This blog post will not attempt to tell you what online project management is. Honestly, we don't believe there is a one-size-fits-all definition out there, and we don't believe any two project managers do it in exactly the same way.
You may have come across other apps that try to define it for you, i.e. try to force you into managing projects their way. The question is, will your projects fit within their mold every time?
Many of these apps started out simple: a task list tool, a group chat app, a file sharing service. After some success, they suddenly found themselves asking "ok, now what?" In trying to grow, nearly every one of them made the same mistake. They tried stacking more and more features on top of a very narrow and focused foundation. This becomes a problem for you when your project management needs don't fit within the narrow path they've laid out for you.
This blog post will tell you what online project management software needs. Hopefully, the awards we've earned for our approach to project management software will help convince you that we take this stuff seriously.
1. A flexible foundation
The most important requirement of any online project management software is flexibility. It needs to support shifting sets of requirements for each project you manage, like this:
- It should be easy to set up and manage projects that are simple or complex, unique or routine.
- It should be easy to understand and use for teams big and small, contributors new, veteran, internal, and external.
- It should have tools such as assignable tasks that are easy to access when you need them, but not in your way when you don't.
- It needs to allow multiple team members to co-develop project assets at the same time, even when the team is spread around the globe.
- It needs to allow for efficient communication with groups or individuals without creating unnecessary notifications or distractions.
- It needs to be available 24 hours a day, from any device.
2. Communication, communication, communication
This one seems obvious, but a surprising number of popular platforms seem to think fancy dashboards are a suitable substitute for strong team communication tools. Wrong. Good team communication is your ultimate dashboard:
- One-on-one chat: you need the ability to connect with any particular team member quickly.
- Team chat: we don't mean drafting an email and remembering to CC all the right people. We mean posting an update in a team space and knowing all the right people are getting notified immediately.
- Project & content chat: Each project you manage should have a dedicated place to chat so conversations can stay organized alongside project content. For larger projects, there must be a way to have chat threads attached to specific assets such as tasks, files, diagrams, or text.
- Team video/audio chat: There's no replacement for face-to-face conversation. When in-depth discussions need to happen quickly, built-in video conferencing is a requirement.
- Visual indicators: The little things can speak volumes and help reduce unnecessary chatter. Simple visual cues like ‘percent complete’ indicators on tasks, out of office icons, or emoji reactions on comments help make the team aware that progress is being made, people are traveling, and updates are getting noticed.
- Triage: First thing in the morning, or upon return from a vacation, you need to tackle the important stuff first. A view of all unread notifications and the projects they're coming from will help you decide what needs your attention now, and what can wait.
3. Task Lists & Shared Calendars
The question isn't whether or not tasks and calendars are needed. The question is where are they located. Are they in a separate app from your files or conversations? We hope not. Hopping between apps means losing your train of thought and getting less work done. Make sure these task management features are part of your all-inclusive project management tool:
- Assignees and participants: it's not always necessary, but tasks often need to be assigned to a person who's ultimately responsible for getting the job done. That person may also have supporting participants who should be added to the task as well.
- Workload views: experienced project managers always look at a co-worker's existing workload before assigning more tasks. You'll need a way to easily see what open tasks are currently assigned to any given teammate.
- Due dates and reminders: tasks often have deadlines. Your platform needs to remind you of approaching deadlines before it's too late.
- Recurrence: perfect for those who love routine, but also a time saver for project managers who want regularly scheduled updates, report submissions, etc.
- Sub-tasks: a great way to group a series of related tasks together under a single master task.
- Status Indicators: although checking a box is the most satisfying click to make, project managers usually want to see progress along the way. "Percent complete" indicators save them from having to ask assignees for updates.
- Shared calendar views: a great visual tool for seeing upcoming task deadlines as well as events like trade shows, promotions, PTO, and beer thirty. It's even better when they're compatible with native calendars on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android platforms.
- Priority: some tasks are more important than others. You need to be able to see a list of all open tasks and sort them by priority.
- Filtering: task masters working with large task lists need the ability to filter the list by status, keyword, etc.
4. File storage and synchronization
Just as with tasks and calendars, project files should be stored as close to the action as possible, not in a separate app. Here are the tools all file-sharing services should offer:
- File previews: you don't want to launch a separate program just to peek at a file's contents. You should be able to preview the file in place.
- Online editing: this is the best way to make sure everyone is working on the most up-to-date version of a file.
- Version history: just in case you need to roll back saved changes to a file, there should be versioned backups available.
- Synchronization: great for those larger files that you'd prefer to access from your own hard drive, but still share changes with the team automatically.
5. Document management and real-time co-editing
Especially with projects that involve a lot of writing, the ability to co-author documents in real time is essential, but it needs the following built-in tools:
- Track changes: project managers often like the ability to see what changes were made to a document and have the option to either approve or reject them.
- History: even with 'track changes' enabled, it's sometimes useful to look back in history to a previous version of the document and be able to revert to it if necessary.
- Rich content: rich text is important, but the ability to add other rich elements to a document such as images, videos, files, diagrams, spreadsheets, surveys, tasks, events, etc. makes documents much more useful.
- Real-time visualization: when a co-worker is typing on a document, you should be able to see it. It's useful when drafting a document together, but it's also useful during meetings when multiple people are taking notes at the same time.
6. Security & reliability
When managing projects online, you need to be sure your data is being transferred amongst the team securely and stored on a reliable '99.9% uptime' platform. You'll also need controls within the platform to help you allow or deny user access to specific content.
