Every business aspires to be productive and efficient with their operations. After all, these are core components of the tried-and-tested recipe for a thriving business. But as a busy business leader, with an endless to-do list that grows daily, it’s often difficult to find the time to evaluate your processes and look at ways of improving your workflow.
What do I mean by business workflow? Think of your commute each morning and the steps you take to arrive at your desk. Your routine pattern of activity is predictable from home to work but largely uncontrollable; unless you have your own helicopter your journey is susceptible to change and delay. Business workflow, on the other hand, needs to be orchestrated and repeatable. A series of processes that easily transfer an activity from one step to another towards an end goal. And further than that, the ideal situation is that these can be rolled out while on the move too.
Here at pebble.it, we use a host of tools and applications to ensure our team is the most productive and efficient they can be. And while your specific business objectives and requirements will determine the best ‘set’ for you, I thought I’d take you through a ‘day in the life of’ type post, showing how we make the most of our technology to deliver our services.
Technology and Tools That Streamline Our Business Processes
After a cold and windy wait for my delayed train into London, I’m fortunate enough to get a seat. My devices are fully charged and I settle in for the trip. First task: Check my calendar and email.
1. Google APPS for Work
With a Google Apps for Work account, I am cloud-based from the start, which gives me all the benefits of connecting to a more traditional in-house, company email and communication platform, but with the freedom and security to share and access other communication tools from any device.
My first meeting is looking tight so instead I add a video call to the calendar event and an email is automatically sent with a link to the client. When I’m at my desk later I can hop over to my laptop, open a browser window and include up to 15 participants in a fully encrypted conversation, recording the session if I choose.
2. Google Docs
Next I decide to open a proposal that’s already been started in Google Docs. Anyone with the link can access and edit the document simultaneously and in real-time, which is useful for work where input and feedback from numerous people is required. This is especially helpful when client collaboration is needed. Clients can makes suggestions or edits to documents without having to set up or sign-in, via their usual browser, so we often revise proposals and project plans together before final copies are issued.
Next it’s probably a good idea to update the team on my whereabouts. For internal company messaging we don’t generally use email. We prefer Slack. It’s a tool that runs as a cross-platform app offering live messaging within company-wide and private team channels. I ‘slack’ the team that I’m running late.
Typical to my type-A personality, I’m a fan of lists, and my inbox is my first port of call. I mark relevant emails as tasks and then sync them as a list to a dashboard on my phone. From there, I order and schedule them as handy reminders throughout the day. But in order to do to-do lists properly, a kanban board is needed and we’ve found that Trello suits us best.
The Trello app creates boards, which contain individual lists, and within each list a series of cards. Cards can be dragged across lists to denote progress or actions. I order my projects between various list titles such as ‘Icebox’, ‘Backlog’ (Ready), ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’. Cards beneath each list describe the stage of individual projects and further action required. Specific team members subscribed to individual cards are responsible for progress and notified when updates are made. Iterations are recorded with the goal of moving cards to the right towards the ‘Done’ list.
So far I’ve used a number of different web-based apps from different providers. The real bump in productivity and efficiency comes from the ability to automate the tasks between these otherwise disparate systems. Our software glue of choice is Zapier. By setting up actions known as Zaps we’re able to integrate isolated tools and close infrastructure gaps. For example, we can automatically flash notifications to the general team channel in Slack when an activity board in Trello has reached a certain project stage. While this is a simple example, the triggers can be far more complex to initiate or complete more detailed or specific workflows too.
6 - 8. Harvest, Xero and Float
Okay, so after my first coffee, I’m at my desk for some proper work. As a service-based business, a critical element of our operation is tracking time. All of our services, consultancy and help desk time is logged in Harvest and from there it syncs to our accounting platform Xero. We also use Float to monitor budget and cashflow. Invoices and time reports can be quickly generated and emailed to clients as PDFs with embedded online payment links, cutting down on manual intervention and administration.
We take project management very seriously and adopt formal methodologies, including ITIL and PRINCE2 for our service delivery. SmartSheets is another web-based tool that gives our teams a robust project planning framework for access to collaborative project sheets listing tasks, schedules, critical paths, resourcing and gantt charts, with the ability to link or attach project related files. Again, sheets can be shared out with clients and you can select the level of access needed for effective participation from all parties.
Apps and automation are fantastic but nothing beats face-to-face team communication. Every morning the entire team gather for a stand-up meeting. We try to limit this session to 5-10 minutes and highlight any incidents, emerging issues and view a project activity board cast to a big screen behind us.
Some of our senior engineer team use Github as another powerful collaboration tool - this time for managing software code. As a solution provider we develop our own applications for distributing services to our clients. For example, our hosted device management tools utilise the open-source toolset found in Puppet and Munki. We use Github to maintain our own code repository and to keep track and review code iterations.
Time to step out for a breathe of fresh air (yes, freezing, but fresh). I take the opportunity to give a client a quick call using the SIP software app Bria. It’s installed on my mobile, but uses IP, rather than my mobile provider’s network. As this is tied to our office VoIP system I can accept and make calls as though I was sitting at my desk, transferring external calls between extensions all in carrier-grade HD.
So there you have it. A run down of a few of the applications that help make us more efficient in our daily operations - whether we’re at our desks or out on the road. I’m not claiming that our selection is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ bundle, each business is unique and your needs may be quite different from ours. I do, however, encourage you to evaluate your individual business processes and see whether routine tasks could be automated with the help of technology, instantly boosting your productivity and bottom-line.
If you'd like to chat about your specific needs, feel free to get in touch. We'll gladly help you find the right combination of applications to drive efficiency.