Suddenly working from home for the first time can be daunting. But it’s so worth it if you can find a way to work that suits your style and maintains (or improves upon) your normal levels of productivity. Everyone recommends Zoom, Trello and Slack for this kind of thing and while those tools can be helpful in certain circumstances, they’re pretty average in terms of productivity-boosting power (and Slack’s often just a way to waste time around a virtual water cooler).
So if you want to know what tools really boost productivity when you’re working from home, here’s the scoop from someone who’s happily worked from home for years. (With little ones underfoot too, so I know how precious every second of uninterrupted time is.)
And if you’re a student studying from home, the makers of some of these tools offer student discounts, which make them even more affordable.
You can learn about these tools by listening to the audio for this blog post (below) or you can keep reading.
- Plutio for work-from-home project management and business admin
- Spark for efficient email management
- Ulysses for distraction-free writing
- Procreate for affordable yet professional imagery
- Otter for automatic meeting notes
Plutio for work-from-home project management and business admin
Plutio is one of my hands-down favourite productivity tools. It’s got so many handy features, is being constantly improved all the time, and it works for so many people, businesses and situations. If you’re working from home, or studying remotely, this is my number one recommendation.
Let’s say you’ve got a big project to complete that’s full of lots of moving parts and requires input from several team members and other stakeholders. Plutio allows you to create workspaces for every project you’re involved in. In the Project Overview, you can provide as much information as you want about the project, such as the goals, project brief etc.
Each project also has a Trello-style task tab (which is more powerful than Trello) where you can create as many boards and board groups as you need. You can colour-code them and label them and move tasks between them at will. You can create sub-tasks and see how much of the project is complete on the main page. You can add notes, links, documents and even send messages about specific tasks all from the one interface. You can delegate tasks to people, set reminders, add people to ‘watch’ progress so they can see what’s happening without having to contribute.
Need to know how long people are spending on specific parts of a project? No problem. Plutio has a great time tracker. You can do generic time tracking or you can track the time you spend doing specific tasks. And the timesheets can be filtered and exported to eliminate paper sign-in sheets.
And speaking of delegating work and inviting people to ‘watch’ progress — Plutio lets you invite as many clients (stakeholders) as you want for free. That makes it useful as a CRM tool (customer relationship management tool) There’re different pricing tiers depending on whether you’re purchasing it for your own productivity or whether you’re convincing your whole team to get on board and the tiers have different limits for the number of contributors you can invite.
Now, Plutio is designed for freelancers and small businesses. But all the features I’ve mentioned so far are great for students as well. If you’ve got a research assignment, create a project for it and use the task area to break down the project into little pieces and plan it out so you’re not working on it at 2 am the day it’s due. And if you’ve got a group project, invite your fellow students as clients and this app will keep you all organised for no extra cost.
As a student, the next few features may be less relevant, but you may find them useful if you’re doing work experience, an internship or if you score yourself a part-time freelance gig while you’re studying.
If you need to create proposals, invoices and receipts, Plutio produces professional documents in all these categories. And better yet, it’ll even tell you when someone has opened a proposal or invoice (or paid an invoice) so you know they’ve been seen. And payment methods are fully integrated for no extra charge!
You can save so much time by creating templates for everything you do in Plutio. And you can link your calendar with Plutio so reminders, appointments and tasks etc. never get forgotten.
Want to share your work-from-home policies and procedures with your team? Want to create a knowledge base for customers and clients? Want to build a repository of some other knowledge? You can do all this and more with a built-in wiki.
The Plutio team is also working on building forms functionality into the platform so you can collect customer data, more efficiently complete onboarding processes and so much more. I’m really excited about that feature.
I haven’t done this yet, but if you buy the upgrade, you can personalise your email address (for notifications etc.). They also have a widget that you can add to your website to add live chat functionality (I think that’s available for all users, even if you haven’t purchased the upgrade).
I’ve been using Plutio every day for over a year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Price: Plutio is an absolute bargain at $15-30 a month depending on your needs.
Spark for efficient email management when you’re working from home
I know plenty of people advocate for removing email entirely, but there are lots of circumstances where email is still necessary. Now Plutio does include email within their white-labelling program (which is available for an additional fee) but I use another program for emails because it offers additional functionality that I adore — and I know you will too if you’ve suddenly found yourself working from home.
