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Posts for February 2011

Good email etiquette costs nothing and is worth a lot

February 28, 2011 by Monica Seeley

Manners notice

Have you ever received no reply to an email? Is it down to email overload, arrogance or plain bad manners?

There is no need to say thank you for each and every email you receive. However there is a time and a place when a simple response is needed.

No reply, no relationship

Recently a well-established trade magazine asked for volunteers to write expert online columns. They never either acknowledged or replied to my email. Is this because they feel no need to demonstrate the basic simple courtesy just blogged by Ted Coine or is the requesting editor's email inbox so overstuffed they don't read half their emails?

Worst of all, is it old guard establishment arrogance?

No excuse for bad manners

Compare this experience with a smaller, newer website which made the same request and has taken the time to reply and nurture our relationship. They've even created a learning experience for me as an added bonus.

It’s a competitive market no matter what your business, but especially for online content. Just look at AOL’s takeover of the Huffington Post. All email software lets you send automatic responses and create template emails to use to say ‘thanks but the post has been filled’. There is no excuse for bad manners.

What do you think? Who would you rather give your business to?

Image from Flickr user CarbonNYC under a Creative Commons licence.

Face it — who needs video calling?

February 24, 2011 by Martin Read

Train fares are astronomical and petrol is £1.25 per litre. Fortunately, it’s possible for people to collaborate — and salesmen to meet clients — via audio and web conferencing services. Hurrah! But hang on — what about that other form of conferencing technology?

Video conferencing has been on the market for the last fourteen years, but uptake among SMEs remains poor. Despite manufacturers’ best efforts, SMEs have bypassed it in favour of its conferencing cousins, audio and web, or are showing little enthusiasm for it. Why?  

Audio killed the video star

For small firms, the answer lies in the arcane standards and expensive kit that, until now, have made video conferencing something of a luxury purchase. The value of video is easier to quantify in large multinationals, where savings on air fares can be substantial.

Smaller businesses, by contrast, are only likely to be using video if they have a special need, such as using sign language to communicate or getting instant feedback on prototypes. Otherwise, an audio conference call — or web conference for presentation purposes — is a perfectly adequate alternative.  

2011 — video goes viral

2011 could be different, though — and here’s why: Most video conferencing services are now conducted over the open internet, so there’s no need for separate ISDN lines, extra call costs or desktop boxes. What’s more, those shopping for new kit will find that many new laptops come with front facing cameras and the necessary video calling software.

More importantly, perhaps, are the many tablet PCs launching this year, all with video call capabilities built in. Then there’s the ongoing smart phone revolution which has just seen Skype introduce video calling over 3G networks, and Apple promoting its proprietary FaceTime software on the iPhone 4 (albeit restricted to use over Wi-Fi, at least for now).

So the stars appear to be aligning. In 2011, video calling will be available on all sorts of device — PC-to-PC, mobile-to-mobile, and computer-to-mobile. It might just be worth evaluating the potential benefits of face-to-face video conferencing in your business. And if you do, here’s my prediction...  

You won’t countenance it

Unless you have a specialist requirement, you probably won’t bother with video. For one thing, who needs the grief? A face looking at another face makes perfect sense when it’s what’s actually happening in the real world, but — on screen, and on camera? Suddenly you’re an actor giving a performance.

You gesticulate, nod, smile, grimace or gurn in some other way to animate your face in time with the conversation. Every nervous tic, or each moment of excessive eye contact, has the potential to be grotesquely accentuated or misinterpreted. Who needs that?

Some SMEs will doubtless experiment as costs drop and the kit becomes standard issue, but perhaps video conferencing was always destined for the living room instead of the office. Interacting on screen with a friend or relative is a completely different proposition.

Then again, even at home there are limitations. If I simply phone a friend or relative, we can have a perfectly productive conversation while changing clothes, drawing up a shopping list or putting the kettle on. On a video call, we’d be forced to, well, stare at each other. And that’s just weird.

So there you have it. Despite the shiny new kit, 2011 will NOT be the year in which video conferencing finally rocks the small business world. Now look me in the eye and tell me I’m wrong.

Do you need a managed print service?

February 21, 2011 by John Sollars

The difficult economy and resulting emphasis on cost savings has drawn attention to managed print services (MPS). But do the benefits really outweigh the loss of control your company would experience? John Sollars from explains.

What is a managed print service?

MPS typically refers to outsourcing the performance and maintenance of your company's printers. There are three main aspects:

  1. Control. The MPS provider assumes control of your printing hardware and print activities. They will monitor how you use printers and how well your business printers perform.
  2. Optimisation. In response to the data the MPS provider collects about your company's printing, they'll suggest and implement changes to increase efficiency.
  3. Management. Once your printing processes have been optimised, the MPS will look at efficiency gains in the actual documents going through the printer. This usually means creating procedures for your staff to follow.

