The best business programs for the rest of 2021—and beyond

With working at home now the norm for so many, employees need software that helps them get the most from our new remote offices. These apps and software suites should do the trick.

You may have hoped that life and work would be back to a pre-pandemic normal by now. But many big businesses are giving up on returning to the office this year. As I write this, Amazon, BlackRock, and Wells Fargo are all pushing their return-to-office dates out to sometime in the future. And LinkedIn has thrown in the “back-to-the-office” towel completely. For their employees, full-time remote work is the future.

I’ve thought for a while now that full-time remote work would be the case for many. I wasn’t the only one. The Small Business Administration (SBA) saw this trend coming, too. Besides working from home, it’s also landed on these 2021 trends:

  • Businesses will continue to prioritize e-commerce.
  • Alternative payment options will proliferate.
  • Businesses that offer virtual services will continue to be in high demand.

The SBA called those right. But what it didn’t do was recommend software that would help you make the most of these changes. Here’s my list.

Now, this is in no way comprehensive. But no matter what your business, you’ll find all these programs worth considering as you move on in this brave new world of technology and business.

First, if you haven’t moved to a SaaS (software-as-a-service) office suite yet, why not? When your staff is scattered hither and yon, would you rather deliver tech support one-on-one from a distance or just use a cloud-based office program such as Google Workspace or Microsoft 365? I know which way I’d go.

If you’d rather not put all your IT eggs in one of the big cloud services, there are some worthwhile smaller SaaS office services, such as Zoho Office Suite or the open-source LibreOffice Online. If you’d rather not support the latter yourself, Collabora can help you run it on your own servers or via one of its many cloud partners, such as NextCloud.

Every workforce needs a way to communicate. For my money, you still can’t beat email. Unlike most people, I’m not—to say the least—a fan of Exchange/Outlook. I can’t count all the ways Exchange/Outlook has gone wrong over the years. My personal pick is to run my own email server, Exim on Linux, but then I’m both a Linux expert and a former NASA email administrator. For me, this is easy. For others, probably not.

If you want to run your own server, but you don’t have someone like me on staff, look into ready-to-setup, open-source email packages such as iRedMail, Mail-in-a-Box, and Modoboa. Or, if you want an email system that works and filters out more spam than most, there are both individual Gmail accounts and Google Workspace Gmail.

To make the most of email, email lists are invaluable. There are many programs to help you with this. I’ve run the open-source Mailman for decades, though lately, I’ve switched to Groups.io. It offers far more features, and it’s easier for both users and admins to handle.

Finally, if you want a mail-blaster to reach your customers, you can’t beat Mailchimp. Besides sending out dozens to hundreds of thousands of email messages, Mailchimp now comes with turnkey e-commerce functionality and simple customer relationship management (CRM).

If you need videoconferencing in the mix, Zoom is the best of the bunch. For instant messaging (IM) and group conversations, I recommend Slack. And if you want to combine both functions into one easy-to-use platform, give Flock a try. This collaboration platform includes videoconferencing, file sharing, project management, and IM. It also interoperates easily with other platforms, such as Box, GitHub, Google Calendar, Trello, Twitter, and MailChimp.

I’ve been using videoconferencing and IM for far longer than most of you, so let me give you a word of warning. Right now, my recommendations happen to also be the “hot” programs. They won't always be. Videoconferencing and IM programs come and go—which is why I always recommend email for any serious business work.

Scheduling meetings always seems to be a pain. If you’re sick of yakking about when we can next meet as everyone shuffles through their calendars, give Calendly a try. You can set your availability preferences and then share a meeting link via email, Slack, or another web service. Your customers, employees, and partners can work around your time preferences, and once everyone’s agreed—pop!—the event is automatically added to everyone’s calendar.

So, you’ve had the meetings, you’ve done the follow-up, now you’re ready to sign an agreement. Once upon a time, you’d meet face to face. But that’s not happening much these days. The answer? DocuSign. It offers easy-to-sign electronic signatures, contract lifecycle management, document generation, and even some negotiation tools. It also integrates with other business programs such as Slack. I’ve been using it a lot in recent months to deal with real estate contracts. It works smoothly and well.

Last, but not least, a corporate cloud-based storage service has always come in handy. There are many good ones, and I’ve used essentially all of them. For businesses, I recommend iDrive, not to be confused with Apple’s mediocre iCloud (perhaps Apple’s worst offering); Box, which combines document and workflow management with cloud storage; and Nextcloud, if you want a do-it-yourself, open-source approach. Of course, if you’re a Google or Microsoft user, you can just stick with Google Drive or OneDrive respectively.

Find the combination of programs that work best for you, and you’ll have a software suite that will keep you in business whether your employees remain working from home or someday return to the office.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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