If you’re still lucky enough to have a job, odds are you’re working from home. Which means a shorter commute, cheaper lunches, and the ability to wear sweatpants every day.
But aside from those sweet perks, you’re no doubt struggling to learn the features and functions of a host of new remote working tools. Video conferencing on Zoom, fine-grained project management platforms, and all the apps, toggles, alerts, and push notifications that come along with remote work take time to master.
Yet, practically overnight millions of people have had to learn to use remote office tools once reserved for freelancers and digital nomads. It’s not easy to shift gears that quickly. And even if things get better faster than health experts expect, your job will probably never be the same.
“The new normal is not going to be, like what I thought two weeks ago, that all is clear, go back everybody,” says Spataro, head of Microsoft 365 in an interview with The Verge. “There will be a new normal that will require us to continue to use these new [remote] tools for a long time.”
Welcome to the remote work revolution. Fun, right?
But it’s not all bad.
I’ll scream if I see another ad from an athlete, CEO, or movie star about “getting through these uncertain times together,” but you can still earn a living from home during the coronavirus chaos. And the silver lining is that remote work can actually be kind of great. (It’s why I’ve been a freelance writer for the past eight years).
You just need a few of the right tools to get you started.
So to help you soften the transition from full-time office drone to a savvy remote worker or full-time freelancer I’ve put together a shortlist of essential (and free) software programs and apps to keep you in the loop and productive from the comfort of your couch.
I’ve also added a few tips, recommended upgrades, and my best practices to help you stay connected remotely and get stuff done.
The Best Free Software for Remote Work
Google Drive (15GB Storage FREE / 100GB $1.99 )
Yup. The first remote software tool on this list is one you probably already have on your computer, which is why I think it’s so important.
Google Drive is an absolute beast for getting work done remotely, yet you probably only use a fraction of the professional-grade tools that come free with every Google Drive account.
And that’s a shame because most people can get 99% of their work done remotely just using Google Drive. In fact, Google Drive is such a neglected remote working platform that I wrote an entire article about How to use Google Drive like a Power User.
A Power Users Guide to Google Drive for Remote Workers
How to use Google Drive’s hidden features, upgrades, and extensions to get more done from just about anywhere
If you leverage just a few of those tips you can get a ton of stuff done without downloading any other apps or software. Here are a few of the highlights to get you excited.
Best Google Drive Features & Tips
- Send large files (up to 10GB) using “Share with Drive” to get around 25MG email attachment limits
- Pull editable text out of PDFs and even images just by uploading them to Google Drive (seriously)
- Work on documents and spreadsheets offline that automatically sync the changes when you’re online again
- Save things directly from the web with Save to Drive Google chrome extension
- Enable email notifications and alerts when collaborators make edits or comments on shared documents
- Control sharing permissions in “Advanced Settings” to share files with your whole team or specific members
- Smoothly move from Microsoft Office to Drive and back again
- Revert to older versions of documents and spreadsheets to undo mistakes or track edits and updates
Google Drive is free for all users, but I upgraded to the paid Google Drive account—$1.99/month for 100GB of cloud storage—about five years ago and it’s been great.
A larger Drive storage account lets me collaborate with clients in an organized folder structure, share drafts with editors, give comments and feedback directly within a project, and save and organize invoices, payments, spreadsheets, goal tracking, and more.
Get to know Google Drive a little better and futureproof your career.
If Drive isn’t robust enough for you or you need to work with a large team and a lot of moving parts I recommend Asana for collaboration and project management.
Asana is the best collaboration software I’ve used so far, especially for managing editorial calendars and large-scale projects with multiple deliverables (like SEO research, writing, editing, photo asset management, publishing, and targeted promotions). It’s so good, I try to get all my clients to use it.
Asana has a fairly intuitive dashboard where you can see the status and tasks of ongoing and completed projects with a single click.
I also like the drag-and-drop file management for each task (great for submitting drafts), and the simple “@” style of messaging and tagging within tasks to ask questions or alert team members of new information or deliverables.
The biggest tip I can give for Asana or any other collaboration platform is simple—find a system you like and commit to it.
Trello, Slack, and Dropbox are all useful tools, and if you freelance or work from home you’ll eventually have to use most of them to communicate with clients and co-workers. But I really try not to use more than one for longer than I have to.
Multiple platforms bring unnecessary complexity. When you spread your workflow across multiple apps things are more likely to slip beneath the cracks.
“Productivity tools” and platforms are a lot like airline reward programs—if you try to sign up for too many you’ll never accumulate the miles you need to get any of the perks of membership.
Commit to one platform, master the tools, integrate it into your workflow, and onboard team members and clients to how you work. It’s better to be rock solid on one platform than mediocre on all of them.
Freelancer Pro Tip: Ask if your client uses Asana. If they don’t, introduce them to it! You’ll add tons of extra value to your contract.
