Although two economists at the University of Chicago recently estimated that 37% of jobs in the United States could be completed "entirely at home," only a fraction of Americans have had that opportunity in recent years. According to the 2019 National Compensation Survey, just 7% of workers in the private sector and 4% in state and local government received work-from-home opportunities.
However, working from home has recently been on the rise as employers work to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The convergence of advancing technology and urgent public health concerns leads many to think the U.S. may be heading toward a widespread workplace revolution, seeing more people working from home than ever before. Several major companies, including Twitter and Facebook, have already announced permanent work-from-home opportunities for their employees.
Remote jobs offer several benefits for workers, but they also present challenges. For many, working from home is an unusual experience that requires a significant adjustment period. It can be an especially difficult transition for employees who frequently work in teams, and for extroverts who rely on a busy office environment to maintain their optimum energy levels.
Whether you're a seasoned work-from-home veteran or a remote work newbie, productivity apps can make a positive difference in your 9-to-5 routine. We compiled a list of 15 of the best productivity apps available on the market, designed to help you meet several of the most pervasive challenges faced by work-from-home employees.
Challenges of Working From Home
Work-from-home employees commonly face challenges when it comes to productivity. Even at the office, few people are immune to distraction or wandering thoughts. These issues are often exacerbated when trying to complete work tasks from the comfort of our own homes.
Our brains are hardwired to think of home as a place to relax, unwind, and focus on personal responsibilities. When that living space is turned into a workplace, especially in a sudden or unpredictable way, several challenges may arise:
- Workspace Setup: One of the first productivity challenges faced by many work-from-home employees is simply finding a suitable location to get work done. Some are lucky enough to have a dedicated home office. Others need to make do with non-ideal spaces, such as a kitchen, dining, or living area.
- Compartmentalization: Focusing on work-related tasks at home requires careful separation of personal and professional to-do lists. Some individuals struggle with an overwhelming need to do the laundry, tidy up, or run errands during work hours.
- Little to No Oversight: Aside from emails, phone calls, and video conferences, working from home generally means working without supervisors or coworkers nearby. Employees become the primary person holding themselves accountable for completing tasks, which can be challenging.
- Distractions: Work-from-home employees often need to navigate around the schedules and habits of other occupants. Setting boundaries for roommates, spouses, children, and pets is vital for preserving concentration during work hours. Other distractions abound in the form of television, mobile games, and social media websites.
Fortunately, there are plenty of work productivity apps designed to address these challenges:
Types of Work Productivity Apps
There are countless methods, techniques, and theories designed to help workers improve productivity. For some people, it's as easy as clicking "download."
Productivity apps can be broken down into six basic categories: time management, planning and organization, distraction minimization, habit forming, collaboration, and smart technology integration. If you're struggling with a work-from-home lifestyle, try identifying your biggest challenge and pairing it with an app that tackles the problem head on.
- Time Management Apps
Time management apps turn old-fashioned timers and calendars into interactive, streamlined experiences designed to track a user's time and promote efficiency in completing tasks. Procrastinators and multitaskers may benefit the most from these apps, but nearly everyone can increase their productivity with a bit of time management guidance.
See Recommended Time Management Apps
- Planning and Organizing Apps
Planning and organizing apps can help with everything from breaking down daily tasks into an achievable list to the heavy lifting required to keep a major project organized. Many applications offer popular features like file storage and syncing, automated reminders, and customizable calendars.
See Recommended Planning and Organizing Apps
- Distraction-Minimizing Apps
Most people have a few websites and mobile games they visit "just a few times" a day. Those visits can add up to hours of lost productivity over the course of a week. If you struggle with staying focused, distraction-minimizing software can help by blacklisting sites and blocking access to certain mobile apps while you work.
See Recommended Distraction-Minimizing Apps
- Habit-Forming Apps
According to a 2009 study, it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become habitual. Habit-forming apps help users start and maintain positive behaviors by providing automatic reminders, time tracking, and rewards. Habit-forming apps can help track work, fitness, and personal lifestyle goals.
See Recommended Habit-Forming Apps
- Collaboration Apps
Working with others can be difficult at a distance, but these apps make it easier to stay in contact and complete workplace goals. Collaboration apps include video conferencing, file sharing, and project organization software. These apps can be especially beneficial for professionals working on team-based projects with many moving parts.
