Taming the Business Paper Tiger

So, a business like this creates paperwork: purchase orders, receipts, pay stubs, shipping invoices, shipping bills. I hate it all. There, I said it and I'm not sorry. Some of the time, filing these papers is habitual. Some receipts go in that file and the remaining receipts go in the other file and the rest are recycled or shredded. I wish I had that kind of organization all the time. If I had my way I'd just shred it all, but my accountant would surely have something to say about that, so I will digress.

As I tackle an office reorganization (every time a product launches, I go into organizational mode), I wanted a few tips on cutting down on paper piles. I found two ideas that really worked for me. See what you think!

Take pictures (or scans) of important documents and/or business receipts on your digital camera and then download the picture into a folder, say August 2008 (all those files get backed up on a nightly basis, right?). Put them on an online backup system or an external hard drive. That's a pretty good idea, actually. You've got the receipt and you can print it if you need it. You can then shred the paper copy. Less paper! The rule of thumb is to keep all business receipts for 7 years and each year, throw out the earliest year. It will be much easier to delete a year's folder from a backup drive than to dig through a storage room to find the 2001 box next year, I say.

If you don't already, you should have an in-house folder (my title for inbox), a read and learn folder, a GTD folder, and a toolkit folder (you can name your folders what you like, I change mine every six months or so to zany names that inspire me).

  1. The in-house folder should be reviewed at least once every 24 hours and items culled from it for immediate action or that go immediately (do not pass go and collect 200 dollars) to the read and learn file or the GTD folder.
  2. The read and learn folder is material to read at a later time. There is so much of this, especially nowadays, so when it gets too full for me, I either throw it out or hand it over to the GTD file. Don't let yourself be buried by required reading that wasn't that important anyway (if it is important, put it in the Toolkit file or the GTD file).
  3. The GTD (from David Allen's Getting Things Done system) folder (actually it's a couple of banker boxes high right now) is material that you need, but want organized. I use alphabetical filing: every folder has a label and is filed alphabetically (the label maker refill companies love me!) This includes receipts, invoices, shipping bills, and so on that can just go away (I love it!). I can find it again if you need it, but it doesn't clutter up my desk.
  4. The toolkit folder should hold the items you need every single day: phone numbers, your rate sheet, your schedule, and a checklist for clients, that sort of thing. I call it a toolkit, because it is. I can't live without it. This includes my paper organizer, a few tip sheets for a couple of clients, and a weekly to-do list that really never changes. Keeps me sane!

My rule of thumb: if it isn't in one of those four categories, it's going to get shredded. August is my filing month (and not a moment too soon) and these guidelines do work. It's fun too, once you get started.

Happy paper taming!

Loyalty from Your Employees

Your company can only get things done by your employees. As many have found out the hard way, if you have to do it yourself, everything else will fall apart. That's why in the business world there is so much emphasis on training and a happy workplace. But is this emphasis warranted? What could go wrong if employees were catered to less? What would happen if they were catered to more?

Let's say you didn't have a corporation, but a small restaurant. You can always find new waiters and waitresses, so why should it matter how loyal they are? Well, from the time the customer walks in the door, to the time they walk out, their ONLY true contact with your business and its hopes and dreams is the minimum wage kid you put out to be your ambassador. If they don't care about their job, then they won't care about how the food looks, or the customer's experience outside of the minimum it takes to get a tip.

What if you have a retail store? With uncaring employees, how do you think your customer service will be if you are not around to handle things? If you had a manufacturing plant, would neglected employees care about overhead, waste, or throughput?

These are just a few examples of how employees fit into an uncaring business, but the examples don't have to be the rule. In a recent article in Forbes, Tara Weiss asks, "Does your staff have your back?" Of course, she is talking about employee loyalty, but what is the foundation of loyalty? Basically, employees want to feel part of the company they work for and they need to feel a sense of purpose.

