10 of our favourite online tools (and why you should use them)

10 of our favourite online tools (and why you should use them)

If working through a global pandemic has achieved anything positive, it’s to show how transformative technology can be in the business world. In 2020, we all had to adapt our ways of working to operate within the restrictions inflicted by Covid-19. As a result, even the most technology-averse businesses have had to bite the bullet and use apps and online tools in ways they would never before have imagined possible.

Now we’ve started using technology in a smarter way, we’ve realised how it can make our working lives so much easier. So, for anyone looking to expand their repertoire of online tools in 2021, we’ve summarised some of our favourites here.

 

10 of the best online tools for business

 

  1. Effortless password management from LastPass

Longer passwords are more secure than shorter passwords. Using a mix of letters, numbers and special characters is also best practice. Don’t forget, you should also have a unique password for every login. How are you meant to remember it all? That’s where LastPass comes to the rescue by securely storing your login information for all the websites you use.

Discover LastPass

 

  1. DIY graphic design from Canva 

Canva is an online, one-stop-shop for everything graphic design. You’ll find fully customisable designs for newsletters, eBooks and reports and perfectly proportioned templates for social media graphics and promotional flyers. If you’re a beginner, fear not, it’s easy to use and there are enough options to get you started in the free version. For those with design skills or who want to flex some creative muscle, we love the pro version at Virtually Priceless.

Discover Canva

 

  1. Online accounting software from FreeAgent

Have you outgrown the spreadsheet that you’ve now been using for years to log invoices and expenditure? For businesses that don’t have a finance department, the constant battle to log, track and chase invoices and receipts can feel relentless. FreeAgent is an easy-to-use online bookkeeping solution. And if you have a NatWest business account, it’s free.

Discover FreeAgent

 

  1. Easy time recording from MinuteDock

You’ve finished work for the day, shut down your computer, and mentally you have a glass of wine in hand about to press play on your current Netflix obsession. And then you remember you’ve forgotten to log the last few hours of activity on a timesheet. MinuteDock gets rid of that sinking feeling. It does all the work for you by tracking your time as you work. You can also use it to auto-generate accurate invoices.

Discover MinuteDock

 

  1. Insightful editing support from Grammarly

Ever wished you could have a second pair of eyes review an email before your press send? Or to review a blog post for typos before you hit publish? This is where Grammarly helps. It’s a browser extension that gives you a personal AI writing assistant that checks your work for easy-to-miss errors. It also provides constructive ideas on how you can improve a piece of writing.

Discover Grammarly

 

  1. Convenient project management from Asana

Not being in the office is no longer an excuse to miss a deadline. If you have employees working from home at the moment, Asana provides an easy way for remote or virtual teams to collaborate, organise projects and delegate tasks.

Discover Asana

 

  1. Organised content planning from SmarterQueue

There are lots of different views on what makes an effective social media strategy. But one thing that the experts agree on is the need to show up consistently and frequently. This takes time and commitment. SmarterQueue makes social media posting more manageable. Design multiple posts in bulk. Find extra content to share using the search function. Then use the app to create a queue of posts all scheduled to publish at the peak time for your audience.

Discover SmarterQueue

 

  1. Hassle-free diary management from Doodle

How many emails does it take to organise a meeting of five people? Unfortunately, this is no joke. The process often starts out as a guessing game and eventually ends in confusion with at least a couple of disgruntled attendees. Doodle allows you to juggle multiple diaries and arrange meetings without the relentless back-and-forth of emails.

Discover Doodle

 

  1. High quality stock images from Unsplash

For high quality images, Unsplash offers great variety, a user-friendly search facility and the freedom to download without restriction. A link with a credit for the photographer is appreciated, but they don’t make it essential.

Discover Unsplash

 

  1. Your own virtual private network from Nord VPN

Do you send emails, shop online, browse social media, and access your bank accounts when you’re out-and-about? A Virtual Private network such as Nord VPN hides all of your personal information when you access the internet using a public WiFi connection.

Discover Nord VPN

Pick Our Brains

All of the online tools mentioned in this blog post are apps and software that we’ve found useful in our work for clients. If you would like to discuss how we could help you to implement them for your business, book a consultation to find out more.

6 simple ways you can protect your business from cyber-crime

6 simple ways you can protect your business from cyber-crime

Are you relying on luck to provide you with protection from cyber-crime and internet threats? Here are a few online security tips for businesses that you can put in place now. Before your luck runs out.

