Updated: Oct 28, 2020
Any of you who know me know that I am a fan of efficiency. I like to take time to build a good system in which to make work more efficient. You also would know that I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to software and have less resistance to and more curiosity for trying new ways of doing things than many of my esteemed colleagues.
The Dala Institute was designed from the beginning as a decentralised organisation that allows the flexibility to work from wherever our people want to work. To us, it doesn’t make sense to require people to come to the office every day. The ability to work online is key to this and we need all systems to be available from anywhere. This means no physical server and no desktop software dependency.
In this post, I want to share some of my favourite web-based applications for getting work done efficiently in the context of a consulting and research company and doing a lot of collaborative work. The focus of this review is on collaborative software that helps me work with other people better.
1. Productivity software: Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, Slides and more
I have converted to using Google’s software suite almost exclusively for productivity tasks. A lot of my colleagues (co-authors mostly) are resistant to this, preferring desktop-based Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint mostly, but there are a number of reasons that I find Google’s offerings a better fit for what I do:
Collaboration in Google Docs, Sheets and Slides is tough to beat. It’s all real-time, easy to track changes, and multiple people can work simultaneously without issue. For me, this system replaced Word Documents on DropBox which always gave me “conflicting versions” errors and somehow resulted in multiple versions. For one thing, even though a Word document on OneDrive can be simultaneously edited much like a Google Doc, users still download it and make changes offline, and then there are multiple versions. I have also been burned several times with Word non “syncing” changes, and losing work.
Google Drive is easy to use and has robust permissions controls. I have not found this to be the case with OneDrive or Sharepoint, although I have never had the paid versions of these. One big thing missing in the
Google Docs, Sheets and Slides can open and edit Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and Powerpoint slideshows natively.
Realtime data in Sheets (eg foreign exchange rates) keeps all the data up-to-date.
Google Docs, Sheets and Slides can be worked on off-line in the case of internet outage or inaccessibility.
I admit that in terms of features, Word and Powerpoint particularly are more robust than their Google counterparts, but I find with the right Add-ons in Google I don’t ever have to go back to Word for formatting. I note two features that I miss in Google Docs though: (1) cross-referencing and (2) switching from portrait to landscape layout in the same document. I am willing to sacrifice these though for the other benefits. I will also say, I would not write an entire book in Google Docs. My go-to for large documents on a Mac is still Mellel, which I love dearly, but unfortunately is not conducive to collaboration.
The other big plus of G Suite is that everyone at Dala was already familiar with the tools and interfaces, so there was no learning curve in terms of adoption- I can’t say that about any other applications that we use, some of which take some convincing and many of which we are still trialling before rolling out. We looked at other suites like Microsoft 365, Zoho One, and Lark but ultimately, the user comfort, price point, ability to interact with others, and online efficiency were the main reasons we went with Google. We use the G Suite Basic account, which doesn't really offer that much more than the free google account except we can use our own domain. Useful features in G Suite Business are out of reach price-wise for us, notably a domain-wide shared folder and possibly some more controls over sharing. I have to say that the only reasonable way to manage this is with whohasaccess.com, a free web app that allows us to audit and bulk control permissions. This should really be available in all G Suite accounts within Google.
Working with graphics is fairly limited in Google’s offerings. We do basic layouts that we need to change a lot using Google Slides, but for a more advanced design I use Photoshop and Illustrator-like Affinity Photo and Design, both desktop applications as I haven’t found a web-based program that meets my needs there. Basic illustrations are fine with Google Drawing and in Slides.
At Dala, we have fully bought into the G Suite system, so that allows us a lot of integration with G Mail and all the Google offerings. We get other great applications like Google Meet for video conferencing and jamboard for brainstorming.
2. Task and time management: ClickUp
I had never heard of ClickUp before and have gone through a number of free-forever task managers. ClickUp is the first one I have ever been willing to pay for. Honestly, I have never been more excited about an app before. I tried Asana for a while and have used other project managers as well. It provides about 80% of what I want out of a project management tool, but that 80% is implemented amazingly. I have never used another application that (1) is so easy and intuitive to use (2) adds features so rapidly and (3) is so responsive to user feedback. With a team I worked on a few years ago, we used a full-blown project manager application (Teamwork PM), which I liked, but the other team members never took to. ClickUp is super flexible and can be used to manage a broad range of tasks customised to what we need. At this point at Dala, it is just two of us actively using ClickUp, but we are now doing more of our communication in it, all focussed around the tasks.
The main things I use ClickUp for are:
task management- mostly for myself as I am always afraid of forgetting something that needs done. I add tasks right from Gmail to ClickUp as they come in so nothing gets lost,
project and workload planning: The Gantt Chart and Workload views in ClickUp are second to none (see below), and
time tracking and reporting for the few clients that require tracking by the hour or day (paid plans include reports. Free plans can be overcome with Integromat and Google Sheets).