A big part of accomplishing this with your employees is to treat them well. However, that alone will only produce happy, yet disconnected employees. Education is a good way to unite your workforce. Show them the company's goals, how you plan to get there, and their part in the plan. Let them feel pride about how much they help the company by going the extra mile here and there. Setup a feedback program so they can definitively see their impact on the greater good.

It doesn't stop there. Once an employee feels accepted, knows their part, and can see results of better work habits, they still need one more thing to bond it all together: praise and reward for their efforts. Have a merit-based reward system. Make weekly announcements to single out and cheer for not just the most accomplished workers, but the hardest working ones as well.

Basically, if you give them a role, a purpose, and a reward, your employees will go to great lengths for the company; giving you results you could never have gotten any other way.

Take Your Time When Building a Team

The art of team building never ceases to amaze and perplex me. A friend recently went on a team-building exercise over a weekend and came away challenged, yet changed. She and a dozen others hiked into a remote campground with supplies on their backs and underwent extreme physical fitness regimens—twenty pushups for every minute they were late for chow and long hikes uphill—which to me doesn't resemble "camping" in the least. She claims it worked in order to prepare them for their latest venture.

"We learned to trust each other; something that takes time."

And I suppose there's nothing like hours trudging through wilderness to really get to know fellow members of your team. However, her report got me onto the Internet looking again for stories pertaining to team building in business. I found a few items that were interesting and that backed up my friend's claims.

Businessweekly.co.uk writes about building a quality management team in the early stages of your business.

"Speaking to an international audience at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning's Ignite programme in Cambridge, the key message from David Boorman, Technology Business Director of Bailey Fisher ~ Executive Search was 'Don't underestimate the time and effort involved in building your team.'"

Lesson number one: be patient and realize the time it takes to build key relationships. My camping friend can vouch for this.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes about the team-building process, utilizing outside coaches to marinate a management team, not to whip one up as quickly as possible.

"A strong team makes an impact on everyone around it. Think about the Atlanta Braves' 'worst to first' season in 1991. Having the hometown team in the World Series was electrifying for Atlanta. When the 'miracle,' U.S. ice hockey team took the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics, the entire nation celebrated."

"What would it mean to have a team like that at work? OK, there are no gold medals for IT-system implementation, and even top sales teams rarely get ticker-tape parades, but a high-performing work team is definitely a win in today's business environment. . . ."

"In 2004-05, the Center for Creative Leadership surveyed 118 executives and middle managers to compile 'The State of Teams' report. It found that 95 percent of respondents participated on more than one work team; that 91 percent thought teams were central to the organization's success; and that 80 percent thought leaders needed help building strong teams and keeping teams on track toward exceeding expectations."

"The help often comes from outside coaches, who can bring new insights and skills to the table."

"'Creating a strong team is a process, not a one-time event,' said Martha Carnahan, president of Atlanta-based mc3 strategies and a certified business and life coach. . . ."

I think I hear an echo: Team-building requires large amounts of concentrated time; this is not something you can rush.

Using Intuition To Make Business Decisions

Many of the best managers we've met (or have heard about) not only have education and experience, they also boast intuitive decision making skills. These intuitive skills are based on an ability to recognize patterns at lightning speed. Gleaned from years of experience, the right decision comes in a flash, as quickly and effortlessly as "a recognition of information that has been largely forgotten by the conscious mind," writes Richard Daft in the upcoming new edition of Management (due out in 2009), one of his many textbooks on the subject of business management. He reports that "in the business world, managers continuously perceive and process information that they may not consciously be aware of, and their base of knowledge and experience helps them make decision that may be characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity."

Another book, recently published, called The Feminine Side of Leadership, by business executive Jenny Fisher "shares her experience and insight on how to maximize the creativity and talents of team members by creating a trusting and supportive work environment."

"‘The Feminine Side of Leadership is an invaluable tool to help people recognize their current management strengths and identify growth areas to improve their personal leadership effectiveness,' says Fisher. ‘Readers will learn how to use their leadership skills to inspire creativity and foster growth throughout their organization. By utilizing our inner strength and unleashing the power within us we can create a passionate, high-performance work environment that inspires others to succeed.'"