See Recommended Collaboration Apps
- Smart Integration Apps
Many people own one or more smart devices, such as phones, personal assistants, thermostats, and home appliances. By creating connections and employing a customizable system of triggers and outcomes, integration apps allow users to automate tasks and work more efficiently with a variety of smart technologies.
See Recommended Smart Integration Apps
The 15 Best Productivity Apps
A search for "productivity" on the App Store or Google Play brings up hundreds upon hundreds of results. To help you sift through the competition, we ranked 15 of the best productivity apps based on the following criteria:
For the purposes of this ranking, we define "app" as any piece of software that requires users to download and/or sign up. Apps may include desktop apps, mobile apps, and browser extensions/add-ons. Some apps featured below technically fit in multiple categories, but we aimed to rank them according to primary benefits.
Apps for Time Management
Toggl boasts powerful time tracking software with a suite of highly customizable features designed to fit professionals' needs. The free basic plan offers access to automatic tracking, manual time addition/deletion, idle detection, offline mode, and a Pomodoro style timer with built-in break reminders. Users can access weekly reports of their activity, filter data for easy viewing, and export to PDF or CSV for safekeeping. Toggl's paid plans offer additional features for project management and team access. Browser extensions and app integrations can place Toggl's one-click timers in virtually any online workspace, including Google Docs, Trello, and WordPress.
Cost: Free basic plan; $9.00/month for starter plan; $18.00/month for premium plan
- Over 100 app integrations place one-click Toggl timers at users' fingertips
- Provides tracking reminders and automatically detects idle tracking time
- Offers calendar integration and manual time entry
- Data reports can be filtered and exported to various file formats
RescueTime offers several different products for teams and solo professionals. The free Lite software offers automatic time tracking that keeps tabs on a user's activities across multiple devices and platforms. At the end of the week, users receive an email report detailing their productivity. The premium version offers additional features including distraction blocking, real-time notifications, and goal setting. RescueTime's free and paid options are ideal for professionals looking to analyze their online activities and see what's getting in the way of their productivity.
Cost: Free Lite software; free 14-day trial of premium software, then $6.50/month
- Automatically tracks time spent on apps, websites, and specific documents
- Produces detailed productivity reports, offering insights on work habits
- Works across multiple platforms, including desktop, mobile, and browser
- Offers goal setting and real-time alerts (premium only)
- Built-in distraction blocking software (premium only)
Apps for Planning and Organizing
More than 225 million users make Evernote one of the most popular free productivity apps on the market. Evernote's software is adaptable to a variety of needs and organizational styles. Professionals can use Evernote to take basic notes, snap photos, annotate screenshots, record audio, save files and website clips, and invite others to collaborate and add content of their own. This app is ideal for users juggling multiple projects and those seeking an efficient way to access files and information across multiple devices. The free version provides plenty of features for solo work-from-home professionals. The premium plan offers additional annotation and search options, app integration, and email forwarding directly into Evernote.
Cost: Free basic plan; $7.99/month premium plan
- Captures photos, records audio, creates checklists, and saves website clips
- Searches all stored content items for keywords, even if they're handwritten
- Accesses important papers anywhere with document scanning and storage
- Automatically syncs notes between multiple devices
- Integrates with popular apps including Google Drive, Outlook, and Slack
Trello is a popular desktop and mobile application that uses boards, lists, and cards to help professionals organize and prioritize their projects. The application is ideal for creating a simple, Kanban-style workflow, with separate cards on a single board labeled "to-do," "doing," and "done," but Trello's flexibility is just as capable of pleasing users with complex organizing needs. Trello's desktop and mobile apps automatically stay in sync to allow seamless use across multiple devices. The free plan offers unlimited personal boards and up to 10 team boards, making it ideal for solo workers and small teams. Trello's paid plans provide greater support for large teams and companies.
Cost: Free basic plan; $12.50/month business class plan
- Accessible on the web and on mobile devices
- Integrates with thousands of other apps
- Ideal to create a Kanban-style workflow
- Free plan offers an unlimited number of personal boards and cards
Google Calendar offers an impressive suite of features to help users keep track of personal and professional meetings, appointments, and events. If needed, users can share their calendar publicly or with specific people, including family, clients, or coworkers. Users can view multiple calendars at once with easy differentiation thanks to color-coding options. Top features for professionals include collaborative options like the app's "suggested times" and "find a time." Once all guests are added to an upcoming event, Google Calendar can automatically detect and suggest times when everyone is available. Users can also attach documents to calendar events, ensuring attendees have required materials on hand.