Cyber security tip #1: Set up two-factor authentication on all of your online accounts and devices

Just about any online account you have could possibly be hacked. Enabling two-factor authentication on your laptop, phone and email account is a simple way to add an extra level of security, beyond the standard username and password. Two-factor authentication makes sure that anyone trying to access an online account is who they say they are. Once you are set up, this is how it works:

  • First, you’ll be asked to enter your username and a password.
  • Then, instead of immediately gaining access to an account or device, you’ll be asked to provide another piece of information to verify your login attempt. This could be a PIN, a fingerprint, an iris scan or an answer to a secret question. Or sometimes, you will need to click on a link that is emailed or texted to you.

The theory is, if your device is stolen or a password is compromised, the chances of someone else having your second-factor information is very doubtful.

 

Cyber security tip #2: Use a password manager like LastPass

We all know what we should do when it comes to passwords – make them unique for every account or website, lengthy, a mixture of letters, characters and numerals, with a baffling array of capitals and lowercase thrown in for good measure. Basically, what you end up with is nothing that resembles an actual word that you have any chance of memorising. So, inevitably instead of following protocol, we use the same weak password over and over again. It’s probably the one on the post-it note above your desk.

This is where services like LastPass can help. As a password manager, it stores your login information for all the websites you use. This means when you come to log in to a site or service, it will populate the fields automatically for you. Your password database is encrypted with a master password, which is then the only one you will have to commit to memory.

 

Cyber security tip #3: Connect to a VPN when away from a secure home or office network

Think about the times where you send an email while you’re in a queue at your morning coffee spot. Or the time when you access your online bank account while you’re on a platform waiting for a train. If you’re relying on an unsecure public Wi-Fi network for your connection, beware cyber-savvy strangers could be eavesdropping.

A Virtual Private network (or VPN) helps protect your online activities by hiding all of your personal information when you access the internet using a public Wi-Fi connection. This means you can send emails, shop online, browse social media and access your bank accounts without fear of anyone peering in on your personal details.

 

Cyber security tip #4: Regularly update anti-virus and anti-malware software

Software is constantly evolving to patch and fix any weaknesses as they arise. However, these repairs can’t work if they aren’t applied. To maximise your protection from cyber-attacks, it’s essential your anti-virus and anti-malware software is current.

 

Cyber security tip #5: Change the default password on your home wireless network

Did you know a quick Google search can identify the default password for your router? This can allow a cyber-criminal to maliciously dial into your router from afar and snoop in on what you’re doing online. The router password is different to the Wi-Fi password you need to access the network. It’s a password that protects the router’s settings and configuration. This makes changing the password of your router an important way to safeguard your technology from hacking. 

 

Cyber security tip #6: Shop safely online

The easiest way to ensure an online shopping spree is uneventful is to make sure the website you’re buying from is secure. Look out for the lock symbol and that all-important “https” in the address bar before tapping in your credit card details.

 

Do you think cybercrime won’t apply to you?

The media may focus on major data breaches for huge corporations, but behind the headlines a large number of businesses being hacked are small. One reason for this is because small businesses are generally under-protected or don’t realise they need to be doing anything to safeguard their technology. Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • Do you have a website? Maybe even an online store where you collect payments?
  • How much personal information do you store digitally on your clients, prospects, suppliers and collaborators?
  • Think about how many documents you download or forms you submit online?
  • Then there are your bank accounts and bills that you manage online? And the cloud-based systems you invested in to make life simpler?
  • How many emails do you send and receive every single day?
  • And what about all of those social media posts and interactions?

If any of the above apply, you need to make sure you have measures in place to secure your technology.

If you would like to pick our brains, book a consultation to discuss how we could help you to implement the right security measures.

10 virtual Christmas party ideas to bring some festive cheer to 2020

10 virtual Christmas party ideas to bring some festive cheer to 2020

Let’s not cancel Christmas just yet. The festive period might be a little different this year, but it doesn’t mean you can’t give the office party tradition a 2020 twist. Here are 10 virtual Christmas party ideas to get you in the spirit.

Our normal work routines have been turned on their heads this year by the Coronavirus pandemic. In April 2020, the Office for National Statistics reported almost half of people in employment worked from home for some time. Seven months later, remote working and Zoom meetings have become the new normal.

We’ve certainly become more resourceful, more inventive and more determined in how we organise our work. So, why not extend this creative approach to organising a festive shindig for your colleagues too?

 

But first, is hosting a Christmas party really that important this year?

If you need a bit of encouragement to find the motivation to organise a virtual get together, here’s a reminder of why Christmas parties are such an important part of the annual workplace calendar. Especially this year.

