The Best Alternative Work Tools for Stuff You Do with Email

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Email has been declared “dead” so many times, and then just like Lazarus, it has risen from the dead.

Google is partly responsible for making email relevant with Gmail, and the powerful email features offered there. Yahoo has been given a makeover, and Outlook has got Skype integration among other changes. The National Security Agency snooping around our privates has prompted one Swiss-based company to offer iron-clad encrypted email, with the servers inside a mountain.

If you are still not an email fan (such as these four prominent people), then there are many email functions which you can farm out to other apps. The benefit of keeping it all in email is that it is centralized all in one place, but this can lead to a bloated over-flowing inbox which will most certainly increase your stress levels.

Email is stressful even if you aren’t in pursuit of inbox zero.

If you really must kill the email to streamline your life, there are ways to keep those work processes flowing smoothly, without barely a hiccup. You may have to pay a few dollars every month, but you might consider that a bargain for the sake of your sanity.

Real-Time Discussion

discussion

In the past, you could have a conversation with someone by simply emailing back and forth, with Gmail’s “Conversation View” keeping it all in order. But a huge amount of alternatives have presented themselves.

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The first one worth mentioning is social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. With Twitter, live-tweeting is extremely popular, and Facebook enables us to have a back-and-forth discussion or debate (which can be good or bad, depending on your point of view).

Then, there are the instant messaging possibilities such as Jabber and Google Talk (the latter is still in operation, if you log into your account with either Pidgin or Adium). There are less popular IM alternatives such as AIM Messenger and Yahoo Messenger.

Believe it or not, ICQ is still around if any of you old-schoolers want a bit of Internet nostalgia.

VOIP is easy today with Skype, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, iMessage (for Mac & iOS only), Appear.in, and its encrypted relations, Telegram and Signal.

Having tried them all out, I personally recommend using Skype, Signal, and WhatsApp (for those who refuse to use an encrypted option, the “I have nothing to hide!” crowd, such as my wife).

quip

There are three good options for workplace productivity — Slack, Quip, and Convo.

The benefits of Slack needs no introduction. Quip and Convo are similar in function. It pulls all the members of a team into one place where you can chat in real time, view files, view and update task lists, and Convo even throws in annotating documents. These options have decent free options for small teams, with pricing kicking in as your team and your needs get bigger.

Project Collaboration

Project collaboration is something which, when done right, can lead to many positive advantages. Google Docs introduced the gold standard with online collaboration when it bought out Writely back in 2006. Since then, it has proved invaluable to teams looking to work simultaneously on a document in real-time, and Google Sheets adds even more value.

But as with all things Internet, rivals have now appeared to take some of the edge off Google Docs’ luster.

dropboxpaper

The biggest alternative has to be Office.com, although if you are not much of a Microsoft fan, you may not be too thrilled to use this one. In that case, you may be interested in Dropbox Paper, which is something I have been extensively trying out lately. Obviously everything you do in the document is backed up to your Dropbox account.

zohodocuments

If those don’t appeal, there are two other options. The first one is Zoho, which is free for up to 25 users. After that, it’s only $5 per user per month, so Zoho is a very cost-effective solution for small businesses. The interface closely mirrors that of Google Docs and Microsoft Office, and is very easy to use (see above).

piratepad

If you like life to be simple, and therefore would like a simpler solution, then check out PiratePad.  Everytime you refresh the domain, a new unique URL is made, which makes it easy to share the page with other people. This is the one I used to test the app.

You can invite people to participate in the document. If you want anyone to view the document without being able to edit it, you can press the “read only” button to get a slightly different link. Anyone with the “read-only” link can download the document in HTML, plain text, Microsoft Word, or PDF format.

Meeting Scheduling

One of the biggest uses of business email is scheduling meetings. Anyone who has ever tried to schedule a meeting will know this feeling all too well. The whole “back-and-forth” Dilbert-like farce. You’re trying to arrange a business meeting for say five people and it takes about a dozen or more emails spread over several days, from everyone saying “I can make this time” and “I can’t make that time”.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the meeting was about workplace time management and productivity?

scheduleonce

The non-email equivalent which has been used here at MakeUseOf is the excellent ScheduleOnce. It plugs into your Google Calendar and once everyone has entered all the times they are available, the site combines them all to find a time slot suitable for everyone.

dozz

You are almost spoilt for choice when it comes to other possibilities. Some of them include Dozz, WhenisGood, NeedtoMeet, and Timebridge. What makes them stand out from the paid ScheduleOnce is that they are either free or have a really great free option.

timebridge

The one that caught my eye the most is NeedToMeet. They have an impressive list of features for free, including Outlook integration and mobile apps. On the other hand, if very small meetings is your thing, then WhenIsGood breaks down the time periods into 15 minute increments.

Contact Management

The days of paper address books seems to be almost gone, as most of us now use online equivalents. As something which used to be securely wedded to an email address, you can now farm out this task to other apps.

plaxo

Plaxo is well-recommended Google Contacts alternative. It has a fairly decent free basic plan. Backups of your contact book are made in the cloud where you can consolidate address books from several different services into one “universal” address book. If any of your contacts are also with Plaxo, you will be notified of any updates to their contact details.

fullcontact

Rivals include Memotoo, which suffers a little bit due to its rather disappointing free plan, and inactive free accounts being deleted after 30 days. Fruux is marketed towards businesses. A Fruux alternative you might want to look at is FullContact, which is also aimed at teams and larger businesses.

