FlexWork – New Ways of Working in Remote Regions

FlexWork - flexible working

If, like most small businesses, you are bombarded with brochures and adverts telling you how spending a few hundred pounds (or a few thousand!) will make your business run so much better, you probably feel that you are being left behind and are confused. But, before you go out and listen to the sales patter, look around your office at what you already have. With a little thought, you can use your existing equipment to help you work much more effectively.

Phones, answering machines and faxes

You can easily overlook the ordinary telephone as a means of improving the way you work. However, when used intelligently with other devices such as answering machines and faxes, the phone can provide you with much more than simple two-way speech.

If you use a cordless phone, you can make and receive calls anywhere within about 100m – 200m of your phone’s base station. This means that there is no need to be tied to one location in the building. Intercom facilities are also available between these phones (generally up to 6 – 8 handsets), making it easy to transfer calls from one user to another or for users to talk to each other, wherever they are in the building.

If you are not able to answer your phone, an answering machine means you can give information to callers and take their messages. As well as basic answering machines, you can buy ones which have a simple menu system to let the caller decide whether they want to leave a message for a specific department, choose from recorded information, or leave a general enquiry.  Have a look at the manual that came with your machine – you may be surprised what it can do!

If you don’t have an answering machine like this, many of the phone service companies sell a network-based service that can answer voice and fax calls for different people if you are out or all of your phones are in use. (An example is BT’s Callminder Plus service.)

Fax machines are often used to simply send documents from one machine to another in much the same way as a phone call would be made. However, most fax machines provide other facilities. For instance:

  • Fax storage – where the fax machine stores the received fax in memory and allows you to dial in from another fax machine to retrieve the fax.
  • Polling – where a fax machine can be set up to interrogate other fax machines to retrieve information from them. This can be useful to collect, for example, daily reports at the end of the day from other sites.
  • Broadcasting – where a fax machine can be set up to send the same message to a series of other fax machines.

For a small company, a combined phone, fax and answering machine can be very useful, since it provides all of these functions in one device and takes up less space than separate machines. Most of them can also be used as simple photocopiers and some can be connected to your PC to work as a (relatively low quality) printer and/or scanner.

PCs

The right PC (i.e. office computer) with the right applications is a very powerful tool. It is difficult to give general advice about what PC is most suitable, since they are advancing rapidly in their abilities and the precise configuration needed depends very much on what it is being used for. You don’t always need the latest, fastest machine advertised in the shops. A slower, older machine can be perfectly capable of carrying out many office tasks – so don’t assume that you have to throw away what you already have. However, bear in mind that the average useful life of a PC is only around 4 years at best; after that, they become too outdated for many uses.

If you do decide to buy a new PC, it is important to always remember that you are likely to find other tasks for it to perform once you have got used to using it. It makes sense to buy a slightly more powerful machine than you need, rather than to try to save a small amount of money by buying a machine that will only just cope with the tasks you have in mind.

Office suites

Most PC suppliers either include, or offer as an extra, software that will provide the basic functions that you need. These are often referred to as “office suites“. The most common product is Microsoft’s Office, but Lotus’ SmartSuite, Corel’s WordPerfect Office and Sun’s StarOffice are also contenders. Microsoft’s Works suite is often offered as a standard with many PCs and can perform many of the basic functions needed by small company, but it is more limited than the other suites mentioned here.

Office suites all offer a word processor, a spreadsheet, e-mail and a web browser. In addition, some of them offer some of the other applications described below.

Word processors are widely used, but their features are often widely under-used. They allow text to be written and edited on the screen, spelling to be checked (in multiple languages), automatic page and paragraph numbering, text replacement (e.g. changing January to February) throughout a document and graphics and tables to be inserted. However, many users treat them simply as electronic typewriters and ignore the possibilities opened up by their rich set of features, such as creating professional-looking company brochures.

Spreadsheets are mainly used for manipulating numbers, such as keeping track of business expenses. Although they may appear daunting at first, they are very easy to learn to use for basic tasks and make it easy to experiment with figures to see what the effect of changing, for instance, the cost of raw materials might be on the final cost of a product. The main spreadsheet packages can also act as simple databases.

Databases simply store information, such as customer information, in a structured way. Office suites may contain a set of tools that will allow users to build their own databases from scratch and will often include a number of already built databases (e.g. customer orders). A well-constructed database makes it very easy to manage information and understand what is happening in your business and with your customers and suppliers.

Typical office suite screens Graphics software is sometimes included as part of an office suite. Graphics software lets you create drawings, such as a company logo or the plan of a room, and edit images, such as tidying up a photograph or changing the colour of a product in a photograph. Graphics software is invaluable for adding illustrations to your company documents and for explaining products or services to clients.

Presentation software is used to create presentations that can be displayed on a PC or printed out. When used with a PC (connected to a projector), impressive presentations with animations and sound effects can be easily produced. It is also possible to produce a presentation about your company and send it to clients (by e-mail or on a CD) for them to run on their own machine. This can be a good way to get your message across in an interesting fashion, but beware of sending large presentations by e-mail – massive e-mail files are not popular with recipients.

Diary and address book packages come as part of many office suites. They work much like the paper-based versions but are much more versatile. For instance, you can track which e-mails or letters were sent to a particular person and when. If the diary and contact information is stored on a PC which other people in the company have access to, then it is easy to see where each person is and when they are available.

A final piece of advice

Many offices have much of the equipment described above. They also probably have manuals that were unpacked when the equipment was new, glanced at and filed. Get the manual out and look at it again! You will find that there are many more useful things that you can do with the equipment you already have to make your business run more effectively.

For more advice on how to use the technologies available to you, visit the FlexWork web site at www.flexwork.eu.com

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