So, I use Spark, which is completely free for individuals and small teams (though it’s only available on IOS and Android). It works really well on tablets and phones and is awesome for productivity.
The base feature of this application is that it sort emails from any number of profiles into smart inboxes — personal emails, notifications, newsletters and pinned emails. This is useful, but certainly not unique.
I love that it allows me to create any number of templates for emails I send regularly. Inside the templates, I can specify placeholders that have to be filled (or deleted) before the email can be sent. So no more awful ‘Dear [Customer]’ emails. Plus it has customisable quick replies so you can send short replies (I understand. Consider it done!) with a single click. Talk about efficient!
I can also schedule emails to be sent in the future and set follow-up reminders. The latter is so awesome. When I read an email and realise I need to reply to it but that it’s going to take me longer than the time I have available at that time, instead of marking the email as unread and risking it being overrun but new arrivals before I can respond to it, I set a follow-up reminder. This effectively hides the email from my inbox and then makes it pop up again right at the top at the time I specified in the reminder. This is such a game-changer.
There is an integrated calendar which allows me to do all the normal stuff but also allows me to add online call details directly through the app. If you’re frequently conducting virtual meetings with your team, you will love that feature!
Spark also allows collaboration, something many teams find super useful. Need to draft an email that your boss wants to approve prior to you sending it? No problem. Draft the email in Spark, share it and your boss will be able to review the actual draft — no more emailing back and forth until it’s right (or worse printing each version).
And have you ever been in that awkward situation where someone thinks they’re forwarding an email to a colleague in order to make a disparaging comment, but they hit reply instead? Or someone forwards an email and unwittingly forwards a string of internal emails at the same time? Spark’s team collaboration features stop all that (and reduce the number of emails clogging your inbox at the same time) with internal comments.
I also love the smart folders feature. Just create a smart folder, set some parameters and sit back and watch as emails automatically sort themselves into their appropriate folder. What’s not to love?
If you’re still using email and still using Apple mail, the Gmail app or some other similar app, try Spark instead.
Price: Free for up to two collaborators or $6.39 per month for bigger teams
Ulysses for distraction-free writing when you’re working from home
I once worked with someone who spent 4 hours setting up the style for a word document — for a simple report! If you ever get distracted by formatting and styles, Ulysses is for you.
Ulysses is another app I use every single day, whether I’m writing from home or on the go. In fact, I write every piece of text I create, from emails to social media posts to novels, using Ulysses. The only issue I have with it is that it’s only available on Mac 😢 so if I ever decide to move away from Apple tablets, I’ll be devastated to lose this app.
This program offers a great distraction-free writing experience. You just write. If you want a heading, you add the appropriate number of #s before the text. (Ulysses uses Markdown but don’t be put off by that, it’s super easy to learn and use and there are even buttons that mean you don’t actually have to remember the Markdown characters.) If you want something to be bold, you use **, and if you want something to be in italics, you use _.
If you only want to see the line you’re writing, there’s a setting for that. If you want to set writing goals, there’s a setting for that. You can add keywords that make it easier to search for files, and it has a simple but powerful filing structure.
One of my favourite things about Ulysses is that it allows me to publish posts to my WordPress-powered blog directly from Ulysses. I also love the attachments tab, which allows me to add research notes and instructions. There are also some really nifty tricks for adding in-app preview text and doing other things that really help with productivity.
Now, some of you are probably wondering what documents look like when they come out of Ulysses if it uses such basic formatting. Well, there’s no need to worry. There are lots of built-in export styles that look fantastic. You can also download user-created ones or make your own if you have a desktop Mac (or Mac laptop).
There’s not yet an easy way to do this on an iPad, but the super-helpful support team helped me find a workaround because I don’t own or have access to a Mac. It’s pretty easy to do if you’re familiar with CSS and HTML.
I’ve created templates for client work, templates for book publishing and even a special template for the course I’m currently taking that includes my student number in the footer. Everything works exactly the way I want it to and looks fantastic without me having to worry about anything except the headings. And I can create as many documents as I want with the same template and know everything will be consistent even if I copy and paste text between documents with different formatting.
I normally cringe at subscription software even though I totally understand the benefits and reasons for it (I was lucky enough to get a lifetime deal for Plutio), but even feeling that way, I can unreservedly say, if you write text, you should definitely check out Ulysses. This app is worth every single cent, and the team keeps adding lots of value to the product so you know your subscription is worthwhile.
