1. Introduction

Productivity means achieving more with your existing resources. It involves getting the very best from the people who work in your business by creating an environment in which they can perform at their peak, continually improve their working practices, and collaborate effectively as a team.

Many useful software tools now exist to help your team do just that, tools that can improve performance across a wide range of business functions. Tools that can help your people to work smarter, not harder.

"Improved productivity means less human sweat, not more.”

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2. The impact of cloud computing

The combination of Superfast Broadband and digital technology makes it possible for SMEs to get access to the very latest online productivity tools without having to make large investments in new hardware or software. New resources can be bought in as services, rather than needing to be installed within your business. This means that the services you need can be scaled up or down according to demand and that you only pay for those services that you actually use.

Online technology has a number of important benefits for SMEs. You can get affordable access to the latest technology and, unlike traditional IT systems, cloud-based applications can be deployed very quickly. Your staff can use these tools anywhere there is an internet connection and on multiple devices – PC, tablet and smartphone. Your applications can be regularly updated so that they are always state-of-the-art. In addition, the leading cloud providers have world-class security systems which are continually updated to take account of the latest cyber threats, giving you peace of mind when it comes to your data.

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3. How can online productivity tools help your business?

Project planning and management: There are many tools available to help you manage complex projects. Trello is a collaboration tool that gives you a visual overview of what is being worked on, who in the team is working on it, and what status each part of the project has reached. It can be used via the website or app. It helps you to assign tasks and then track them to completion. Basecamp is a system for staying on top of projects, organised around six key tools:

  • To-do lists for tracking work
  • Message board for updates
  • Campfire for chat among the team
  • Docs and files for organising all the info the team needs
  • A schedule section for key deadlines and
  • Automatic check-ins to get regular updates from the team members.

Asana is another task management tool with a dashboard that is easy to navigate. You can create tasks and assign them to specific teammates and monitor the progress of those tasks. To avoid missing deadlines, the software will send email alerts whenever a specific task is due.

Time tracking and time management: Tools such as these can help you keep track of how your team’s time is being spent, help you to improve how your team’s time is allocated, and streamline the process of calculating and invoicing any hours that need to be billed to your clients. Toggl gives you a quick and easy way of tracking your time between multiple projects and then reporting on them. It will also integrate with the key project management programmes. Harvest and Freckle offer comparable products.

Financial packages: Products like these can help your business carry out key tasks such as bookkeeping and invoicing quickly and efficiently. Brightbook, LessAccounting, Xero and Freshbooks are just a few examples of the many financial and accounting tools available. They also have features that help you keep track of expenses and you can set up automated processes for regular tasks, such as following up with clients.

Document management: Wasting time searching for the documents you need is costly and inefficient. It also makes it difficult for your teams to collaborate effectively on projects. Cloud-based document sharing systems such as Microsoft Sharepoint, Google Docs and Dropbox overcome these problems. These products make it easy to access documents, share them and collaborate, while also having features for capturing notes or comments. They can also be useful for archiving old files and deleting out of date information, so that your system doesn’t become cluttered with obsolete files.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM): CRM systems are valuable for capturing all the information that you hold about your customers, details about your relationship with them and records of your interactions. Using your CRM system can help you identify your strongest sales prospects and convert them more effectively, and therefore have a dramatic impact on your sales performance. There is a wide range of online CRM software tools to choose from, including products such as Zoho, Dynamics and Insightly. Most of the leading products will enable you to automate key parts of your workflow, create bespoke reports and integrate with email providers for devising marketing campaigns to attract new business. These systems can also be integrated with your sales pipeline management and sales forecasting functions.

Social Media Management: If your business operates across a number of social media channels, then there are specialist software tools that can help you manage all your social media from a single dashboard and schedule regular updates of your feeds. The most famous example is Hootsuite, but other products include Buffer and GetStacker. For example, you can pre-programme a month’s worth of social media posts, making it much easier for your team to stay on top of their workload.

Communication tools: Superfast Broadband has made a host of new communication tools available at a cost that is affordable for small businesses. Services such as Skype and Facetime make video calls and video conferencing more accessible. Voice-Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology makes telephone conference calls more cost-effective. All these technologies can help your teams to be more productive by reducing wasted travel time, improving access to your customers (in the UK and overseas) and helping to support flexible working practices.

Email management: It has been estimated that the average office worker now receives 122 work emails per day. Fortunately, there are tools available that can help alleviate the burden of dealing with all this email traffic. For example, SaneBox is a programme which stops you getting distracted by unimportant emails by automatically moving them to a separate folder for later viewing. For outward bound email campaigns, MailChimp provides an easy to use system with convenient templates for creating your own emailshots. If you have fewer than 2,000 subscribers, MailChimp will allow you to send up to 12,000 emails per month free of charge, making it an attractive option for start-up businesses.

