The world has gone virtual – we all need to create, communicate and even get paid online. You need to be proficient with the leading free tools to work and collaborate with multiple clients or employers. Explore the essential and free business tools for freelance and online work, top features, and what you need to learn.
What’s the one element that everyone who works remote (or freelance) needs?
As a virtual pro, you need to be proficient in using online tools to work, communicate, collaborate and even get paid. That’s the only way to complete client tasks or work given by your employers. Plus, you keep your own jobs systematized.
Here are the top free business tools for freelance work, Virtual Assistants and remote professionals.
You need to be able to use these in order to work effectively, irrespective of industry or location. To make the most of this list, think through the tasks you need to for your online job and then deep-dive.
Learn how each category helps your work, and what are the features that you should learn. Plus, the top service providers in that category, and what they offer.
Browse each online tool to assess which you are proficient in and where you you can use the ‘What to learn.’
Online Office Suite
Creating documents and/ or spreadsheets and presentations is an almost basic ask for online work. Given that your work is on the cloud (online) makes for an easy access that’s not device dependent. It also makes it seamless to share with multiple people and manage versions.
What to learn:
Create, edit and easily manage multiple versions of your work
Sharing and collaborating online with others
Edit, suggest, view modes for making changes
Formatting, adding media and links
Plus, individual features as given below
You can use Google based tools or Microsoft Online. Both are very similar in features and functions, with Google better for collaborations and Microsoft for editing and formatting features.
Google Docs, Sheets and Slides
They’re free (for individual users) and they are wonderful! And they work with your Gmail account.
The chosen tool for numerous Entrepreneurs, Google Docs and Sheets and Slides let you create, share, edit documents, worksheets and presentations (respectively) easily. Lots of template choices and easy shareability makes them great for collaborations.
Docs is great for bloggers and freelancers or if your work involves creating a lot of text.
- Create proposals, write blog posts and mini posts.
- You can publish the documents online – great for creating eBooks or Guides
- Use the ‘accent friendly’ voice typing features if you are writing a blog or a proposal on the go.
- Tag users in comments (they will get an email alert) if you need someone to action a specific page or passage.
- Use the text styles feature to create H2 & H3 tags in a blog post and then paste it to WordPress.
- Use the document outline feature on the left for headings e.g. for a client Proposal you can mark up text as Introduction, Scope of Work, Portfolio, References, Pricing, Contact.
Choose between the edit or suggest mode when you work with others. Everything is saved as you left it, and you have the option to view revisions.
Sheets are very useful for projects and managing milestones.
In a grid or table form, it allows you to input data and corresponding numbers.
- You can also share data and metrics like comparing engagement rates for social media or monthly increase in email subscribers.
- Use the conditional formatting feature to create user friendly tables – like checkboxes, to change color for specific data (red for values < 0). Or highlight the month that the Instagram subscriber growth was below xy%
How to Link your Google Doc Files with your Google Calendars to set dates and deadlines.
Use Slides to create presentations for different uses
- Pitch decks and proposals
- Reusable templates
- Design video storyboards.
Handy tip: Save different client or project files under different folders for easy access at a glance.
Email and Communication
Yes, everyone can use email, that’s a given. But the key thing is being able to use the more advanced features that help you work efficiently. Plus, you stand out more professionally with clients or employers.
You can use a paid Outlook 365 email or G-Suite email or a free gmail (or hotmail, yahoo). But most email programs offer a chunk of features that can make your work easy. You can add more than 1 email account to your native email app on your computer and smartphone? In fact, since there’s no limit, why not add your personal accounts and work email IDs, all in one convenient app. A native mail app helps you manage all accounts from one place, even on the go.
Always use a separate email account for business to keep things organized.
What to learn:
- Creating and saving custom signatures for outreach
- Customize templates for emails that you frequently send out – that way you need to only change the sender emails. Some examples are prospect outreach, thank you notes, billing reminders.
- Flag different emails so you can search by flag or find them at a glance e.g. action needed with a red, which you can change to green after you respond.
- Adding emails to different folders – create custom folders by clients or by topics.
- Create contact groups or distribution lists – you can do this by client (for all team members).
- Add-ons like Boomerang for custom scheduling, reminders and response tracking
Handy tip: remember to change the subject line in an older email thread when there are updates. E.g. changing the subject from ‘Please complete the Report’ to ‘Status update on the Report’ lets the reader know that you’ve done the work.
Looking for free ways to keep that inbox free of clutter?
Besides Email, there are some other popular communication platforms that you should familiarize yourself with.
It bills itself as an email alternative by promoting inter-team communication via messaging It is popular with small companies and startups, both of which hire freelancers and VAs. You can use the channels for conversations, sharing files and tools. You can even use the Connect option to connect with people at other companies. Plus Message and Video/ Audio calls.
Lots of companies, businesses and solopreneurs use it now for swift, informal communication so it’s a must-have app for your business too. Being a free messaging app, it is especially popular when you have to communicate via phone internationally. Ensure that you have a profile image and alias that works for you professionally.
