Virtual office tools you need to try today — a guide
Each day a new collaboration tool — a self-experiment in times of COVID-19 and WFH
Space and Lemon is an innovation lab, normally located at the betahaus coworking space in Hamburg, Germany. Now, in the times of Covid-19, the whole team is working from their living rooms. Every single employee working from home, a totally new situation. The challenge is to create a virtual office that is as close to the real workplace as possible. How do we communicate? How do we work efficiently? How do we survive without any direct social contact? To answer this, we tried a new tool every day for our morning check-in, looking at features, UI, and giving it a rating out of five stars (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️). Here’s a list of the nine tools we used, how they worked for us, and which one of them became the surprise winner.
These are the tools we tried out:
- Microsoft Teams
- Google Meet
- Facebook Workplace
Takeout: Great to sort information, news, messages by topic in channels. Basic version is more than enough for small businesses, if you can do without group video chat. Creates a new virtual work environment, without imitating the actual office.
Slack is a text chat-based collaboration tool that started in 2013 in San Francisco. “Where work happens” — Slack’s original tag line represents what the tool tries to accomplish: to move every task, every note, every communication to one unified and searchable interface. Over the last years, Slack has grown to be the favourite tool in many start-ups.
Slack has been our number one collaboration tool for a long time. As an innovation lab doing a lot of trend scouting we can map out a complete database of trends and use cases on the tool. However, except for important announcements to everyone, we rarely use it as a communication tool. Besides text chat, Slack also supports audio and video chat. The video quality of a 2-person call is exceptionally good. As we are on the free version, we don’t have access to the video group chat feature. And even in the paid version, this is limited to 15 users in a call.
Pricing is a big disadvantage of Slack. The free version is limited to 10,000 messages. As a consequence, everyone automatically ends in the paid version when they want to keep seeing old messages. It costs €7.50/person every month for the standard version (which does not include support or an export function, caution: lock-in), which is quite a lot if you move the whole company to Slack. Still worth it if all aspects of work then happen in Slack.
(free for 3 months for non-profit organisations)
Takeout: Very good tool for internal communication, and very easy to add external users. Basically an improved version of Slack, integrated into Office 365.
Teams by Microsoft (with a tagline similar to Slack: “The hub for teamwork in Office 365”) was released two years ago. In July 2019 it surpassed Slack in the amount of users. In the last week, Microsoft Teams topped the app download charts in most European countries. It seems that at the last moment, many companies decided to introduce Microsoft Teams for working from home. Number one reason: Microsoft is already their primary IT house. Despite a very short outage when the usage rocketed, Microsoft also does not have a problem in scaling the service, as they own the Cloud behind it (huge advantage compared to Slack!).
The biggest advantage of Teams is that it is already authorised in many companies. Especially if you want to invite external users to your workspace or into a video chat. We currently use it mostly to give clients access to our digital trend database. In terms of video quality, Teams benefits from Microsoft’s long experience with Skype. Another advantage is the deep integration of Office 365 into Microsoft Teams.
(Currently free for anyone. In general, free for any business subscription of Office 365)
Takeout: Very good for scheduled internal meetings. Other than that limited in functionality, spontaneous video calls not possible.
Google Meet is the successor of Google Hangouts, only available as part of a G Suite subscription (the suite of work-related tools by Google). Its focus lies solely on video meetings.
We are G Suite subscribers, mostly because of Google Mail and Google Calendar. Even in 2020, the email tool is the primary application everyone is monitoring all the time. Therefore Google Meet is one of the first tools to think about. Like many people, we are also used to Google products, both in business and private. It is also deeply integrated into the calendar. Even if you do not want to use it, by default every calendar entry automatically creates a meeting in Google Meet. Sometimes annoying, it’s directly integrated into the flow. You don’t have to worry about copying the right link, at the right time, to the calendar entry and don’t have to leave Google Calendar in the process.
It’s almost perfect for scheduled meetings. The video quality is great and one thing that is better than in every other tool is the transition from one speaker to the next. Graphically it’s extremely fast in switching the main speaker to the person who is currently speaking and there are no delays in the audio (different from the other tools). One limitation: customers who are still on Internet Explorer or use older versions of other browsers can’t join.
For spontaneous meetings, it’s not that great. Meetings have to be created manually and invitations need to be sent to all people attending. There is no possibility to call someone directly.