- Encryption: all data (including files) needs to be encrypted during transit and at rest using something like an AES-256 cipher.
- Backups: one is not enough. Multiple backups should be created and encrypted every day and stored in a secure location, such as with Amazon's S3 secure storage service.
- Privacy Controls: sensitive content may need strict access control. Your project management platform should provide organizational and privacy tools that let useful information be found easily while sensitive content remains protected or completely hidden except to specific team members.
7. Third-party app integrations
If you really want your project management software to be an online headquarters for the whole team, it'll need to be integration-friendly. The possibilities here are endless, but here are some common examples:
- Emails: automatically bringing a filtered set of emails into your project management tool can help you avoid typical email inbox distractions and pitfalls.
- Website form fills: getting instant notifications about important website activity is critical to sales and customer support. Getting those notifications in a real-time team setting increases the chances that your responses will be well-coordinated and fast.
- CRM activity: important changes to data in SalesForce and other CRMs should prompt a notification in a dedicated space of your primary team collaboration tool, perhaps with a link to the customer record included.
- Social media activity: spending time on social media platforms almost guarantees distraction, but having a bot monitor all social platforms for activity related to your brand and dropping a notification in your collaboration HQ will keep the distraction to a minimum while keeping your response times intact.
- Native calendars: as more of the workforce begins to work remotely, the standard nine-to-five office hours give way to a more variable work schedule. Being able to see your work schedule in the context of your personal schedule on your phone's native calendar is a luxury you won't be able to live without once you've got it.
Why is it so important to have all of this in a single app?
One word. Context. Offering the functions above is challenging, but bringing it all together in such a way as to provide complete context around every project comment, task, event, file, and co-authored document - that is beyond challenging, but delivering it earns the awards we've received above.
The Award-Winning Samepage Structure
If you're not yet familiar with Samepage, here's an overview of its structure from top to bottom.
THE ORGANIZATION: basically, it's a company's account. As a user, you can have access to multiple organizations.
TEAMS: Every organization has at least 1 team (the 'Everyone team'), but the number of teams an organization can have is unlimited. Each team contains members, guests, and their content (conversations, files, tasks, calendars, pages). Each team has its own privacy setting.
TEAM CHAT, FILES, TASKS, & CALENDAR SECTIONS: Each team has their own section to chat, share files, manage tasks, and coordinate calendars.
PAGES: Each team can also have an unlimited number of pages. Pages are living documents that help team members co-author text, store files, assign tasks, draw diagrams, and share other rich project content in real time. Each page also has it's own space for the team to chat about anything on the page.
Three Ways to Manage Projects on Samepage
We put flexibility at the top of the list for a reason, and Samepage is designed to deliver it. We'll explain three popular ways of managing projects on Samepage, but feel free to bend Samepage to your unique project management style.
1. Use teams to organize departments & use pages to manage departmental projects
You'll always have your "Everyone" team for sharing content with the entire organization, but it's quite common to set up a team for each department. For example, a common list of teams might include Accounting, Engineering, Human Resources, Management, Marketing, Sales, Support, etc. Here's an example of a beer brewery's list of teams:
This works well when you frequently have the same groups of people working on new projects together. In this case, pages within each team are often a project's headquarters for task management, coordination, content development, and conversations. Samepage provides a unique ability to attach conversations to any page content, including tasks, files, and text. Learn more about the advantages of threaded conversations on Samepage.
If your projects tend to be routine or share a similar page format, you can turn a page into a project template for future use. When a project is complete, the project page can be locked if necessary, and it will begin sinking lower in the team's list of pages as other pages float to the top with new activity.
2. Create a new team for each project
When everyone in the organization usually participates in each project, or when a project is large and complex, creating a new team for the project may be preferred. Within the team, you can manage separate parts of the project with separate pages, or you can use the team's CHAT, FILES, TASKS, and CALENDARS sections. Even if you add tasks and calendar events to pages, they'll all be visible along with any 'pageless' tasks and events in these sections, making it easy for you to find a convenient style of use for all tools within the team.
When chatting with the team about files in the FILES section, it may be useful to provide links to files you're talking about. Samepage makes this easy. Simply type the @ symbol followed by the first few characters of the file name, and Samepage will suggest it for you. Click the suggestion and a link will be created.
When a project is complete, the team can be archived. This will hide it from your active teams list, but it will still be available if you need to return to it later.
3. Use sub-teams
Sub-teams have the same set of tools as regular teams, but they're grouped under a parent team. For example, a Marketing team may have sub-teams for an Audio/Video team, a graphic design team, and a website team. Sub-teams can also be used to create a unique combination of the two project management styles mentioned above. A department may use a parent team for small projects & day-to-day communication and use sub-teams to run individual projects.
No two projects are exactly the same. No two project managers are exactly the same either. If you're considering an online platform that only helps teams manage projects in one way, do yourself a favor and stop. You might be able to get some or most of your projects to fit the mold, but what about your microprojects, your brainstorming sessions, your PTO calendar? Will you need to use separate apps, or dare we say... email... to get the rest of your work done?
We recommend looking for a platform with flexibility and a strength in team communication. While you're at it, make sure it's both easy and fun to use because you and your team should be living within the app, and making all external updates from other apps and emails flow through it. This will drastically improve your team's ability to stay organized, focused, aware, and most importantly, productive.