- Allows users to create multiple calendars with one Google account
- Connectivity options with other G Suite apps, third-party calendar apps, and services like Trello
- Powerful tools to connect users with coworkers and clients
- Desktop notifications ensure users never forget a meeting
Apps for Minimizing Distractions
Whether a user wants to avoid certain websites or stop checking their phone while working, Forest offers a unique, reward-based system to minimize distractions and encourage productivity. When ready to begin a focused session, users "plant" a seed and start the app's timer. If the user gives into distraction while the timer counts down, their virtual flower or tree withers and fails to grow. When sessions are successfully completed, users can view their full-grown plant in the app's virtual forest. Completed plants also earn users coins, used to unlock new virtual species and/or plant trees in the real world. In-app statistics help users evaluate their productivity.
Cost: Free browser extension; $1.99 mobile application
- Grow virtual flowers and trees by avoiding distractions
- Gamifies productivity, with visible rewards to motivate users
- Customizable website and application blacklists
- Focus sessions available in various five-minute increments
- Mobile app lets users view focus statistics and their virtual forest
Freedom users report gaining an average of 2.5 hours of productivity each day. The app contains nearly 10 different features designed to help professionals stay on task. Users can block time-wasting websites, applications, or the entire internet with the click of a button. Customization options include website exceptions, block syncing across all devices, and advanced block scheduling. Users can create an unlimited number of block lists, perfect for professionals who switch between multiple tasks and projects throughout the day. The application only offers a paid plan, but its easy-to-use interface and expansive list of features justify the cost for thousands of users.
Cost: Free trial for seven sessions, then $6.99/month, $29.04/year, or $129 for life
- Blocks access to websites and applications
- Syncs distraction block settings across all desktop and mobile devices
- Flexible scheduling options to meet a variety of needs
Noisli was designed in 2013 by two freelancers looking for a way to maintain their focus and combat isolation while working from home. The digital sound machine works by creating a pleasant, consistent sound environment and masking outside disruptions. Sounds in the app's extensive library include rain, wind, birdsong, muffled coffee shop conversation, a crackling fire, a rattling train, and static. By upgrading to the pro plan, users gain access to even more sounds, curated playlists, and customizable features. Professionals working in environments with too-quiet, too-loud, or otherwise unpredictable noise levels may benefit the most from Noisli's offerings.
Cost: Free browser extension; $1.99 mobile app; $12.00/month pro plan
- Ambient background noise to block distractions and improve focus
- Allows users to select from 28 preset sounds or create customized mixes
- Curated playlists for productivity, sleep, noise reduction, and more
- Built-in timer function allows users to work in sessions
Apps for Forming Habits
More than 4 million people gamify their lives with Habitica, the free, open-source productivity app that uses RPG elements to motivate players to reach their goals. When users complete their real-life goals and tasks, they earn experience and gold, used to level up, unlock content, and buy in-game rewards. Similarly, when users fail to complete tasks, their in-game avatar loses health. Users can play solo if they choose, but Habitica encourages group participation with parties, guilds, battles, and quests. Some users may find Habitica's many features too time-consuming, but the app is a perfect option for professionals who enjoy RPG-style games or who find standard goal-tracking apps unenjoyable.
Cost: Free plan; $4.99/month optional subscription
- Utilizes role-playing game (RPG) elements (monsters, pets, gear, etc.) to gamify real-world tasks
- Tracks long-term habits, daily goals, and to-do lists
- Fighting monsters earns currency used for in-game or custom rewards
- Offers extensive collaboration features for increased enjoyment, motivation, and accountability
If you can't get behind Habitica's role-playing theme, Strides offers similar habit-tracking features with a simple, no-frills interface. The app's dashboard, daily goals page, charts, and streaks make it easy for users to view their progress and stay motivated. Strides also allows users to track bad habits, marking them in red to discourage repetition. The app is designed to work with virtually any personal, professional, health, or financial goal, making it an ideal option for users who want to achieve growth in multiple areas. All core features are available for free, but Strides also offers a subscription-based Plus plan which enables multiple device syncing, data backups, privacy locks, and unlimited goals. The Strides app works with iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. An Android app is currently unavailable.