Increasingly we are testing using ClickUp as a communication tool, since almost all of our discussion is around a task of some sort. We have been testing this with a few of our people and find it can replace a good deal of e-mail and WhatsApp.
Workload View in ClickUp
An amazing number of features are available in the free version, but the $5 per user per month is worth it to have Gantt Charts, Milestones, and a wider gamut of reports. For $10 we get the Workload view, and the ability to estimate time based on multiple users, which is great for understanding people’s workload. We are testing tracking time (by task) and making time estimates. We have also set up a whole CRM system to track project pipelines and I don’t think we will be going back to spreadsheets for that.
Other ways we are thinking of using ClickUp:
To set meeting agendas and confirm decision-making. Basically each resolution could have subtasks for each director, when checked, their agreement is noted.
To build tasks in ClickUp and export to Google Sheets to start building task-based budgets.
To insert strategic plans and structure strategies as tasks
Two things that ClickUp does not do for us yet: (1) plan budget and (2) track expenses. Using custom fields, we could add a bulk cost of each task, but that isn’t very sophisticated. Again expenses could be tracked using a custom field, but I mean tracking receipts and tying them to tasks (Avaza does this, as well as time-tracking and resource planning, but ClickUp is so much easier to use). It’s also not that easy to get a timesheet report out of it, but we are more result-oriented than timesheet driven so this is not a big problem for us.
The last word on ClickUp is that more than any other product I have seen, they have an amazingly responsive support team and feedback mechanism for catching bugs and making new features. They are also incredibly responsive in terms of development with new features coming out every week.
3. Expense tracking: Expensify
We don’t have an organisational standard for expense tracking- people can use what they want. I am on to my third expense tracker now. I used to use Zoho Invoice and had some problems with the flexibility of reporting- specifically listing the original currency value of the transaction. I turned to Avaza, which is not elegant, but it gets the job done. Its reporting features are incredible, but ultimately, I found the user interface a bit awkward and felt like I was clicking way to much in the back of taxis while entering receipts. I also struggles with how they estimate time. Expensify is slick and simple. I had passed over it on first trial because it didn’t allow for expenses to be linked to projects (there are no projects in Expensify). But on closer evaluation, I found that setting up a report for each client after the previous expenses had been claimed did the same thing. The limitation here is that I would have to manually merge all the reports into a single project to see all the expenses, but I don’t find I really need to do that. Related to the lack of projects, there is no ability to enter the budget, so I never know where I am according to budget, but that is what we have accounting software for. For me, the free version is enough, which only has the limitation of 25 images that can automatically be converted into expense claim items… a feature that could be nice, but so far I find doesn’t work that well in multiple currencies.
4. Communications: Still working on that one
E-mail feels outdated for team collaborations. We get too many e-mails each day and I would like to move our team to another platform that is more conducive to discussions and better integrated with our other workflows. At Dala we use mostly e-mail and WhatsApp. We find that we start something in WhatsApp and then it matures to become an e-mail. Increasingly, those of us who use ClickUp, are having discussions there and our automated systems are encouraging people to use Google Chat (which was one of the reasons we wanted to move to G Suite). Basically, our communications are all over the place and some people complain about too many e-mails while others complain about not being to find something in WhatsApp. Slack, we agreed, would be the best option, but we can’t justify the cost. We haven’t really pushed a move to Google Chat, but it would eliminate many of the frustrations that people have with WhatApp (mostly the lack of threads), but everyone uses WhatsApp every day for other communications so it’s hard to leave. The plan is to migrate internal e-mail and WhatsApp to Google Chat, and task-based discussion can still happen in ClickUp. It would be easy to integrate these, so ClickUp discussions are posted to Google Chat also (using Integromat, discussed below), but we don’t really have a need for that at the moment. I don’t love having the chats in both platforms, but ClickUp conversations are so easy and yet not every conversation is about a task. We will, of course, continue to use e-mail (eg. forwarding messages from others and with external people) but the plan is to reduce dependency on e-mail.
For video calls, we generally use Google Meet internally and often externally. It’s not as feature-rich as Zoom, but it is very stable and comes in our G Suite package. On some projects, we have subscribed to Zoom for a period of time as external people seem more used to it, but I like Google Meet’s simplicity and reliability. Users don’t need a Google account or to download anything to join calls. Some of the backgrounds and flash you can do in Zoom are cool (actually, Google Meet can do this soon or Chrome extensions can be used now), but I don’t find them that practical. Others, of course include Microsoft Teams, Skype, Webex and so on. For us, Google Meet ticks most of the boxes. Micah at Dala tells me that Zoom now can do interpreting, which is incredible and I could see being useful.
5. Integration: Integromat
While most readers may be used to word processors and task lists, integration is something different. It is also a major reason I am moving to online tools. Integromat (like its competitors Zapier and Automat.ai) basically links together all the things we do online. At Dala, we have been streamlining processes by building Google Forms with Google Docs to produce reports, and then assigning tasks automatically using ClickUp. Most users have no idea what is happening in the background, and that is how Integromat is designed. All people know is that when I do A, I get B in another app.