Using intuition rather than rational analysis to make business decisions is a timeworn tradition, not a newfangled invention or an exact science, even though recent books may promise that.

Gary Klein's Intuition at Work: Why Developing Your Gut Instincts Will Make You Better at What You Do (2002) was the penultimate book written to harness and channel this timeworn tradition. The book has been called the definitive work on intuition in business management, featured in the Wall Street Journal, and revered by business managers.

Klein writes, "Some experts encourage us to follow our intuitions, while others counsel us to suppress our intuitions because they are inherently biased. At first glance, we seem to be caught in a dilemma. Fortunately, research conducted during the past fifteen years points to a path forward."

"In order to take that path, we have to reject the dilemma. We shouldn't simply follow our intuitions, as they can be unreliable and need to be monitored. Yet we shouldn't suppress our intuitions either, because they are essential to our decision making and can't be replaced by analyses or procedures. Thus our only real option is to strengthen our intuitions so that they become more accurate and provide us with better insights."

If you wish to strengthen your intuition as a business manager, which has returned to the forefront as a skill to be mastered, perhaps checking out Klein and Fisher and Daft will help you in your quest.

Communicating With Song

Teleconferencing is described as a "live exchange of information among persons and machines remote from one another but linked by a telecommunications system, which is usually over a telephone line."

Teleconferencing services are not only offered and used by businesses alone.  At times, ordinary people will find that teleconferencing or video conferencing is the best way to make a personal connection, just for the fun of it.

This week, the Barbershop Harmony Society held their 70th International quartet and chorus contest in Nashville, Tennessee.  Almost 9,000 people traveled from around the globe to be part of this amazing annual contest.  The Society boasts a membership of almost 30,000 male singers in the United States and Canada alone.  For those who were not able to attend the convention, the Society worked hard to provide services to make you feel like you were almost actually at the convention.

They provided a web-cast that showcased each Barbershop quartet and chorus competing in the contest in real time.  In addition, people who were viewing the action online were able to speak to competitors immediately after they left the contest stage via a teleconferencing link.  People could congratulate and speak to competitors using the services provided by several different carriers at the performing venue.

For those not able to attend the convention, the experience of communicating with friends and family members who were competing was invaluable.  The people who viewed the web-cast were thrilled to be able to see history in the making as the new Champions were given their medals.  Plans are already in the works for next year’s teleconferencing and video exchange.  The convention will be held in Anaheim, California.

Video Conferencing Aids Police

Video conferencing is now being used by local police officers in Coos Bay and North Bend, Oregon.  Officers are now able to testify to the grand jury without having to leave their respective stations.  Before now, their police officers had to make a 25 minute drive each way to the Coquille Courthouse to provide their required testimony.  With the new Internet system, officers are able to view the grand jury from on-site interview rooms and the grand jury can view the officer via monitor in the courthouse.

The agency is now finding that the small investment of about $400 for the equipment required to run the program, will be a cost saving endeavor.  With gas prices continuing to rise and the cost of wear and tear to police vehicles, the costs associated with video conferencing will be recouped almost immediately.   

Currently, there are at least three officers per week that are called to the courthouse.  Each officer waits at least 1 ½ hours to testify in their trail.  With the new video conferencing system in place, officers will be able to complete work and other in-house tasks instead of wasting time waiting in a courthouse, thereby making them more productive.

In the near future, the District Attorney also plans on using the video conferencing system as well.  Very soon the agency will be having witnesses who are subpoenaed outside of the county or state, also use this new service.  The county will arrange for witnesses to go to a conference call site in their area and pipe in their testimony directly into the courthouse.  This will save the county the travel expenses for those witnesses.

Writing Better Will Help You Keep Your Job

It's really true. Your ability to communicate shows up in more ways than just getting what you ordered at a restaurant the first time. It could save your career. I now sound like Penelope Trunk and a post from her blog about how to write to improve your job performance.