Send Files & Other Attachments

File sending services are a dime a dozen and have been going on since the beginning of Internet time. File transfers by email are still subject to very strict limits, so if you have written a clunker of a novel and you want to send it to your mom for feedback, you can’t send it by conventional email.

dropboxshare

If the file is only slightly over the email limit (generally 25MB), then you can just use a service such as Skype to send it. But if it is bigger, then cloud storage is probably your best bet. The size of your file will determine if you will need to pay for extra cloud storage, but Google Drive and OneDrive (upto 10 GB) are very generous with their free plans. Dropbox on the other hand only gives you an initial paltry 3GB — which may also be sufficient for most cases.

Or if you have your own domain, upload the file via FTP to your domain in a password-protected Zip or RAR file. The other party can download it from your domain at their end.

Sending Sensitive Information

Sending sensitive information, such as passwords and credit card details, via email is by and large a very bad idea. It is much better sending it via some other means such as SMS message, or go old-school and phone the person up!

But there are now some “self-destructing” email services which will send your message for you securely, and also impose a time limit of 60 seconds for the recipient to read your message before it disappears. My favorite is SnapMail which can be integrated into Gmail with the use of a Chrome extension.

snapmail

Another Gmail-integrated option is Dmail which has earned some rave reviews. I have tried it and found it very impressive. Dmail has a toggle on/off switch and you can specify when you want the message destroyed. However you only have three options, with no way to customize the time period. So in that regard, it is a bit limited.

dmail

To find other alternatives, you can simply Google “self-destructing email” to get more possibilities.

Sharing & Collecting Information

Email has traditionally been used to collect information from a certain group of people. For example, a school may email parents about an upcoming class trip. An online store may want to email their customers to ask them about their shopping experience. Or a startup may want to collect feedback on a new product.

This can now all be done by third-party apps and save inboxes from being assaulted by a barrage of emails. The big name in this area is naturally Google Forms, which is very robust, very customizable, and is used by a large array of companies (including MakeUseOf).

Google-forms4

My personal favorite is Typeform which I have used in the past on my website for new clients. Two similar options are Responster and Survey Monkey. The latter doesn’t have a totally great free plan, but Typeform and Responster do.

Store Reference Material

When I got my Gmail account for the first time in 2004, I started using the huge amount of space to store copies of all my reference material, images, MP3’s and more. I used Gmail as a database and all I had to do to find something was to use Gmail’s search function.

Now in 2016, my email account is almost empty. As my Gmail space dwindled, I moved everything into Evernote and paid for a premium subscription to get the advanced features. I am a die-hard fan of the note-taking service and highly recommend it.

If you are a Microsoft fan instead, then OneNote will be your app of choice.

evernote

Some other options include Google KeepDelicious, and Apple Notes. Ultimately, your decision will depend on your note-taking habits.

Google Keep is simple, but I personally wouldn’t use Google Keep since Google has a bad habit of suddenly shuttering services which are not making money for them.

Apple Notes is useful but it is restricted to iOS and Mac OS X users, and although it received a major upgrade recently, it is still a bit too simplistic for my needs. But your needs may very well be different and you may see these services as more than sufficient.

Delicious is a social tool and may be an option for storing web URLs. The site has faded a great deal since its early glory days, but it is still a solid app.

When you don’t want to pay for a third-party service, and you are already paying for your own domain, you may instead be interested in the idea of installing your own wiki.

mediawiki

Wikipedia is run on the free open-source software MediaWiki, and if you lack the technical chops to install it yourself, many web hosts offer an automated installation. You just have to remember that as your database gets bigger, your monthly hosting costs are going to rise.

Telling Your Long Distance Loved One You Love Them

ldrelations

I met my wife purely by chance online back in 2001. But back then, there was no Skype, no Google Hangouts, no WhatsApp, no Facebook (or as it is better known, the Dark Ages). So we were left with ordinary SMS (expensive), ordinary landline phone (even more expensive), and instant messaging (much better, and cheap from an Internet cafe). But what we had all the time was email, and my email love letters and love poems are legendary.

Roses Are Red
Violets Are Blue
Get In The Kitchen
And Bake Me Some Pie

But now you have so many other possibilities that email seems almost antiquated by comparison. As I just mentioned, there are many VOIP possibilities, texting via a data plan, and social media. Skype is being used for couples to cook together, and even sleep together (literally sleep, not the other thing). WhatsApp takes the sting out of SMS costs, and the Internet makes it much easier to find the best travel deals so you can go to see the love of your life in person.

But Does All This Mean The End Of Email?

nojunkmail

So many apps and sites promise they are the email killer. But if they are a killer then they are not a very good one, since email is still breathing. Email is the bedrock of the Internet and I think it will always be around in some form or another.

Saying that though, some of its functions are being usurped by third-party apps and services. No longer are you chained to your inbox. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Do you agree on the health of email? Have you managed to shift your workflow to any alternative work tools? Let us know in the comments.

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