It’s a generally accepted fact that the two places in the universe where the most time gets sucked into a netherworld of oblivion are the event horizon surrounding supermassive black holes, and the offices of a small business. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A few small steps away from the event horizon is all it really takes to give the average business significantly more time to focus on real work, and prevent themselves from being crushed to a non-dimensional point of nothingness by the competition. Here are 10 efficiency hacks to give small businesses a big boost in productivity.
A Little Technical Expertise Goes a Long Way
Your company doesn’t need to be filled with super nerds in order to run smoothly; odds are, your business has little or nothing to do with computers and they’re simply a means to an end. That said, they’re the most pervasive and useful means in the world today. So as much as you or your employees might view them as glitchy machines, learning enough to avoid expensive mistakes can save a lot of time. A few examples of these might be:
- Save your work all the time. You can even save it to servers that are not on your computer for added security.
- Look, Dave, deleting the short cut doesn’t delete the program. You have to uninstall it. No I’m not going to show you how to do that.
- As far as you are concerned, there are two types of files: “.exe” and everything else. Do not allow .exe files anywhere near your computer, let IT handle that.
- If an e-mail promises something good but vague, it is a scam. If it promises something bad unless you do something like “simply clicking on this link here”, it is a scam. If you have to give your name and password, it is a scam. If you have to ask yourself if it might be a scam, it is a scam.
Better yet, explaining the basic inner workings of computers during a short seminar to the less-than-savvy in a firm can free up resources to deal with real problems, instead of showing Dave how to log in for the third time today.
Templates, Templates, Templates
Every office has that document they have to send out 3-4 times a week, if not 3-4 times a day. The contract to a vendor, the contract to a client, the legal filings with the state, county, city and Federal Governments. There is no reason this document should be re-written each time unless you hate money and happy employees. If you find yourself typing up a document partially or wholly from scratch more than three times, take the time to make a template that will speed up the process in the future.
While this sounds like a no-brainer, it’s still a wonder how rare a well-organized, shared folder of templates is in many offices. Another area that often needs templates that frequently gets overlooked is e-mails. Now, obviously, important emails to clients or those that need a personal touch and finesse shouldn’t be replaced. What we’re talking about here is documents such as meeting schedules, agendas, work priority, etc… In other words, those emails you send multiple times each week that all have the same basic form, should be sitting as a permanent draft on your email client.
The important thing to remember here is re-read the template from top-to-bottom before sending. Otherwise embarrassing details such as a date from last year, or a reference to another company can make the end product look shoddy and unprofessional.
Review and Automate
Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. There’s really no reason you should be taking time to physically mail your bills each month. Pretty much everything from your power to your phones can be paid online, or even better, set up for an automatic deduction each month. Aside from software such as Quickbooks which will keep track of most of this information, (you’re in trouble if you aren’t using at least some sort of simple accounting software), here’s a quick-and-dirty tutorial on how to set up an excel spreadsheet to automatically calculate just about anything else.
On top of this, a lot of small businesses have trouble backing up, protecting, and keeping track of their data. Thankfully there are cheap, easy solutions to that problem. A simple RAID set up will automatically back up your data to a separate hard drive, ensuring that no data will be lost short of the office burning down. Even better, there are several companies that offer cheap or free back up to the cloud — making your data essentially loss-proof as long as you remember sync. They can even give you added storage space and processing power that will save on the long term in hardware costs. These provide the added bonus of allowing employees to quickly access important files if their computer breaks or if they’re off-site.
While simple, it’s amazing how often some of these quick fixes slip through the cracks, especially in small businesses. A regular review of all processes to determine which can be automated may seem time consuming at the outset, but will more than yield returns over the long term. All of these require a certain amount of tech expertise to set up and configure, but once they’re online, you can rest easy and use the time you’ve saved to focus on more important things.
Almost everyone in a small business, or who deals with small businesses, is familiar with some version of a laborious process that goes like this:
Client: “I’m faxing over the document. Please sign it, fax it back over, and then we’ll countersign and fax you a copy for your records.”
You: “We don’t have a fax machine because it’s not 1997.”
Client: “So print it, sign it, scan it, email it, we’ll print it, scan it, and send it back to you.”
You: “I have just wasted my entire day getting a few drops of ink onto a piece of paper.”
This is one of those things that you always thought there should be a solution to, and it turns out there has been one for some time. E-sign basically allows you to send a document through a third-party provider to everyone who needs to sign off on it. Simply by clicking a button, everyone digitally “signs” the document, and everyone is sent a final, signed copy.
While this may not seem like the most secure way to obtain signatures, keep in mind that a signature is little more than a few quick pen movements on a page. If there is an issue with the signature, there are few ways to question or verify it beyond bringing in a hand-writing specialist. An e-signature, on the other hand, will have a trail of who it was sent to, who viewed it and when, what computer, what account, and what password were used in signing off on it. And according to law, it is just as legally binding as a physical signature. A good client to use for this service is Adobe EchoSign, partly for their history as an established company, and partly because they are one of the few companies that offers a service like this that you can guarantee almost every partner, vendor and client will have heard of.
That Thing On Your Desk is Called a Phone
While email has become the beating heart of just about every company (who could live without Joyce’s adorable Friday Cat Pictures?), it is still lacking in speed. Sure, you can send a multiple-page complaint about someone drinking the last of the coffee and not making another pot (that cretin) and have it delivered in milliseconds. But there’s still the most error-prone part of the computer to deal with: that space between the screen and the user’s brain. There is no way to guarantee that someone will read your email, there is no way to get an immediate response unless you attach one of those annoying “confirm that you have read” tags. Most importantly, there is no way to guarantee the recipient has the time to respond in depth.
