Office technology can enhance productivity by automating time-consuming drudgery and offloading brain-draining tasks such as managing budgets and organizing records. But the same technology can also prove to be time-wasters, especially if used incorrectly.
Business owners often come to rely too much on a specific tool or app because of its novelty or because it's what they've been using for years without giving much thought to whether it's making their companies and employees more productive.
Take Bryan Council, co-founder and president of Birmingham, Ala.-based broadcast news-monitoring firm Metro Monitor, for example. Two years ago, he reevaluated the 18-year-old company's technology processes. One of the biggest changes he made was switching from using Microsoft Office software such as Word and Excel to the online Google Docs applications. Service upgrades are made automatically and the web-based automatic version tracking functions eliminate the need for employees to pass documents around or rename files after making changes.
"Conservatively, I would estimate we see about three hours a week in time savings [after switching to Google Docs]," Council says.
We asked small-business owners about which applications they've found to be the biggest time-wasters. Here, they've identified the top seven and offer solutions for how to improve efficiency.
1. Contact management apps
Businesses often don't have client contact information stored in one centralized application. Instead, employees carry separate contact lists spread over numerous apps like Apple Address Book and popular email services including Microsoft Outlook and Google's Gmail. It wastes time having to ask around about who has the relevant contact information or, worse, not being able to find it at all.
Solution: For the same reason he likes Google Docs, Council suggests moving contacts online with Salesforce, a database that can be accessible by any employee, anywhere, with fields for recording details about client interactions. Pricing ranges from $5 to $25 per user per month, depending on the features.
2. Social media apps.
Even when used for business promotion, people can waste time using social-media apps such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn if they jump at every message or troll constantly for mentions of their company or other topics.
Solution: First, don't use a web browser for monitoring social media apps. Active social networkers should use a free dashboard app such as TweetDeck or Hootsuite, says Glenn Phillips, president of San Francisco-based computer consulting firm Forté. Dashboards aggregate multiple services for a quick overview and allow users to schedule several social posts at a time.
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Also consider checking messages at regular, predetermined intervals. For Twitter, Council suggests creating saved searches that collect mentions for later reading. He also recommends setting up a separate email account that's dedicated specifically for social media so your updates don't distract you from important work email.
If not prioritized appropriately, checking and responding to email can be a time-killer, warns Jared Goralnick, founder of Walnut, Calif.-based AWAYfind, a maker of email alert software. People often respond to emails in the order that messages arrive rather than in order of importance, he says.
Solution: Goralnick recommends moving non-urgent emails that might take more than a couple minutes to handle to a task list that prioritizes them. If you are still using Microsoft Outlook 2003, upgrade to the 2007 or 2010 versions, which provide better, faster searches -- eliminating the need for meticulous filing.
4. Microsoft PowerPoint
Two extremes can hinder your productivity as well as that of your audience: Not having enough information on a slide can make your presentation hard to follow, while too much information might be too much work for you and mind-numbing for others.
Solution: Keep information on slides minimal, but with bullets to highlight key points, recommends Tim Crawford, chief information officer of Foster City, Calif.-based small-business IT consulting firm All Covered. The real "meat" of the presentation, he says, should be delivered verbally. If extra detailed information is necessary, one option is provide it afterwards as a hand-out.
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5. Instant Messengers
Employees may conduct prolonged exchanges over instant messengers including AOL Instant Messenger and Google Chat. As with texting, the problem is that it's usually faster to have one full conversation rather than a series of conversation snippets.
Solution: Save instant messaging for communicating with employees in remote offices or who aren't within earshot. When you do send a message, keep it simple. If the conversation requires more than a few messages back-and-forth, try the telephone.
6. Microsoft Access database
Business users such as attorneys often use Access to store the thousands of records required for a complex case. But starting at $200, this software has limitations and can be slow when it comes to searching the database, says Bill McComas, a partner in Baltimore law firm Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler.
Solution: For large projects that include thousands of documents, try using a structured query language (SQL) database such as Oracle's cloud-based offerings, which are designed specifically for managing large amounts of data. The entry-level Oracle Database XE is free. The more advanced Standard Edition One is $180 per person per year. Both require an experienced database programmer to set them up.
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For small projects, consider using Evernote. You can take notes directly in this free app as well as drag and drop documents, PDFs, spreadsheets and even audio and video files. And a browser plugin captures Web pages. A $5 monthly fee adds backup to the cloud and features additional search capability and version tracking of documents.
7. Google Analytics
While Google Analytics can be a useful, free tool for monitoring traffic and trends on a Web site, it can also become addictive for people who become "fixated," constantly checking how a business site is performing, says Phillips.
Solution: Google's Web metrics might be more important for some businesses than others. Unless your company is web-based and your traffic is a direct function of your revenue, it's probably "sufficient" for most companies to check this app once every couple weeks, Phillips says.