Price: $33.99 per year
Procreate for affordable yet professional imagery
If you create social media graphics, illustrations or pretty much any other kind of imagery, Procreate is a truly superb tool. It’s designed for creating amazing digital art, but they recently introduced nice text tools that make it perfect for social media imagery.
I used to use Adobe Spark Post for social media graphics, but the lack of brand settings on the free version made it far from efficient and the value provided by that feature wasn’t worth the monthly cost. Then I tried RelayThat, and I really wanted to like it. But it’s not designed for mobile devices and it’s so incredibly slow that it quickly becomes unusable even on my iPad Pro. It’s even slow on my desktop sometimes…
I’d been using Procreate for a while for art, and when the team introduced text capabilities, I quickly replaced Spark Post and RelayThat and I must say I’m loving it. There are layers, the ability to add any font to you want, lots of paintbrushes, a colour picker tool and more. The only thing it’s missing is advanced alignment features (like snap to centre or snap to align with other elements) but it has an awesome adjustable reference grid that still enables accurate alignment — it’s just not automatic.
Another really cool thing about Procreate is the GIF feature. You can create really nice GIFs in almost no time. And it now has animation tools. I haven’t used Animate Assist yet, but the animated work I’ve seen coming out of the Procreate community is amazing.
And one more thing — Procreate Pocket is a fully-fledged artistic app for mobile phones. If you need to create images on something smaller than a tablet, this is the app for you.
Procreate is not a photo editing app, so it’s not going replace Lightroom or other photo editing software, but you can do some really funky stuff with photos in Procreate if you want to.
If you need images for work (or school), put Procreate on your list of apps to investigate.
Price: $14.99 (no subscription)
Otter for automatic meeting, lecture and interview notes when you’re studying remotely or working from home
Working from home means lots of videoconferences and teleconferences. If you want to really focus on listening to and responding to the people you’re videoconferencing or teleconferencing with, writing or typing notes just gets in the way. Sure, you can record the conversation (with permission of course) but then you have to listen to the audio and write notes later and that just wastes precious time.
That’s where Otter comes in. It’s an AI-powered transcription app that takes audio input and spits out written transcripts, complete with automatically labelled speakers and time-stamps. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s fine for meeting notes, lecture notes and interview notes — if you need an exact quote, you just find the relevant transcribed area, check the time-stamp and fast forward through the audio file till you get to that point then manually fix any transcription errors.
There’s a Zoom integration that enables you to automatically sync and transcribe Zoom Cloud recordings even if you’re on the Otter free tier. If you’re on the premium tier, you can also sync files from Dropbox. Both are super useful for those of us working from home.
While Otter isn’t free, it does come with 600 minutes of free transcription every month, which is a great help for heavy users and can make it free for light users.
So if you’re sick of manually taking notes, definitely take a look at Otter.
Price: The first 600 minutes each month are free and then it’s $8.33 per month for the premium tier or $12.50 per user per month for the team tier.
Have your say
In this roundup, I’ve deliberately avoided recommending Google Drive/Docs, Zoom, Asana and other popular tools which every man and his dog are already recommending because you can find that advice pretty much anywhere. Instead, I hope you learned about some new tools that might just be a perfect fit for your new work-from-home needs.
Are their other lesser-known tools out there that you’re finding really handy when working from home? Jot them down in the comments so others can benefit from your experience — it’s also a great way to support the businesses that create these tools and are providing us with so much value during this difficult time.
If you need some tips on gadgets to go with your new software, I like this list of work-from-home accessories.
And if you’re after support for your Australian small business, check out this summary of the financial (and other) support available.
You might be wondering whether I got paid to write this post or recommend these tools. The short answer is ‘no’. The slightly longer answer is: I haven’t been paid to write this post. I genuinely want to help you be more productive and comfortable when working from home. And I haven’t been paid to advertise or recommend these solutions. I use every one of these tools in my business, many of them every day, and I love every single one. Having said that, the link to Plutio is an affiliate link. That means if you click on that link and then decide to purchase a subscription to the tool, I’ll earn a small commission. It won’t cost you any more than if you were to purchase through a non-affiliate link. I would still wholeheartedly recommend the software even if I didn’t have an affiliate link. But I figured, since I’m recommending it, I may as well include a link that gives me the option of earning a little bit of pocket money 😉.
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