Benefits of a managed print service

There are a number of benefits to using MPS:

  • Cost savings. Using MPS can result in lower maintenance costs, better cashflow (because you can accurately forecast your printer usage) and financial savings (in paper and printer supplies).
  • Time savings. If you already estimate your monthly printing costs, the cost per page and lifecycle of your printers, this will take significant effort. With MPS, it's done automatically.
  • Less hassle. If something goes wrong with a printer, you don't have to sort it out yourself. You should get a dedicated contact at your MPS provider whose job is it to resolve issues promptly.
  • Security. As this extreme case demonstrates, monitoring your use of printing supplies can reasure you that no members of staff are 'repurposing' supplies meant for business use.
  • Environmental credentials. Implementing MPS should lead to reduced electricity consumption, reduced ink / toner use and less paper wasted.

Disadvantages of a managed print service

Sersious problems with MPS providers are now relatively rare, as tough competition has helped iron out implementation and performance problems, creating a very reliable system. However, it's still larger companies that will benefit most from MPS  - even though many providers have options for lower quantity users, the benefits low-usage companies will enjoy are limited.

MPS contracts can also lead to complications, so I would encourage you to check your MPS contract with great care. Ridiculous as it sounds, some will even prohibit your employees from changing cartridges in printers. Having to wait for an approved ‘engineer’ to come and replace a toner cartridge will lead to completely unneccesary delays!

Also be wary of single manufacturer agreements. Linking you to one brand of printer for the duration of the contract means there's a chance you will lose out on new functions if your manufacturer is slow to react to market innovations. However, in such a competitive environment most manufacturers are on the ball, so the risk of this occurring is limited.

Does your company employ MPS? Have you heard any good or bad stories? Add your comment here.

John Sollars is MD of

Practical IT advice for your business

How to manage remote workers

February 17, 2011 by Administrator

Home office

This is a guest post from HP Business Answers. Check out our website, blog and Twitter feed. If you have a business IT question, why not ask our IT Agony Aunt for an expert answer?

Letting people work away from the office – at home, at client sites or even in the local coffee shop – can improve productivity and morale. It can also help reduce office costs. Many businesses are reluctant to take advantage of these benefits for fear of giving up management control. Here are some tips to help you manage remote workers more effectively:

  1. It's all about time. Set deadlines. Book phone calls and chats using instant messenger (IM) software. Set yourself a reminder.
  2. Know your team. Make sure you spend some face-to-face time with your team, both at work and informally.
  3. Share documents. Web services like Dropbox make it easy to share documents over the internet and for remote teams to collaborate together. For larger teams, an intranet tool may be more efficient.
  4. Measure. Find ways to monitor and track the work that people are doing. This will build trust and replace the more informal, face-to-face supervision.
  5. Delegate effectively. Set objectives that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
  6. Respect people's personal time. Don't fall into the trap of treating remote workers as if they were on call 24/7 simply because you can contact them outside 'normal' office hours.
  7. Take pictures. Post pictures of your team members or people on a website or pin board so that you can visualise people when you talk to them.
  8. Listen. In an office you can see when someone is upset or angry or bored. When they're on the end of a telephone, you need to listen actively and ask questions to find out how they're doing.
  9. Trust and be trusted. Trust builds when people do what they say they are going to do. As a boss, you need to set the highest standards of consistency and reliability. When you say you're going to do something, do it.
  10. Take turns. Let other people run meetings occasionally.
  11. Get objective feedback. Use 360-degree appraisals (consider including employees' families) and customer or peer surveys to make sure your virtual team is working well.
  12. Keep a schedule. Use a shared calendar to book meetings and share your schedule with your team (and vice versa).
  13. Be a role model. Set an example with your own punctuality, commitment, reliability and availability.
  14. Give recognition. It costs nothing to write a thank you note or to give praise where it is due. Recognition is a powerful motivator.
  15. Change your management style. Switch from managing by input (time in the office) to managing by output (goals met).
  16. Avoid second-class citizens. Once you've proven the concept, everybody should get a chance to work flexibly (unless their job prevents it). Don't give one person a notebook computer while chaining a colleague to their desk.
  17. Training. Train managers and employees about the challenges and techniques of flexible working. Don't assume that everyone knows how to do it well – they don't. Individuals may need extra help with, say, writing reports or using IT.
  18. Don't isolate people. Encourage regular visits to the main workplace, include flexible workers in company social events; and have more of those. Put procedures in place to monitor for stress and counteract it.
  19. Over-communicate. Many remote and home workers use VoIP (voice over internet protocol - using the internet as a telephone connection). Many HP notebooks include a built-in webcam that makes it easier to do video conferencing.

Image of a home office from Flickr user Fabio Bruna under a Creative Commons licence.

Could telecommuting get more out of your staff?