If they already have an account, get added to the relevant teams for your project. It’ll make you look professional as all heck to work in their existing framework, plus you’ll get in their communication loop. That puts you miles ahead of other freelancers for future pitches and outreach instead of relying on cold emails to contact clients and manage projects.
Most office workers have never had to monitor the amount of time they spend on a particular project because they’re working in an office surrounded by their bosses and peers. However, that’s not the case when you work remotely.
Many employees are learning firsthand how awkward it can be to track their productivity (aka how much time you actually spend working). Punching a clock online might seem simple—you sit down to work on something at 10 am and finish it around 12:30—but that’s not how most freelancers track their hours for client billing. At least not the professional ones.
If you have to track your hours and more importantly deliver documentation of those hours, you can’t just guess and report how much time you think you’ve put in. You need time tracking software.
My favorite time tracking app is Clockify for two simple reasons:
- Integration with Google Docs. That means I can track my hours directly from a project within Drive. I click the clock, start typing, and stop the clock when I’m done
- Simple reporting. Clockify doesn’t have tons of tools or dashboards. It just gives me an easy to read report of how long I’ve worked on each project so I can send that to your clients (or boss if you’re working from home)
If you need to track your hours, find a time tracking app that works the way you like to work for the quickest, easiest results.
Nobody does just one thing anymore. For writers like me, that means finding and sourcing images for every article I write here on Medium. But I also regularly contribute featured images for clients as an added bonus and a way to make my articles and pitches stand out.
If you’re working with content, you need a reliable place to get high-quality images for articles, promotions, website design, and more. Unsplash is my go-to source for royalty-free images that give my content the extra boost it needs.
And the best part about Unsplash is that you can use it to build a library of images for your entire team or future projects. Simply create and share “collections” organized by subject, style, or keyword with your team members and keep your photo assets organized and accessible to everyone who needs them.
Unsplash is also a great way to create mood boards, brainstorm ideas, flesh out buyer personas, and juice up presentations and slides with a few great images.
Here’s a detailed guide for How I Find Better Images on Unsplash.
How to Find Better Featured Images on Unsplash
A guide to interesting keywords, unique search terms, and hidden image search features you should know about
If you need more than just a plain image, Canva is a fantastic way for non-designers to create nearly professional-grade graphic designs for just about any project.
A free Canva account comes with powerful, yet easy to use graphic design and editing tools to help you turn images into social media assets. But it’s also great for creating designs from the ground up without having to master complicated (and expensive) design programs like Illustrator and Photoshop.
Is Canva as good as Photoshop? Of course not. But it’s pretty dang close, and that’s just the free account. It gets awesome if you’re willing to upgrade.
The paid Canva account ($9.95/month) comes with 60M+ photos and elements, thousands of templates for all kinds of projects complete with preset image sizes and ratios, easy resizing, Brand kits, and the ability to upload your own images, fonts, and designs while working within your own customized team dashboard.
You can even download PNGs with transparent backgrounds (which is a huge deal once you start using your designs in more and more places).
A customizable, centralized, remote Brand Kit means you’ll always use the same colors and fonts across your social media accounts and projects no matter where your design team is located. It also means designers can collaborate on a company portfolio full of saved designs and assets in the cloud for seamless remote work without the hassle of renders and massive cloud storage costs.
Invoicing Software: Google Drive
The final piece of remote working software might not apply to you if you’re still receiving a regular paycheck. However, if you’re branching out into freelancing or contract work, it’s essential that you create and track your own invoices.
The good news is that thanks to Google Drive (hurray), you don’t need to pay for billing software or expensive invoice management platforms.
Simply choose an invoicing form from the list of professional-looking templates available on Drive (or upload your own invoice template) and customize it with your business and payment information, and the details of the job.
Email, send, or share your invoice as a PDF (not an editable word doc!) and ta-da, you’re a working freelancer.
I typically take payment via direct deposit to my bank account which takes a little time to set up, but you can also provide your PayPal, Venmo, Cash, or other payment options.
Freelancer Pro Tip: Set up an account on Bill.com. It’s a popular site for smaller companies to pay their freelancers, and will grease the wheels for some clients.
How you get paid varies from job to job, but using a professional invoicing template and organized tracking system via Google Drive will help you get paid quickly and accurately. And the best part is that you can save all of your invoices for each client in a Google Drive folder nestled within each project for seamless bookkeeping if you ever need to reference an old account.
How to Work Remotely
I’ve worked remotely as a freelance writer for the better part of the last ten years. And while software and apps have evolved over time, the basic rules of remote work have remained shockingly similar.
Find a platform that works for you and commit to it. Keep everything in one place to track projects, messages, edits, updates, and invoicing and you’ll save yourself a lot of time, energy, and headache.
If you have a remote working platform or a hack for the software I mentioned, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. It always pays to keep learning.