Applications to run your business when you’re working out of the office
Over the years I’ve posted lists of useful software tools to run your office that’s either free or low cost to use. With the new normal of the COVID-19 world, where everyone is currently dealing with having to work at home, I thought it was a good time to update things. So, I present to you a list of software that you can download and use on your computers at home. Many of the applications I will be listing are fine for running on lower power equipment like the older or cheaper laptops which don’t have the memory or speed to run the big name applications. The goal is to give you everything you need to run an office away from your office. The options we’ve listed here will be available for Windows based machines, and many of them have Mac and Linux versions too. ChromeBook users are limited to online options alone. We will already assume you have a browser, email, and security software programs of choice so we will skip those. We will also skip options that require the more advanced setups that are best left to professional IT personnel to install.
When you have to write a letter, calculate some numbers, create a presentation, or access a database. The day to day tools needed to run a business:
- Microsoft Office – Most people think of the older cd sets or the 365 version that you pay a monthly licence rental for when you say MS Office. You might not be aware that they have a free online version you just sign up for and can use. It is much more limited than the full paid version, and if you don’t have a reliable internet connection it won’t work properly. But for a no cost option that uses the same files as what you use at work, it’s hard to pass up.
- Google Office – This is the application suite that made Microsoft change business models and offer the free version I listed above. It’s nowhere as powerful as even the free Microsoft version, but if you already have a google account for gmail, youtube, or gdrive, then you have access to Google Office too. Personally speaking, I find Googles offering a bit clunky if your connection speed is slower, it still works and can read and write to Microsoft Office files too. And it does offer an offline mode but that is quite restricted.
- LibreOffice / OpenOffice – If you rather have an office suite you can use offline that is 100% compatible with MS Office and a lot of other file formats, then you can’t go wrong with LibreOffice or OpenOffice. While some of the settings will feel strange compared to MS Office, and some of the part’s aren’t as feature rich, for 99% of the work most people do, it’s no different. Why are there two versions listed, because they are different ‘forks’ (iterations) of the same base project. I personally prefer LibreOffice but both work equally well. Again, they are free to download and use but support the project by a donation if you can.
With social distancing, working from home, or reaching out to customers, you need tools to talk to them when a phone call won’t work.
- Skype – If you have a windows computer, then you have Skype installed. You can instant message, send SMS messages, voice chat, video conferencing and screen sharing. If you want to make calls to people’s phones you can buy credits, just like a mobile plan. It is also available in apps for mobile phones.
- Google Chat / Meet – Like Google Office, if you have a Google account you have access to these two tools for free. Chat is for im messaging while the separate Meet is their video conferencing application. Not as developed as the other programs listed here, but since they are cloud based there’s no software needed to be installed and their mobile phone app versions as well.
- Zoom – You would have seen this product in the news recently, and some of the ‘issues’ it has had too. Like all tools you have to look at all the settings before you use them to avoid problems (using the waiting room and host permission should always be on). It does work, it’s free, we have used it for several years with little problem. The paid version gives you a lot more features and there is an app for phone use.
- Discord / Twitch – Yes, these game streaming systems have a place in business operations. When you just want to broadcast to several people but not need that much in the way of feedback, it could be better to use these than a conferencing system. They also require accounts to have access to them, allowing you to set up private streams and let the streamer block or ban any unwanted visitors.
- Franz / Pidgin – There are a lot of different general instant messaging applications out there, each designed with different roles in mind. If you want to manage them all under one master system, then look to Franz or Pidgin IM management systems. They let you combine all your different messenger accounts into one master program, letting you switch seamlessly between them all. Between the two Franz is the more user friendly while Pidgin supports a lot more of the obscure ones. If you do use either of them, remember that they always lag behind in feature support of the IM system so you might still have to use the relative IM application if you need a feature for your business.
Graphics / Design Tools
From pretty pictures, instructional diagrams, to making flyers; tools for going beyond what Office Suites can do.
- Paint.Net – If you need something more powerful than the paint programs found in the operating system, Paint.Net fits the bill. Not as powerful or complex as the advanced applications out there, it’s still able to handle the majority of general office needs for people. It’s built from the ground up to be used by people who have no real experience in using these types of programs and it doesn’t get in the way of those more experienced users.