February 03, 2011 by John Sollars

Research conducted at Brigham Young University has delved into data from over 20,000 IBM employees across 75 countries, with surprising results.

Employees who telecommute (or work from home) not only balance work and personal life better than ‘standard’ office workers, but they manage to work more hours too.

The researchers identified the point where 25% of employees report their work to be interfering with personal or family life.

In some cases, workers who utilised a mix of flexitime and telecommuting were able to work 50% more hours per week before hitting that point. That amounts to a whopping 19 extra hours work over the same seven-day period. Aggregate this over a year and you’ll run out of work for your staff!

So what is telecommuting?

Telecommuting is an arrangement which gives your employees the freedom to work where and when they please. This gives them big flexibility in their working lives, can remove the daily commute and ditches the idea of having a centralised place of work. It's all reliant on a technology network which allows an employee to work anywhere, at any time.

As a business owner, not only can you get more out of each of your employees, but you can also enjoy significant cost savings. Here are just a few benefits of telecommuting:

  • Diminished office costs
  • Lower travel costs
  • A larger talent pool to pick from (telecommuting enable carers, parents and disabled people to be employed more easily)
  • Reduced absenteeism.

Couple these benefits with higher employee satisfaction and it is hard to see any downsides to telecommuting. However, they do exist.

Telecommuting caveats

If your employees are to really benefit from telecommuting, they need flexi-time too. Because without some flexibility in working hours, most of the benefits of telecommuting are removed. You simply replace the effort of getting to work at a set hour with the effort of getting to a place of your choosing on time.

You also need to think through how to handle management and performance reviews. To assuage fears that employees would simply abuse the power to work remotely, a results-based system needs to be in place. Instead of individually monitoring employees, their work and goals must be measured solely by results.

You have to trust your staff. Any mistakes in implementing this kind of management style could have an adverse effect on employee productivity. After all, what is the point of getting 19 hours more work a week if they get half as much done?

Have you tried telecommuting?

Implemented correctly, telecommuting can be positive both for you and your team. As someone once summed up: 'work is something you do, not something you travel to'.

So how about it? Do you know of any companies or people that enjoy a telecommuting system? Or do you know someone who struggles and would prosper more in a structured office environment?

John Sollars is MD of

Improving your business with information technology

Starting up your IT for free

February 03, 2011 by Ciaran Kenny

Green keyboard key saying Free

One of the more irritating aspects of setting up a business is that there are a few indispensible professional services that really just have to be paid for.

Leaving aside the fact that you can get some (sometimes) very good quality advice from a variety of online and publicly funded support services, it really is important to talk to an accountant pretty early in the evolution of any new business.

A quick session with a lawyer can be worthwhile too.  And there can be a few other professionals who get a slice of your increasingly meagre start-up funds.

Do you have to pay for IT?

So, should IT be included as one of those professional services you just have to pay for right from the start? A lot of start-ups like to look a bit bigger and better established than they actually are.

Even though the consistent advice is that this is unnecessary, it is hard to shake the view that, “even though it may be just me, somehow I need to look like a real business: I need to justify that Global Enterprises (UK) Ltd company name that set me back the better part of £100”.

Well, IT is one way you can do that: spend a couple of grand on a server, set up half a dozen email addresses, sync your mobile device, and maybe add some online file sharing and so on. Now you’re starting to look like a ‘real’ business.

But this all has a pretty high cost – and then you need to pay an IT company to look after that server and all your other equipment. This is starting to cost some serious money.

So could there be a way to use IT to add a little weight and gravitas to your start-up business without having to mortgage your house or sell your car?

Well, in short: yes there is!

All you need is a PC and internet access

It is a reasonable assumption that every business will have some kind of computer and some kind of internet connection. Armed with these weapons, there are three key online resources you can access to add a corporate sheen to your start-up. Two are free, and the third is almost free.

Given their (undeserved) penny pinching reputation it might be a surprise to learn that all three are from Microsoft. (Disclosure: Macnamara, my company, sells Microsoft-based IT solutions.)

  1. Have a look at Microsoft Windows Live Essentials for a wealth of free tools including photo and video editing, blog editing, email (designed for personal, not business use), plus some online storage space that allows you to share files.
  2. Next, check out Office Live and Office Web Apps for a free website and absolutely free access to basic featured versions of familiar Microsoft Office applications including Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
  3. Ready to dig a bit deeper? For £6.71 per month you can access the Microsoft Online Business Productivity Suite (soon to be renamed ‘Office 365’). This gives you IT capabilities similar to those of much bigger companies. You’ll get Exchange, Microsoft’s email and shared calendar system, and SharePoint, a collaboration tool which helps with file sharing and version control. There’s also Office Communications Server, which helps you hold online meetings, plus some other bits and bobs.

So there you have it. You can make a big corporate style splash for nothing, or next to nothing. Let us know how you get on.

This post is by Ciaran Kenny, owner of Macnamara.

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