FlexWork – New Ways of Working in Remote Regions

FlexWork - flexible working

If you are a one-person business, you probably consider that you already have a fairly flexible approach to work. After all, you are the person who handles sales, provides customer support, prepares the accounts and buys the office supplies – on top of delivering whatever product or service you offer to your customers.

However FlexWork is concerned with helping small businesses use Information and Communications Technology to work more efficiently and/or exploit new types of business opportunity. Such ‘Flexible Working’ technology is particularly valuable to the one-person ‘microbusiness’ because, not only can it streamline much of the day-to-day routine, it can also help you serve your customers better and make it possible for you to work as part of a distributed team on tasks that are too big for you to tackle on your own.

One-person businesses are as varied as the people who run them so there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ prescription for flexible working. You need to think about the kind of business that you are (or want to be) but there is almost certainly some way, in which you could use Information and Communications Technology to work more flexibly and efficiently.

Managing the daily routine

Any business involves a certain amount of paperwork and a Personal Computer running a standard suite of office software will handle all of it, from producing professional looking estimates, brochures and invoices through to keeping track of your cashflow. e-mail is becoming increasingly acceptable for routine correspondence with customers and suppliers, and the ubiquitous mobile phone means that you need never be out of touch.

Many of your suppliers probably offer on-line ordering services and most banks provide electronic banking services. These should allow you to deal with most routine transactions without leaving the office. In addition, increasing numbers of government agencies offer the option of delivering official paperwork by e-mail or via their websites.

If you spend a lot of your time on the move, you may want to consider a laptop rather than a desktop PC, so that you can take it with you and keep on top of the paperwork whilst away from base. Your mobile phone can be used to link the laptop to your e-mail and Internet services, but it is a relatively slow and expensive way of doing it.

Many mobile or nomadic workers use a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) instead of a laptop computer. As well as your diary and address book, these pocket-sized devices can store most of the information you are likely to need for a meeting and they can also be used for taking notes and checking your e-mail. PDAs are designed to synchronise the information they hold with a master copy held on your PC and some come with a special cradle which remains connected to the PC and automatically carries out this synchronisation whenever the PDA is put in the cradle.

None of these devices or services is particularly difficult to use but it is worth spending some time exploring what they can do and learning how to use those features that are of most use to you. They can significantly reduce the time spent managing your business and allow you to spend more time serving your customers.

Serving your customers

The same technology that allows you to carry your office with you makes it possible for your customers to contact you anywhere and at any time. It also means that you should have the information available to answer their questions. This can be something of a mixed blessing. You may never miss a sales opportunity but you also risk being bombarded with trivial enquiries from customers who can’t be bothered to read an instruction manual.

You should therefore consider how to use voicemail or an answering machine to manage your accessibility. An answering service can be set up with a simple menu, which lets callers leave a message or listen to recorded information about your business and its products. It can also be used to screen incoming calls, so that you can pick up those which are genuinely urgent. Remember that the technology is there to serve you rather than the other way around. There will be times when you need peace and quiet to get on with some actual work – whether it is having a confidential discussion with a client, writing a report, working on a piece of equipment or completing the VAT return.

A website is a good way of supporting your customers when you can’t or don’t want to be personally available. Most Internet Service Providers offer you a website as part of the basic subscription and will help you to prepare and load your web pages. If you just want a simple website that presents a profile of your business, a catalogue of your products or services and a set of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ about those products or services, you can probably adapt your existing publicity material and instruction manuals yourself. However, if you want the site to include on-line order forms, video clips and mind-numbing graphics, you will need the help of a professional web designer. Bear in mind that you need to let your customers know about the website by adding the address to your letterhead and telling regular customers what it can offer them.

Going global

The Internet can help you to do business anywhere in the world. It may not be a useful way of finding new customers if you repair washing machines but it could help you track down and buy spare parts more cheaply. If, on the other hand, you have specialist products or services that are only of interest to a small fraction of the population, the Internet can rapidly and inexpensively make them available to many more potential customers.

One way of doing this is to set up a company website. However new customers are unlikely to come across your website by accident. You need to advertise it and this can be time consuming and expensive. An alternative is to join one of the growing number of electronic commerce services. These provide electronic marketplaces where you can offer your wares. Most of these services will take orders and collect payments on your behalf. By acting as a ‘trusted’ intermediary, they remove much of the risk in doing business with someone you don’t know – something which both you and your new customers will appreciate. You can find out about e-commerce services from any of the major web search engines. Have a look at those which specialise in your line of business and try to find one that you think your typical customers would be happy to use.

The Internet also allows a one-person business to link up with other small businesses in virtual teams. These virtual teams can tackle much bigger tasks than any of the individual members could handle on their own. They seldom, if ever, meet physically and exchange information using e-mail and teleconferences. Videoconferencing is sometimes used but seeing pictures of each other is usually less important than having a shared set of working papers. Modern teleconferencing applications can provide access to a common set of documents and an electronic whiteboard for capturing comments and ideas. The FlexWork team is itself an example of a virtual team. The members come from ten European countries and several of us are one-person businesses. The team meets physically two or three times a year but almost all of our work is done by phone and e-mail.

Virtual teams can also tackle complex engineering projects, such as designing a building or developing a piece of software. Members of such teams need specialist tools for Computer Supported Collaborative Working (CSCW) so that they can share the design documents and control the status of those documents. Such tools tend to be industry specific and you can learn about them from innovative colleagues or specialist magazines serving your industry.

A final piece of advice

Flexible working uses technology to extend, rather than replace, many traditional models of work. For example:

Working at home is not a radical new concept, but flexible working allows home workers to carry out a much wider range of tasks and work together more effectively as members of teams.

Salesmen have traditionally been nomadic workers, regularly visiting their customers in search of new orders. Flexible working makes them much more effective nomadic workers – e.g. by answering all a customer’s questions and closing the deal without referring back to head office.

Freelance professionals and ‘journeyman’ workers have always formed short-lived teams to tackle specific tasks, e.g. building a bridge or making a movie. Flexible working makes it possible to form such teams more quickly and also to address new types of task that require ‘virtual’ teams which seldom, if ever, meet physically.

Every small business has a valuable ‘network’ of contacts – suppliers, customers and associates. Flexible working broadens and merges these networks, so that members can respond more rapidly to a wider range of business opportunities.

Finally, before you rush out and spend your hard earned profits on new technology, have a careful look at what you already have. Your existing phone, fax, answering machine and PC could probably do many things that would help your business run more smoothly, if only you knew which buttons to press. Flexible working is not necessarily about using the most advanced technology available. It’s about using what is best suited to the kind of business you are – or want to be.

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