Some of these processes are quite elaborate, involving multiple levels of permissions all controlled through ClickUp. Some of our more elaborate to automated workflows that we are testing are for things like payment requisitions and invoicing using Google Forms to Sheets to Docs, exported to a PDF and filed nicely on Drive. We also use integrations to, for example, manage workload and time tracking using ClickUp’s features posted to a Google Sheet. I note that there is no integration of Expensify in Integromat, which I haven’t really found that I needed except maybe to make a ClickUp task when a report is completed to follow up on reimbursement. I am testing an RSS feed from tendering websites to a single e-mail for Dala people to see what we want to bid on. I also have a plan in the back of my head to make a Google Form-based expense claim system, which would save expenses and receipt photos to Google Sheets and then make a report in Google Docs and PDF and an export to Excel for the client, but I have bigger things to deal with at the moment. There is a free plan for Integromat, but we have outgrown it and use a $9 per month plan which offers plenty of actions. Integromat’s plans are staggered nicely and it's easy to scale with needs.
Image: A sample of part of a process in Integromat… there are lots of things at play from merging PDFs, filing, deleting old files, creating tasks, moving files around and sending notifications.
6. Calendar Manager
One of the most time-consuming tasks in our work, that shouldn't be, is making appointments with people. Especially in the time of COVID-19 we are going a lot of online interviews and the old system was that we would ask support staff to contact all the people on our list and suggest a time to meet. Of course, half of them could not make that time work, thus an eternal ping-pong ensued of trying to find a time that works. Then, the interviewer has to send the calendar invite with the link to meeting. This is now gone. We reviewed about five calendar managers with the following criteria: (1) has to integrate with Google Calendar and Meet, (2) integrates with popular other platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams (3) allows for team booking (ie more than one consultant taking interviews), and (3) allows the user to choose their preferred platform. The last one was tricky. We settled on Calendly since it allows user to select their preferred platform and otherwise had great integrations and offerings at a reasonable price. This took hours of back-and-forth out of our workflow and works well for respondents also. Unfortunately, in the "Round Robin" mode, which sends one link to all interviewees and offers availability from all interviewers, does not allow users to select the meeting platform, so we had to offer different "events" for each platform. In effect, the user still chooses, but this would be the same with any other services similar to Calendly (ScheduleOnce for example). For one-on-one meetings, the selection works well. Now, instead of sending 5 e-mails to find a date, we just send one, and the other party selects a time that works for them. Calendar events in our Google calendar make those timeslots unavailable for another user so there are no timing conflicts. The other process that we have not sorted with this system is how to send out a customised email to invitees and track whether or not they have confirmed a meeting already. Calendly has integrations that might do this or maybe we can figure something out in Integromat.
7. Reference Management: PaperPile
Getting away from integrations for a bit, I am still an academic. I use Google Docs to draft papers, for collaboration, and PaperPile is an amazing reference manager that plays well with Google Docs, Google Scholar and basically all paper repositories and publishers I have come across. We don’t push it across the organisation since different people have different types of work and I use it for non-commercial purposes. People get quite invested in their reference managers once you have a few thousand references it becomes hard to switch (although I imported from desktop processors to PaperPile with no issue).
Doing a search in Google Scholar, a little PaperPile button comes up beside each paper, which immediately imports the reference data to Paperpile in one click. Citing with PaperPile in Google Docs is just as easy. I have used Sente (now defunct), Bookends, Mendeley, Papers and EndNote. PaperPile is by far my favourite due to the ease of use and the ability to not only collaborate in Google Docs (and now also in Word, making it the only reference manager of which I am aware that can be used in both Google Docs and Word), but also to share papers and reference data with co-authors. It is only available online, but the PDFs are stored in Google Drive, so they can be available offline. It also comes at a fair price point of $3 per month for non-commercial use.
8. Accounting Software: QuickBooks
We evaluated this carefully and found that Quickbooks Online was the best fit for us as a small company. One of the deal-breakers was multi-currency since we have clients all over the world. Xero also looked good, but at the end of the day it came down to pricing for us so we went with Quickbooks. While we are sometimes frustrated with some of the ways Quickbooks does things, it has recently made improvements such as project-based accounting. We have abandoned invoicing through Quickbooks because of the way invoices are handled as accounts receivable using an exchange rate that is way off reality so we found we always made adjustments to it. Now we do invoicing separately. Quickbooks also has a mobile app for expense tracking, but we have never used that.
Note: We don’t get anything from any of these service providers for writing about them and have no affiliations with any of the companies except as customers. Neither the author nor Dala endorses any of these companies. It is up to readers to assess to what extent the products reviewed here are a fit for their own needs and to compare them with their competition.