(Free for G Suite subscribers)
Takeout: A complete work suite, made in China. Docs, calendar, to dos — more than just communication, recreating many (if not most) company processes in an all-in-one app.
DingTalk is a collaboration platform created in 2014 by Alibaba Group. Yes, the same company behind Taobao, AliExpress and AliPay. It is said to be the collaboration tool with the most users worldwide. During the last months, it was made available for free. In China, it became the most important tool for both workers and students working from home in China during the COVID-19 outbreak. Fun fact: extremely low ratings in app stores were the result of students hoping to kick it out of the store (no homework anymore).
We had high hopes for DingTalk when first trying it out. Maybe too high, because we were slightly disappointed. The video quality in the group chat is great, the audio, on the other hand, is so delayed that you barely realise who speaks. That only applies to group video chats and we believe it might be different when you use it in China. Still, it makes it extremely difficult to communicate, because you simply don’t know when to speak. We just babbled all at the same time (did not happen in any other tool). Some of the functions are only available in Chinese.
In general, our first disappointment was not fair: DingTalk is a lot more than just communication. Despite Slack’s promise that you can do everything work-related in there, DingTalk turns out to be the tool for just that. It includes messaging, a complete document processing suite (similar to Google Docs), a calendar, to-do lists, DingMail, and more importantly apps. Most of the apps you would rather expect in tools like SAP, from approval processes and attendance tools (check-in in the morning) to the booking of meeting rooms. All in a unified interface, cool!
(Currently free for everyone)
Takeout: Clean, professional and best at representing the real office environment in its entirety. Makes Slack, Teams and Zoom look old-fashioned.
Never heard of it? You are not the only one. Published outside of China in November 2019, Lark is one of the most recent tools presented here. It was developed by ByteDance, the company behind the famous TikTok. It emerged from a tool used internally to handle all collaboration between its international team. Don’t be confused if you find almost the same tool (functionality-wise) under a different name. It was renamed to “Feishu” (approval point of the lung in acupuncture) in China in January. It has 60,000 users worldwide and 1,000 users in Europe.
Lark is not only our biggest surprise but also our absolute favourite among the tools. First of all, the graphical user interface is very clean and simple without missing anything. It looks like a better, more simplistic version of DingTalk. The main view includes a view of groups (similar to channels in Teams or Slack), mentions in documents (yes, you can directly tag persons and go to the tagged document, straight from the main feed), and private messages. The video group chat works very well, with a good video and audio quality (some smaller lags, but rarely). One thing we did not like is that there is no overview of all participating users, seen often these days in screenshots of Zoom. The person who speaks (or someone who gets pinned by the moderator) is always full-screen, the rest is thumbnail-sized at the edge of the screen. But our favourite feature is the “virtual office”. It is audio-only. Everyone who joins the “virtual office” can simply speak to all people in the room at all times. The microphone is disabled by default. The idea: to resemble the atmosphere of a real room where you can simply ask your colleagues for help or if they want to drink a coffee. If you don’t want to be disturbed, simply leave the room (“virtual office”) or go to another room.
Besides communication tools, Lark also includes similar apps as in DingTalk, most of them available in English, like the business trip request app. But there are also apps available for GitHub, Google Analytics and Dropbox. Speaking of Cloud, Lark also includes 300 GB of cloud drive and a basic document processing suite (currently Docs and Sheets, Slides and To-do in beta). By the way, all data lies on AWS servers for Lark, whereas the data for Feishu is on Chinese servers.
(Currently free for everyone, premium version with more cloud space, custom SLAs available)
Takeout: Most innovative tool. Great for spontaneous meetings and breaktime hangouts in the virtual kitchen. Not yet mature for serious usage.
Another surprise. Not much is known about Jamm, a video first tool. It is built by an international team of 7 people working remotely themselves from San Francisco, Barcelona, Sydney and Perth, founded in July 2019. And even more recently than Lark, it was released in March 2020. At the moment, it is also available for free (for three months).