Calendars and Scheduling
a. Calendar Apps
There are tons of calendar apps available online but Google calendar is generally the most popular!
Create ‘multiple calendars’ on your main app to keep track of the different events for different clients (or departments or tasks). One for appointments, one for reports due,
another for events, birthdays and anniversaries. Color code for easy viewing. You can share a calendar with a team member or spouse. Or send an email invite for a one-off event. A lot of VAs use individual calendars to separate work for different clients.
Handy tip: Use the notes section to keep track of extra info like an event URL, to complete or review a document before a meeting.
Use it for reminders of clients’ birthdays and anniversaries – a simple personal touch that goes a long way!
What to learn:
Creating one-off and recurring events
Customizing multiple calendars for self or clients
Integrations with top email providers
Managing access – who gets to see what.
b. Scheduling Tools
You need good tools if you work with clients, prospects or an employer. This will make your work seamless and error free.
Most of the web based tools integrate with native calendar apps on your devices like Google calendar. They are also ‘time-zone intelligent’ which works well when you are ‘meeting’ from different locations.
What to learn:
How to create meeting schedules for you/ clients
Integrating with specific calendars like Google or Outlook 365
Setting time buffers between meetings
Managing features like preventing last minute meetings or setting secret meetings
Integrating payment systems for paid meetings (see Payment systems)
Setting up branded confirmations and reminder emails/ texts
Apart from the major calendars, Calendly also integrates with Zoom and GotoMeeting. Calendly does have the recurring appointments feature. However, it’s paid version is much more affordable.
This is a great preferred scheduler for lots of entrepreneurs and small business owners. The free version does not have the automatic time zone conversion for clients but the paid ones do.
Design with ease. Just like a pro!
That’s the reason Canva is in a category by itself – it is an awesome free tool for business and design work. Whether you are a professional designer or a beginner who needs to design visual content to support your work, Canva is easy to work with. And it’s an essential to learn. Canva makes it easy to create visuals (and videos) for dozens of formats and sizes. Some examples are flyers, brochures, different social media posts, video thumbnails and more. You can choose from hundreds of templates and fonts without navigating the more technical aspects of Photoshop or Illustrator.
What can you do: create awesome instagram posts and pitch decks. Design logos and brand kits. Add creative color and visual elements to text documents. Design eBooks, Guides and other high-quality digital products. While the paid version Canva Pro gives you loads of options in everything, their free version is pretty substantial too.
What to learn:
Start with the basics of creating visuals
Experiment with templates
Basic style practices
Work with multiple images, text layouts and frames
Duplicating, downloading and sharing completed work
Projects & collaborations
Project and Task Management Apps are great for keeping tabs on your work, especially if you’re doing multiple projects for clients. Trello, Asana & Evernote are very commonly preferred. All 3 come with free versions to start with. They help you manage multi-event, multi-user even multi-media outcomes. And yes, they’re multi-device too, so you can easily transition from desktop to phone and back.
Example of Projects & Tasks
- New product (or service) launches.
- Managing Ad campaigns
- Process manuals for interns or new employees
- Organize blogging or content tasks for clients
- Write to-do lists with due dates
- Create a bank of images and videos
- Outline processes like email funnels
- Plan your posts for social media – see them at a glance so you don’t repeat quickly.
- Write down your business or personal goals and necessary steps [link]
- Create a brand strategy for clients.
- Keep track of work approved and in process
- Store design templates
- Manage digital contracts
- Write up an event plan
What to learn:
Creating cards/ notes
Adding media, links and dates
Organizing cards (or notes)
Sharing and managing access
Trello is a great app for organizing your ideas and one of the top tools that freelancers use. With an easy drag and drop visual interface, you can break everything up into different boards. On each board, you can further add cards, with notes, as well as add images and links. Add comments and descriptions too. Even assign due dates and add customized colored labels. Do this as an individual to keep track of tasks or as a team to assign and divvy up responsibilities. You can see this on the phone to update ideas and info after a meeting or even during one.
At Maroon Oak, we use Trello to update and manage our Content Calendar, Blog Post ideas, Team responsibilities and so much more.
Get ideas on how to use Trello for your business.
Evernote lets you write, analyse and store ideas in the form of notes, notebooks, checklists and to-do lists. Take notes in a range of formats, including text, sketches, photos, audio, web clippings, PDFs and more.
Check out the best Tips and tricks to use Evernote effectively
Read the 38 things you can save in Evernote
Use Asana to brainstorm ideas with your team and keep track of them. It’s more text-centric than the other two, so it’s a good bet if your work or preferences are not too visual. It’s great for product launches or running multi-team projects. The functionality to track progress, is great for ongoing projects, esp. with teams.
Choose from the Gallery of Templates to use Asana in dozens of ways
Everyone of us needs to create text content.