Trunk states that "Almost one-third of workers do not meet the writing requirements of their positions, according to a survey by the College Board's National Commission on Writing."

Trunk's post is from 2004 (yeah, I know, a golden oldie) but I think it fits the point. Do you really know how to write and could you do it if your career (not just your job) depended on it?

Some of Trunk's pointers (I'm including the every item on her list, because they are just so good):

1. Write lists.
People love reading lists. . . . If you can't list your ideas then you aren't organized enough to send them to someone else.

2. Think on your own time.
Most of us think while we write. . . . Find your main point in each paragraph and delete everything else.

3. Keep paragraphs short.
Your idea gets lost in a paragraph that's more than four or five lines. Two lines is the best length if you really need your reader to digest each word.

4. Write like you talk.
Each of us has the gift of rhythm when it comes to sentences, which includes a natural economy of language. But you must practice writing in order to transfer your verbal gifts to the page. . . .

5. Delete.
When you're finished, you're not finished: cut 10% of the words. . . . Luckily, you don't have to write for publication, so you can celebrate if you cut more than 10%. . . .

6. Avoid adjectives and adverbs.
The fastest way to a point is to let the facts speak for themselves. Adjectives and adverbs are your interpretation of the facts. If you present the right facts, you won't need to throw in your interpretation. . . .

I don't have anything to add to this list, which is not surprising. It's a good list! One way to learn to write like you talk is to get a tape recorder (I've done this recently). Yes, your coworkers will think you've lost it, but it works! Talk away into the mic, and let it all out, jumbled and raw and just how you thought it originally. You can then upload the audio to your computer and transcribe into a Word document. I wouldn't recommend this for every single email to your boss, but for a large report when you just need to get something on the page, why not? It beats the blank page blues and as usual, I realize I have a lot more to say than I can ever use in my written report.

 

Yapping Again About Productivity

I'm talking productivity yet again. It might be because I tested out as Generation Y (in reality, I'm Generation X) a couple of months ago, but I'm fascinated with productivity information and various ways that companies are trying to improve workflow and process and profit. How do they do it? Measuring productivity, of course!

In the town of Redding, Connecticut, city workers moved to a four-day workweek, working Monday through Thursday, and not working on Friday. The Acorn-Online.com reports on the early results.

"It has been only a little over a week since the town went to a four-day workweek, closing offices on Fridays, but an increase in productivity is already being noticed.
"'I've received positive feedback from employees,' said First Selectman Natalie Ketcham. 'Most of us field telephone calls from residents. With the longer workday, we are able to finish other work that may have been put aside when responding to those calls.'"

Smartbrief.com has a nice round-up of stories related to productivity, but the main point is that there are many options out there and it can't hurt to try a few and see how your employees do.

"If you want employees to work nights and weekends to complete a project, you've got to give something in return. Some companies find that something can be flexibility in employees' schedules, which not only allows workers to pursue outside interests, but also benefits the company.

"Flexible schedules can be completely open-ended -- as long as the work gets done -- or can be scheduled around a graduate student's school schedule, pro bono work or even a second job.

"Companies find that flex time helps their employees become more productive and helps create a 'good workplace environment that begets good work.'"

Business24-7.com, based in the United Arab Emirates, talks about ergonomic issues as a factor in productivity.

"Two out of three employees suffer from work-related repetitive strain injury (RSI) and this costs companies a fortune in lost working hours, says a new report from the UK.

"RSI - widely linked to the use of computer keyboards - costs employers in Britain £300 million (Dh2.2 billion) annually in lost productivity and sick pay, according to a study by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. The condition accounted for an estimated 3.5m lost working days in 2006-07.

"The problem is also acute in the Middle East with the hot summer preventing staff from taking breaks from their desks. And the region is not as advanced as Europe at preventing the disabling condition."

So what ideas have you put into place to improve productivity? Post a comment and let me know!