4. The benefits for your business

Tools of the kind described above can help you to achieve more with your time and to work more accurately and effectively. They can help you identify and eliminate time-wasting activities that are not delivering value to your business. They can help to improve collaboration and teamwork, helping your staff to stay on top of their projects, manage their progress and deadlines, and have complete clarity on who in the team is responsible for each specific task. It is easier to manage complex tasks and reduces the risk of making mistakes. These tools help your business to be more agile, flexible and more responsive to the needs of your customers, thus building a more professional image for your business.

“Technology has transformed our relationships with staff and customers.” Read how Apollo Wales used digital to sustain and grow their business.

The way that you manage key documents becomes much more streamlined and efficient. You can automatically access documents from different locations and automatically synchronise documents between different devices. Modern document management systems feature automatic versioning, storage and back-up. So if, for example, the latest version of a document becomes corrupt, you can simply revert to the prior version. This is also important for version control where for instance an engineer could check back through versions of technical designs to identify errors in the manufacturing process. Features like these can save your business from losing vital information and time.

You may currently be collaborating by emailing documents to multiple contacts, but this can be a very inefficient and time-consuming approach. It is difficult to keep track of everyone’s input and to know which version of the document is the latest and most up to date draft. These productivity tools take away all these problems, allowing multiple users to work simultaneously on the latest ‘live’ version of the document, while highlighting each person’s individual input.

These tools also help you to make the most of mobile working and flexible working. Your staff no longer have to be in the office in order to be productive. They can work from any location where there is an internet connection. Again, this enables them to achieve more with their time and to collaborate more effectively with colleagues and customers.

5. What about Open Source software?

Before opting for one of the subscription-based products, it is worth exploring the free Open Source tools that are available to you. If you find that these can deliver what your business needs, then there may be considerable savings to be made. Leading examples of Open Source services include Apache Open Office, LibreOffice, NeoOffice and KOffice. LibreOffice has a software suite that includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics and database management.

6. Case study

Celtest, a leading UK business that provides UKAS accredited compliance-testing services for materials used in large construction and engineering projects has implemented a sustained programme of digital investment for its test data and results to improve its competitiveness.

Over the course of a year, it’s made significant savings in telecoms costs through a VoIP phone system, improved efficiency each week by making savings using electronic reporting direct from test sites and increased the amount of business enquiries coming through its upgraded website. The company has also vastly improved cyber-security and is GDPR compliant.

“The last 12 months have been transformational for the business, to the point that it’s hard to remember how we coped before the decision to move to the digital systems,” said Celtest’s business development manager, Iwan Morgan.

“The move has meant that working patterns have also changed for a lot of staff and that took a while to get used to, but now everyone is fully on board and the business is really benefiting as a result.”

Under the old regime, Celtest technicians could be based at a site for three to four days with test data not relayed to the office, and reports not produced for the client. Depending on the project, reporting now takes less than 24 hours, with some completed almost instantly.  There have been other cost and efficiency savings in areas like generating invoices – the new automated system saves around two hours a week – and the firm’s new VoIP based phone system has improved the quality and efficiency of calls, as well as benefiting the company financially.

Iwan said: “The investment we’ve made in digital technology has already paid for itself and we are just starting to see the benefits of the time we’ve put into re-developing the website. The support from Superfast Business Wales has been a key factor and we’d recommend other businesses who are looking at new digital platforms to sign up to the programme.”

Read the full story.

7. How to get started

  • Review your business processes. What are the key areas where you need to improve efficiency, boost output, and cut down on wasted time?
  • Research the market. Investigate the software tools that are available to address your business’ issues. Read any independent reviews and get referrals from contacts that you trust. Draw up a shortlist of options for your business.
  • Check compatibility. Make sure that the options you are considering are compatible with your existing systems.
  • Set up a free trial. Many providers of cloud services will allow you to try out the service before you commit to a contract. Get your full team involved in the trial so that you can be sure that the service is tested thoroughly and meets the needs of all your staff.
  • Tie down your service contract. Ask for information that will help you assess how reliable your provider’s service is, how comprehensive their security systems are, and what regular upgrades or improvements are included in your contract.
  • Know what results you want. Set goals in advance for the improvements that you want to achieve, then measure your performance against these targets, so that you can assess the benefits of the new software versus its costs.
  • Check your Superfast Broadband connection. Make sure that the speed and quality of your connection will enable you to reap the full benefit of these new tools, especially cloud services.

“Focus on being productive instead of busy.”
Tim Ferriss, business author and consultant.

8. Further information

What help is available?

Microsoft guide to their office productivity tools for businesses.

PC Mag overview of the different office suites available and their strengths and weaknesses.

Article on productivity tools by Inc.com.

Blog article on productivity tools aimed at small businesses and start-ups.