You may be composing emails, writing blog posts, proposals, or social media content – well-written text is necessary for all of those.
Using online writing tools can be of immense help in drafting words that are not only error-free but also ‘readable’ for people and computers (SEO).
It is the leading ‘writing assistant’ that helps you proofread and compose better quality text. The free version is great for spellcheck and grammar. Plus, the Tone Detector scans your text to tell you whether you sound ‘formal,’ ‘friendly’ or ‘optimistic.’ This is helpful when you write short content like a social media post, or respond to comments, or send an online message.
Need more proofreading tools to help you write better? Try these 7.
Platforms: Different extensions and apps for Desktop, Android and iOSHere are some more free writing tools that you can explore.
Data and Storage
Given the size of text and media files, managing ‘digital assets’ the right way is very important for working online. You should be comfortable accessing, storing and sharing all the content in a systematic way.
What to learn:
Uploading and sharing content
Organizing in folders
Needless to say, it is easy to integrate with your Gmail or Google accounts as well as automatically stores all your Google Doc, Sheet or Slide content. You can get 15 GB of free storage with your Gmail account and different pricing options. With G Suite, companies have multiple pricing options.
Similarly, Microsoft makes it easier to integrate with your business name. You need to have a Microsoft 365 Personal or Business account for this.
Dropbox is simple to use, and it lets you store and send photos, docs, videos and other files from any device. Being able to view your files even when offline is a big bonus, and because they’re always synced to all your different devices, an update or edit will show up everywhere. The starter app is free, but you need to pay to increase storage.
Video calls and conferencing
When you are working remotely, video conversations are essential. You need to be prepared for different scenarios like one on ones, group interactions.
Video meetings are also useful for job interviews, virtual coffees, update meetings, brainstorming sessions.You also need to master features like the ones below.
What to learn:
Hosting and inviting
Settings e.g. waiting rooms, types of access
Specific features like Raise Hand, Virtual Whiteboard
It’s the leading platform for virtual meetings with robust video and audio capabilities. You don’t need a Zoom account if someone else is the host, but it is free to get one.
Owned by Microsoft, Skype brings the security and stability that are a plus. You need an ID to access Skype and chat with someone. Lots of virtual professionals publish their Skype IDs as a way to be contacted globally (that too for free).
Do you host and participate in a lot of online meetings?
Payments and bookkeeping
You might want to invoice your freelance clients, pay those who work with you, sell products or services online. For all of these, you will need to be familiar with payment gateways. (Giving bank account details isn’t always safe or practical).
Most web pay platforms will need you to have an account which you can create with email. If you have an ecommerce set up on your website, you can integrate these for transparency and customer confidence (since they don’t have to share credit card no.s)
What to learn:
Create a business account on the platform you choose
Link your bank account and/ or debit cards
Create professional looking digital invoices
Send invoices to client (or a team with a cc)
Track payments received and remitted
Transfer funds to/ from bank account
It is the leading pay platform online which works for most countries world-wide. There is a fee payable for business accounts, both for payments and remittances. You can also create standard or customized invoices, track payments, even send reminders to clients.
(Source: Nicky Vandewater)
Stripe has become yet another popular option for web payments. It is accepted only in 32 countries so far, but has better development tools. It also has a recurring payment feature which is great for monthly billings.
Here’s a comparison of Paypal and Stripe
Wave is popular with entrepreneurs as a payment solutions platform. It has accounting software and payroll features, apart from invoicing, expense tracking and of course, payments. So you can use this for your freelance business and scale up as your business grows.
Choose the right payment tool that meets the requirements of your current and future business needs.
Are you smart about your passwords? Do you create complicated passwords that are hard(er) to hack? Different ones for different account types?
The hard part is managing them all. And when you are managing different passwords for clients, the challenge is even bigger.
LastPass is a leading password storage app that beats writing your key data on a notebook any day. You can store not just passwords but even info like Credit card or Account logins and categorize different info under various heads. And you can use it personally too. The access to the app is controlled by a master password, so that’s a top layer of valuable security. It also generates password suggestions and stores them too.
Once you are comfortable with most of these business tools, it will make your online work a lot easier. Not only that, proficiency with these freebies can help you stand out professionally.
So go ahead, familiarize or become proficient in these tools. You can only win!
Pooja Krishna is an Entrepreneur, Business Mentor and Mom. She has worked both in large corporates and managed startups over the last 20+ years.
She’s a co-founder at Maroon Oak, and is founded Win Thinks, where she writes, speaks and teaches about Digital Media, Brand Building and Future Ready Businesses. A day trader for over a decade, Pooja launched Trading Paces to educate amateur and pro stock traders. As a classroom mentor, Pooja loves teaching students across the U.S. about job skills and entrepreneurship. Read about her on Huffington Post and Forbes.
A trivia buff and yoga & hula hoop enthusiast, she’s discovering the pleasure of drawing Zentangle patterns for ‘creative mindfulness.’