This creates to concurrent issues which, surprisingly, don’t seem to be generational. One group will send important time-sensitive emails and hope and pray that the other person happens to hit “refresh” in time. The other group will obsessively refresh their inboxes, waiting for the crisis of the day to appear (these groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive). There is also that third group of annoying management that is used to rapt, instant responses in ever other area of office life, and gets frustrated when employees don’t respond immediately.
Here’s a huge time saver to both ends: if it can wait a few hours, send an e-mail. This will allow the person on the other end to take note and properly prioritize their work flow. If it cannot wait, that thing on your desk is called a phone. Pick it up and have a conversation — you’d be amazed how many problems it can solve.
If Someone Can Do It Faster, Let Them
In a rough economy where an unemployed job search is only slightly preferable to being dragged over hot coals, everyone in the company is going to go out of their way to show how invaluable they are. It’s a natural response that can have some positive effects, such as employees working harder or seeking out extra training. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really lead to the best allocation of resources. That is to say, people will often take on tasks they are terrible at for the sake of seeming that much more valuable to a company.
While admirable, this is probably one of the biggest sources of lost time outside of meetings where a committee is tasked with designing something. The worst offenders here surprisingly aren’t lower-level employees. Many of them (to simplify vastly) are only performing the tasks given to them by their superiors. The real problem, and where one should look to improve efficiency, is tasks that managers are guarding when they can and should delegate.
Invasive in Planning, Hands-Off in Execution
A good employee hates an invasive boss because they get in the way of that employee’s frenzied-yet-focused efforts to finish a project on-time and under-budget. A bad employee hates an invasive boss because they get in the way of that employee’s frenzied-yet-focused efforts to play Farmville and write the next great American novel. Assuming an otherwise well-functioning company, a good manager is faced with a dilemma: interfere too much and you stifle creativity and slow the process. Interfere too little and a whole heck of a lot of time can be wasted on frivolous pursuits.
The maxim “measure twice, cut once” comes to mind here. A good manager should make sure a project has the proper resources and staffing to meet its goals on time, and should monitor them in the early stages to ensure everything is on track. Any well-laid plan will inevitably make fools of everyone involved, but a poor plan, or no plan at all will make unemployed fools out of an entire small company. This is all to say that a team should work collaboratively to lay an effective an realistic plan and stick to it (obviously allowing for change given shifting parameters, but this should be built into the original plan). This will require more time up-front, but it will save untold amounts of time over the duration of the project.
One Step Back Equals Two Steps Forward
We’ve been conditioned to believe that if we are not actively working, we are losing valuable time and man-hours. While this is true, especially for sectors such as food service, today’s creative workforce is cutthroat. One good idea can mean the difference between lucrative success and unprofitable mediocrity. Studies show that workers often become tired, disinterested and distracted after 8-10 hours of work (hence the 40-hour work week).
While this is not an absolute rule, and is sometimes hilariously unrealistic given the short time frames many small companies face, it raises an important point. Namely, taking a short break, sleeping on it, or letting it simmer over the weekend might be better in the long-term for the time-savings of a company. Each individual manager would need to determine when the best time to let zombified workers sleep, but a holistic approach to an employee’s productivity can prevent costly and time-consuming mistakes, as well as encourage creative, energetic approaches that come from plenty of needed rest and time to ruminate.
Despite the fact that everyone “knows” that a project will always take much, much longer than you think it will, pressure from clients or managers can make it nearly impossible to ask for more than you think you will need. But time and time again, the rush to meet unrealistic deadlines with far too few resources ends up wasting more time and resources than a generous estimate would have come near to. Even worse, you might be laying the foundation for future time-consuming failures.
One of the best examples of this comes from software design. To illustrate, say a client demands a piece of custom software, in what you know is an unrealistic time frame. However, as a small business, you don’t have much room to negotiate terms or turn down clients. Even if you get the project done on time, the internal architecture of the software will likely be haphazard and slapped-together out of necessity. Any future business from that client will be built on this shaky foundation, just waiting for an expensive and time-consuming collapse. Would you have been better off demanding a more generous time frame or turning down the business altogether? That is a question each business has to look at its balance sheet and answer itself. But just as they should over-estimate the overall cost of a project, they should likewise over-estimate the downstream costs that will inevitably result.
You Cannot Multitask
“Multitask” is one of those buzz words that employers use to describe the employee they want and job-searchers plaster all over their resume. After all, why would you want someone who can do one thing, when you could have someone who can do three things? While it would be nice if we could all hire or be a group of super-talented multitaskers working three projects successfully at once, the hard truth is you cannot multitask. Not only that, but attempting to multitask is actually proven to reduce your net productivity.
This is unfortunate for the small business because, being a small business, everyone has to wear multiple hats. Your head accountant might also be your lead project manager, or your chief of engineering might also have to be your director of client services. The solution here is not to throw up your hands and resign yourself to a world of slightly-less productive employees since all these tasks are essential to business function. You should instead focus on ordering and prioritizing tasks such that you or your employees aren’t forced to juggle multiple balls at once. Properly managed, this can lead to a situation where the increased productivity that results from focusing on a single task is leveraged to ensure that everything gets done according to its order and priority. A failure to do this leads to more dropped balls than a 16-clown-pileup, but doing one thing at a time is conducive to clarity and efficiency.