Cost: Free plan; $4.99/month Plus plan
- Tracks user's customized goals and habits
- Displays progress using charts and bars for easy viewing
- Streaks and success rate stats help keep users motivated
- Offers weekly, monthly, annual, and all-time progress reports
More than half of all Americans report experiencing symptoms of digital eye strain, and research has found a direct correlation between extended sedentary periods and an increased risk of death. BreakTimer is a free, open source application designed to make taking computer breaks habitual. BreakTimer users can customize their work hours, break time durations, and break time frequencies. When a break occurs, the app places a full-screen window across the computer monitor, complete with a countdown timer and customizable message. If needed, users can postpone breaks for several minutes or skip a break entirely. The application is available as a standalone desktop application and a browser extension in the Google Chrome web store.
- Reminds users to take periodic breaks in browser or through a desktop application
- Customizable scheduling, including work hours and break duration
- Simple interface, with options to skip or delay breaks as needed
- Intelligent software restarts timer after user has been idle
Apps for Collaboration
Austria-based startup, Franz, makes it easy to connect with personal and professional contacts across multiple platforms without having to log in to a dozen different apps and websites. The app even allows users to simultaneously run multiple accounts on the same platform, such as personal and professional Facebook Messenger accounts. Users can organize their messaging services into different channels and mute notifications as needed. This desktop application is ideal for professionals who work on large collaborative teams or juggle multiple projects at one time. Pricing plans are based on the number of services a user needs to connect. Connect up to three services at no cost.
Cost: Free plan; $3.99/month personal plan; $7.99/month professional plan
- Centralizes different communication and messaging channels
- Supports more than 70 services, including Slack, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Skype
- Enables simultaneous access to business and personal channels on the same service
- Toggles desktop notifications on and off as needed
- Immediately creates to-do list items by highlighting message text
Slack is a revolutionary communication app used by some of the world's largest companies. Unlike traditional email threads, Slack enables immediate, real-time conversation between multiple participants. Users can create separate discussion channels for different teams, projects, and issues, ensuring that relevant conversations reach all the right people. Slack also offers private direct messaging, video calls, and audio calls. Dozens of apps and services integrate with Slack, allowing users to easily share files, event schedules, and information. Slack's free plan is ideal for small teams of professionals who need to stay in touch while working from home. Slack's paid plans offer additional solutions for businesses.
Cost: Free basic plan; $8.00/month per user for Standard plan
- Offers group messaging, direct messaging, video calls, and audio calls
- Highly customizable settings for channels, notifications, and other features
- Ideal for teams who work synchronously and want to stay in contact
- Integrates with dozens of other applications
Apps to Integrate Smart Devices
IFTTT, which stands for "if this, then that," is a freeware service that enables users to connect and extend the functionality of their smart devices and applications. IFTTT places zero features behind a premium paywall, making it an attractive option for budget-minded professionals. Users can modify their automation settings on IFTTT's website or on the convenient mobile apps for iPhone and Android. The application supports hundreds of services and can help boost professional and personal efficiency. Potential tasks include automatically turning on the lights as you near the house, simultaneously crossposting photos to Instagram and Twitter, and expanding the abilities of personal voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. IFTTT is ideal for beginners, offering hundreds of guides and automation suggestions.
- Allows users to connect apps that otherwise wouldn't work with one another
- Supports hundreds of services, including smart home appliances, business tools, communication apps, and electronics
- Well-supported, with more than 300 channels for "recipe" references
Cost: Free plan; $24.99/month starter plan; $61.25/month professional plan
- Automates repetitive tasks, allowing users to focus on other work
- Integrates with more than 2,000 applications, including Gmail, Slack, and Facebook Pages
- Suitable for solo professionals, teams, or entire enterprises
The Future of Working From Home
For many individuals, small businesses, and large enterprises, the future looks murky in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as Facebook and Twitter announce long-term commitments to the work-from-home lifestyle, other executives view the remote landscape as detrimental to project completion, employee training, and hiring.
Not all companies and careers lend themselves to remote work, but some sectors of the American workplace may be on the verge of major, permanent change. As we all consider and contribute to important conversations surrounding public health, it's safe to assume that some companies will continue offering hybrid or remote work benefits to their employees even after COVID-19 eases.
Traditionally, writing, design, and sales have been the most popular work-from-home industries, but many computer science careers also function well in remote environments, particularly in web development, UX design, and software engineering.
If working from home isn't appealing enough on its own, consider other doors that might open for those with a strong background in computer science. With the right knowledge, you could build the next popular work productivity app or get in on the ground floor of an entrepreneur's new remote startup.
Whatever the working world looks like in the years to come, you can expect plenty of opportunities with a computer science education.