed in on their cost, ease of use, ease of access on multiple devices, extra features and positive user reviews on the App Store (for iOS) and Google Play (for Android).

The top five apps we selected offer either a free version, with limited but powerful features, or a free trial. They each have at least 1,000 reviews in both the App Store and on Google Play, as well as a rating of 4 stars (out of 5) or higher on both platforms. (Read more about our methodology below.)

The best productivity software for collaboration 

Productivity software FAQs

Best overall

Asana

Information about Asana has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the company prior to publication.

  • Cost

    Basic subscription is free for up to 15 users; Premium is $11.99 per user/month; Business is $24.99 per user/month (billed annually)

  • Availability

    Web-based app, downloadable app available for iOS and Android

  • Standout features

    In-app communication, versatility, goal-setting, idea sharing, multiple dashboards, 100+ app integrations including Slack, Zoom, as well as creative and IT apps, such as Canva and Jira

  • Easy to start using?

    Yes, plus there are dozens of tutorials on the site to help you learn and master all the features

  • Will it grow with my business?

    Yes, Asana is excellent for small businesses that are looking to grow from 5 to 50 employees or more.

Pros

  • The free version allows for unlimited tasks and projects and messages
  • Asana can work for a company with 1-200 employees, or more
  • The Business subscription allows business owners to track cross-company goals, such as OKRs and KPIs and track team member workload

Cons

  • Asana’s free version has a 15-user limit (a pain for smaller companies that use outside freelancers)
  • The pricing plan to add new users can be confusing
  • Managers should allow time to train their team to get the best experience

Best for simple project management

Trello

Information about Trello has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the company prior to publication.

  • Cost

    Free plan is $0 for unlimited members. Business Class is $10 per user/month, Enterprise plan has extra controls, security, and support (custom-pricing)

  • Availability

    Web-based app, also available for Mac desktop, iOS and for Android-powered devices

  • Standout features

    “Power-ups” let you add features, such as connections to Google Drive and time-tracking apps, à la carte (and usually free) instead of endless integrations you don’t need

  • Easy to start using?

    Yes, you can start creating a simple board in a matter of minutes

  • Will it grow with my small business?

    Yes, to a point

Pros

  • Trello has a Kanban-style card-based flow that makes visualizing workflow simple
  • Extremely easy to create a board, start assigning to team members and get going
  • The free subscription lets you create unlimited cards with unlimited users

Cons

  • Maintaining hundreds of boards can get unwieldy
  • May be frustrating for projects that require dozens of steps, sign offs and cross-referencing to multiple boards
  • Free account allows for only one “power-up”

Best for ease of use

Todoist

Information about Todoist has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the company prior to publication.

  • Cost

    Free plan works for up to 5 team members. Pro is $3 per user/month, Business is $5 per user/month

  • Availability

    Cloud-based app that’s available on Android, iPhone, iPad, macOS, Windows, Android Wear, Apple Watch, browser extensions and the web

  • Standout features

    Collaborative to-do lists and subtasks. Easy to work offline when you’re out of signal range. Great for personal checklists as well 

  • Easy to start using?

    Yes, it’s easy and delightful with great tutorials

  • Will it grow with my small business?

    Yes, but fast-scaling businesses might want to try Asana

Pros

  • Easy and intuitive to start creating personal and work tasks
  • Interface feels especially friendly and beautiful 
  • Business tier has billing options that let you create and receive invoices

Cons

  • The free version is light on features and only lets you get started with 5 users
  • If your business is scaling fast, say, from 15 to 500 people, an app like Asana may be a better choice

Best multi-feature

Airtable

Information about Airtable has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the company prior to publication.

  • Cost

    Free for teams to get started. Plus plan is $12 per user/month, Pro plan is $20 per user/month (if billed annually)

  • Availability

    Desktop app on Mac and Windows and mobile app on iOS and Android

  • Standout features

    All-in-one project management, easy-to-build databases and spreadsheets, customer relationship management software

  • Easy to start using?

    Airtable may be best for a dedicated office manager who can take the time to learn the features and implement 

  • Will it grow with my small business?

    Yes, Airtable can work for companies of almost any size

Pros

  • Way more powerful than a traditional spreadsheet, you’re able to build a flexible database to connect your information (data, text, photos, videos, files, and more)
  • Helpful templates to help customize work for different kinds of businesses
  • Tons of tools for filtering and sorting information, useful for juggling multiple projects at once

Cons

  • You’ll want to provide time to train your team on how to use it
  • It can do so many things that jumping right in can feel overwhelming

Best value

Zoho Projects

Information about Zoho Projects has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the company prior to publication.

  • Cost

    Free for 3 users, Premium is $5 per user/month for unlimited users, Business is $10 per user/month (billed annually)

  • Availability

    Web-based app as well as a mobile app for iOS and Android

  • Standout features

    Great in-app communication tools, chart-building, time-tracking tools, dashboards and task automation

  • Easy to start using?

    Yes, it’s very beginner-friendly

  • Will it grow with my small business?

    Yes, Zoho Projects can scale with your team

Pros

  • Great for budget conscious companies that want a lot of bang of their buck
  • Ability to create complex tasks and assign them to multiple users
  • Ability to track billable and non-billable hours

Cons

  • The free version is skimpy on the features
  • Interface isn’t as beautiful or intuitive as its competitors

FAQ

What is productivity software for collaboration? 

In simplest terms, collaboration software helps people work and communicate more efficiently day-to-day. Its aim is to eliminate confusion about who is doing what and what is needed to get things done, while storing data and simplifying task management and workflow. There are apps that also include Gantt chart creation, time tracking, invoicing, milestones, vibrant templates and multi-view dashboards.

“Collaboration software helps team leads manage and oversee multiple projects, whether they’re straight-forward or large and complex,” says Jill Duffy, productivity analyst and writer for PCMag. “Whether you’re managing a project that has a lot of moving parts or just day-to-day work tasks, this technology offers a lot more visibility than using email to pass along tasks or project updates.”  

How much does collaboration software cost?

The more team members your business has, the higher the cost. That said, all of the apps we chose have a free plan that packs in a lot of functionality for zero cost. After that, prices can start from a few dollars per month per user and go higher with more complex enterprise-level plans. 

Why is this software best for small businesses? 

Just like you may not need to spend $300 on running shoes for your daily walk, your business may not need to spend money on higher-priced software, like Microsoft Teams, that offers more tools and functionality than your business actually needs. 

We chose productivity software that offers lots of features outside of basic task management. These programs allow you to quickly get started creating projects and assigning to team members. 

Methodology 

To determine the best productivity software for small business workplace collaboration for companies from 2 to 50 employees, Select reviewed more than a dozen applications with a focus on a few key features including: cost, ease of use, ease of access on multiple devices, extra features and good user reviews on the App Store (for iOS) and Google Play (for Android). 

The apps we’ve chosen receive high marks for

  • Managing tasks
  • Availability for web and mobile 
  • Value
  • Ease of use 
  • Standout features
  • Scalable with your business. 

We looked at software that can grow with your small team and allow new hires to jump into the mix and begin collaborating quickly. We downloaded the programs to see if we were able to intuitively understand how to get started, watched dozens of brand tutorials to see if they did a good job of explaining advanced features, spoke with users who use these products every day and consulted experts who regularly write about and rate these products. Unless indicated otherwise, all the pricing is for what you’d be billed annually, which is less expensive than what you’d pay if you were on a monthly plan. 

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.