What is really cool with Jamm is that they really try to resemble the real workplace as closely as possible. When you open the app you see a list of rooms and people around. You can directly start a video chat in a room or with a single person. For example, when you enter the virtual kitchen (“Common area” — even with a coffee icon) everyone can see you are in the kitchen (indicated by a small icon of yourself) and join you at any time. The same applies when two people are in a video chat. Anyone can join the talk temporarily and ask questions like “Do you need another 5 minutes?”. When you click on another program you always see everyone in the room on the screen as little circles (without any added user interface). Whenever you talk about anything important you can simply record a part of the live video for everyone to see (e.g. summary of the topics, important tasks to do afterward). And a nice gimmick: a virtual whiteboard that everyone can draw on together. Still very simple.
The only negative aspect is the user interface. It looks a lot like ICQ in the early 2000s and is not very intuitive. But we are sure this will change over time. A positive note: since trying this tool, nobody seems to have left it. And some of us are also using it in private.
(Free during the next three months)
Takeout: A business version of Facebook, neither very pleasant to look at nor innovative in usage. Lags behind in functionality to other tools listed here.
Facebook announced its own business tool in 2016. It shares most of its features with the B2C social media platform Facebook, although the accounts are completely separated.
Facebook Workplace also welcomes you with a remarkably similar interface to Facebook. The first thing you see is a news feed with all important updates. DIfferent from tools like Slack and Teams, which are chat-based, it is based on posts that you can comment and like. Besides the news feed, you also have groups, events, and chats. Chats are practically the same as Messenger. One cool thing: you can call whole “groups” both in audio and video. The video function was working well, lagging just a little bit with some users. You also see anyone attending at a given time, which helps to get a certain “office atmosphere”.
What we all disliked was the user interface, the first impression being that it looks “childish”. Second impression: it’s just very similar to the Facebook user interface. And in general very cluttered. It is the only tool listed here where people were overwhelmed by the user interface. It has 4 columns (1/ left-sided navigation, 2/ menu for choosing feeds/groups/chats, 3/ the selected feed/chat, 4/ additional information), which is just way too much.
(Free version available, premium version currently free for government organisations and emergency services )
Takeout: Difficult to integrate into the everyday workflow, needs to become a clear routine to be used reliably. Still a cool idea and we love to support local businesses — its from Hamburg!
The only tool here from Germany, and even from our home town Hamburg. It is an asynchronous video tool. You can describe it as “Instagram Stories for work”. Founded in 2018.
With Standups.io you can create rooms, e.g. “Daily Check-in”. In each room, you have two views: one for the current day and one for the next day. Everyone who is added to the room can record a video for one of the two days. Standard settings limit the videos to 2 minutes. The videos automatically get deleted the next day. Everyone else can view the video in the meantime. That’s about all the features. No live chat, just recorded videos.
We used it in addition to the daily video group chat. Everyone recorded a short video about their daily tasks. The advantage is that everyone can view it for the entire day. “Wait, what was person X doing today? Is this person free today?”. We preferred Jamm for the same feature, though. As the recorded videos are the only feature of Standups.io and are not integrated into any other tools, the tool wasn’t really included in our workflow.
(14-day free trial)
Takeout: Great tool for scheduled communication with external users — just need a link to participate. Not very good for spontaneous in-team communication or copying the office atmosphere virtually.
Zoom is a video-only tool. Currently rocketing on the stock market. Compared to the other collaboration tools mentioned here, it is more a direct competitor to WebEx and Skype.
Zoom’s biggest advantage is the adaptive video compression algorithm. No matter how good or bad the internet connection is, you can still join Zoom. There are almost no glitches. In our experience, you can completely trust it to work every single time. And even without an internet connection, you can still call a phone number for almost every country in the world. The “just works” functionality helps us to use Zoom for all our communication with our clients. And in our experience, there is an existing approval of the IT departments in many large companies.
In general, it is only useful for scheduled meetings, not for spontaneous ones. To just call someone is too complicated and in general not part of the standard workflow. Zoom also misses any other functionalities to represent the real office.
(Currently no limit on the length of free calls)
Lark is clearly our winner: It is the most complete tool, best resembling the real workplace. Everyone should try it for at least one day! Just don’t complain afterward if your current tool suddenly looks and feels outdated. Jamm was our most pleasant surprise and the most innovative among the tools. Microsoft Teams is the “safe bet”. Already working and embedded in the process for many bigger companies. For video chats only, especially with external customers, try out Zoom. But all tools are perfect for one thing: staying at home and staying safe. #happyWFH