- GIMP / Krita – The next level above Paint.Net. These tools are extremely powerful and can be very confusing if you aren’t used to such software. GIMP is an old-style tool with a bit more technically orientated focus, while Krita is designed around an artist’s natural media feel. They both support a huge range of options, plug-in modules, and expansions.
- Inkscape / Scribus – If you need a design or desktop publishing tools, then these two are the ones to look at. Inkscape is a drawing program created as an open source (free) alternative to Adobe illustrator. Scribus is a powerful desktop publishing tool which is a match to Adobe’s inDesign but does have a bit of a learning curve to it. We list these for people who need these sorts of tools but don’t want to have to sign up for a subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite.
Remote Access Tools
Sometimes you need to access your office computer, or a client’s computer and you can’t do it in person. These are the tools to let you do it. Other times you want a proper connection to all the systems on your office network.
- Quick Assist / Chrome Remote Desktop – Quick Assist is built into windows (in Windows Accessories folder.) This too allows you to take control of another person’s desktop and use it as if it were your own. It does require both machines to be using Windows 10, and that the remote computer lets you access it. The Chrome Remote Desktop works with any operating system, but you do need to have a google account and google chrome installed to use it.
- Team Viewer – both as a free and paid version. The software gives you complete access to all parts of the remote machine as if you were there in person. You do need to install the software in both machines but it remains ‘active’ so you can reboot computers and restore the connection with just a few clicks.
- RealVNC / TightVNC – VNC (Virtual Network Connection) applications are software that makes a connection between your computer and your office network appear if you’re wired in together, not operating over the internet. It takes a bit of work set things up but it’s worth it if you are working in a situation where you will be outside the office most of the time.
- Parsec – This software created for the gaming market sits on the line between the line of remote access and VNC software. Once installed on each computer, one becomes the host and is accessible to as many guests as wanted and will persist between reboots. You need free accounts on each machine to use it but once installed it’s another alternative way of maintaining a remote connection.
Other useful things to keep everything organised and secure while you’re away from your office.
- LastPass / 1Password / KeePass / Bitwarden – In case your browser or security suite doesn’t offer an integrated encrypted shared password manager, any of these three will do the trick. Truly secure passwords, one master password to remember and integrated into your browser and mobile phone so all your hardware has the same up to date passwords. A vital tool for online / remote working in this day and age.
- Trello / Wekan – Essentially an online post-it-note task board. They allow you to have private and public boards where you can post notes containing information, organize it into different categories, keep track when things have been updated, and a lot of other things needed to keep track of changes of projects for everyone. Especially useful if you must split tasks between different people who aren’t in instant reach of each other
- Onedrive / Gdrive / Dropbox – Online storage. If you use Windows and/or MS Office you have an Onedrive account, google accounts have Gdrive storage, and you can sign up for storage Dropbox. They all have small app on your computer/phone and you can just use it to store files accessible across many different machines, or send links to other people to be able to look at / download or even edit files. All three have limited storage for free accounts, and you can upgrade it for an annual or monthly fee, as well as getting pro versions that allow more control and group access to files.
- Ninite / Patch My Pc – These are useful tools for keeping a lot of the software we’ve listed up to date. With Ninite just head over to the website and click a few checkboxes to have it create a small application that you download. For Patch My Pc you download a program that will scan your system to see what needs updating. These applications when run will automatically check all the software you’ve chosen to see if there’s a newer version and if so, download it and install it. It’s the sort of thing you can run once a week during a tea break so that way you’re got the latest bug fixes and security patches.
- Have I Been Pwned – This website allows you to enter in email addresses against various websites and check to see if it and the matching password has been leaked? You can save your email addresses on the site and it will let you know if a password for that email address has been leaked as new ones come to hand. This combined with a secure password from a password manager should minimise risks of having to work remotely.
Is this the be all and end all of tools you need to work from home? No, far from it, but it’s the key ones that will take care of most people’s needs. Do these applications work for remote work? Yes, they do. We ourselves have been doing remote / working from home for years and found it no different to working in our office. As time goes on we will update or expand this list as we find more tools to expand the range of options you can choose from.