For most companies, having a significant portion of the workforce remote and working from home can create logistical challenges.
However, there is a range of online tools designed to aid businesses operate wherever there is internet access; many of which are free for basic services or a small number of users; and many can be used across a variety of devices.
You may find that you change to these tools permanently. The creators of these apps have clearly identified the SME sector as a significant market and as such the pricing format is both simple and cost effective, usually priced per user on a monthly subscription, many offer pricing plans such as ‘basic’, ‘premium’ and ‘enterprise’.
Pick the right package by reading reviews and discussing with your team
Be careful not to be dazzled by the range of services included in the higher priced packages as many of the extra tools are unnecessary for a small company. Start with a basic or free package and test it out.
The apps are often very easy to install and deploy. Rolling out a new system used to involve a dedicated IT team, but now the apps have been designed with this in mind. Usually it is just a matter of signing up online then adding users.
Each user receives an invitation to join and can then access the service via a browser or download an app. It is worth spending a bit of time comparing the apps available. There are several review sites that will compare the different offerings, outlining the differences and giving their take on the best.
Take some time to think about how you will use the app and discuss with your team. Setting up the whole business to run smoothly in the cloud can take time, but it doesn’t need to be expensive.
You will need several apps to do several tasks, so start with one task that you feel is most important and get that in place first. This could be video calling, a phone system, file storage, accounting etc.
Video calling and virtual site visits
Being able to communicate with your internal team is vital for keeping productivity and morale high. It is very easy for remote staff to be disconnected if the only contact with team leaders or company owners is just through email.
Regular visual or verbal contact with your staff should be high on the priority list; it is important for disseminating information, but it is also important for the mental health of the team.
Like most professionals in the construction industry, we were carrying out regular design team meetings, usually at an architect’s office, and carrying out site visits. We have taken to carrying out both internal and external meetings remotely, but the biggest change was using the online meeting apps for virtual site visits.
This has worked extremely well; we have been able to simultaneously discuss projects with end clients, designers and contractors, while they walk around the site showing us areas of interest or concern. We are also able to share our screen to show drawings and make live sketches for discussions.
Typical apps include Teams, Skype, Zoom, Whatsapp and even Facetime. There are also apps for messaging including Teams, Slack and Whatsapp, which can be configured to create teams for group discussions, file sharing etc.
We have moved all internal conversations from email to messaging and keep Outlook for just external emails – this reduces inbox clutter!
Being able to access all of your project data is essential to ensure all of the team are up to date with drawings, calculations, reports etc. A cloud based storage system allows files to be uploaded for access by the team.
Many apps have approval systems in place if you wanted to limit access. Microsoft uses Sharepoint and similar tools can be found on Google, Dropbox, Box, Wetransfer etc.
Sharepoint allows multiple users to open and edit files simultaneously. Be mindful of backup and rollback features to protect accidental deletion or corruption of files.
For many years, I ran all the company accounts from Excel spreadsheets. This was very time consuming! However, the rise of cloud based accounting software has completely changed the way small companies can run their accounts.
Typical services include Zoho, Xero, Quickbooks and Sage. Again, some offer free services for small companies.
For the short term changing over to a new system may not be ideal, however, there are other apps which can aid with monitoring costs; Clockify is a very simple time logging app where staff can log hours spent on projects to ensure that productivity is good. This app can give weekly or monthly reports for the team lead to check time spent, which can be related back to the fee.
Accounting was the hardest one to change over. It is essential to running a business and therefore we ran the new online system in parallel with the old Excel based system for a number of months to make sure it was working well.
We also involved our accountant in this process to ensure nothing was missed.
It is essential during difficult times to ensure clients can reach your business simply and quickly. Online phone systems have made a big impact recently and do not rely on a fixed location for a landline number.
We use a softphone system which runs through an app rather than a desk phone. Our office number calls the app which can be answered from any location, on several devices.
This means all of our staff are able to pick up incoming calls and can transfer calls at a click of a button. This even allows individual staff members to set working hours on the app, so they are not called when not working – this is very useful for those how are working mixed hours due to childcare.
Don’t think you need to sign up to expensive packages if you need simple solutions. Many of the online apps offer a free service or trial periods; some have very simple pricing based on a monthly rate per user and can be deployed without needing any IT experience.
Work out what you need from these apps, do some research and read the reviews. Once you get into using these, it opens up a whole new way of working, many apps integrate across apps and platforms – as an example, you can schedule a Zoom meeting direct in Outlook, which invites attendees and adds the meeting to your calendar.
Involve your staff or team. Allow them to test out different apps and give feedback. This is going to be a testing time for the whole company and the more you can engage with the team, the easier adoption will be.
Finally, a word or warning; adding these apps can open up security, privacy and data protection issues. Think about data backup and disaster protection.
Make sure your internal processes are in place to prevent unwanted access to your data and don’t assume that these apps have robust security and privacy policies in place – check!