  1. They set the tone for the year ahead. Cancelling Christmas sends a very negative message to your employees. Start 2021 on a positive note.
  2. It’s important to say thank you. A Christmas event is an opportunity for some time out together. This is an important way for managers to recognise the hard work of their teams at the end of a challenging year.
  3. They are a time to build team rapport. Removing the stress of work pressures and deadlines gives your teams a chance to connect over something fun. Working from home can be lonely. Bringing people together (even virtually) reminds them that they aren’t alone and reinforces the value of team spirit.
  4. It gives your team something positive to talk about. This can help to create a culture that your employees want to be part of. A virtual Christmas get together is a way to inspire loyalty and reignite enthusiasm for the year ahead.

 

10 virtual Christmas party ideas

How can you create a virtual event that people will actually want to log into? Luckily there are some great ways to inject some fun into a group video call. Here are a few Christmas party ideas with a virtual twist.

1. Cocktail making

Hire a bartender to host a virtual cocktail masterclass where you learn how to mix a margarita from the comfort of your own home. And then enjoy drinking them together.

2. Festive cooking

Organise an online cookery class. Under the guidance of a chef, you can all make a festive dish and then enjoy your meal together from wherever you’re located.

3. Murder mystery evening

Bring your employees together (virtually) in a joint mission to solve a murder investigation.

4. Wine tasting

Gather your colleagues online and hire an expert to show you all how to swirl, sniff and sip a selection of wines. To add an alternative dimension, you could add in a whisky tasting. Or introduce a little indulgence with a Champagne pairing experience.

5. Virtual escape room

Under the pressure of a ticking clock, challenge your team to work together to ‘escape’ by completing puzzles, cryptic clues and riddles.

6. Gingerbread house challenge

Challenge your team to construct a gingerbread property empire in 45 minutes. They then each present their house to the allotted judges with prizes for the best constructions.

7. Festive quiz

There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to unite a team. You may also be surprised what you learn about each other.

8. Charity auction house

Invite your clients and colleagues to donate gifts (or promises) and then try to outbid each other in a live virtual auction to raise money for a chosen charity.

9. Bingo evening

A good old-fashioned game of bingo is a simple way to get people interacting with each other online.

10. Secret Santa

Whatever the theme of your virtual event, no work Christmas party would be complete without Secret Santa. Just because you’re not together in the office, it doesn’t mean it can’t go ahead this year. For example, you can use the Slack Secret Santa app to assign each member of your team a person to send an anonymous gift.

 

A few practical considerations

How big is your team? While a small business may be able to involve everyone in a single video call, for bigger workplaces it may be wise to have team or department celebrations.

Do you have the technology to support your Christmas party ideas? For example, if you’re using Zoom (or other video call facilities) make sure you have an unlimited account. You don’t want your party to come to an abrupt halt because you’re booted off at the end of a time limit. Also, make sure you have the capacity to host everyone.

Make sure everyone is invited. This year you can’t rely on word of mouth and the office grapevine to spread the word. Instead, send out an invite so everyone knows the date, time and has a link to the virtual event.

Talk to your accountant. Find out if you can claim any expenses or apply for tax relief against expenditure on your virtual event.

 

Who is going to organise it all?

If your office Christmas party has got overlooked with all that’s happening at the moment, we can help. It’s not too late to save your office Christmas party. Book a consultation to discuss hiring a VA to organise a virtual event for your team.

5 diary management tips that will help you take control of your schedule

5 diary management tips that will help you take control of your schedule

Are you feeling overwhelmed by your calendar? Maybe you’re constantly running late and missing deadlines? Do you feel like you’re always rearranging meetings and struggling to catch up? If you’re finding diary management an uphill battle every day, here are a few tips to help you to take control of your schedule.

What is diary management?

Helping a client to organise their time in the most effective way is a core service a Virtual Assistant (VA) provides. But diary management is more than accepting and declining appointments and invitations, it’s about helping clients achieve more by structuring their days in a really methodical way.

But what does it take to manage your diary successfully?

Diary management skills – the basics

The art of managing a client’s calendar is something you have to learn quickly as a PA (or Virtual Assistant) and there are a few principles that are crucial to developing a diary management system that works.

  • Allow for buffer time. Allow time between appointments for preparation, travel time and breaks.
  • Be honest about habits. Some people are at their best first thing in the morning. Others need a few coffees before they’re firing on all cylinders. An important diary management skill is being able to match natural working styles with the timing of appointments.
  • When you agree on a diary management system, stick to it. You may decide on colour coding and time blocking. Or perhaps you use cloud-based tools but prefer to have a physical diary as back up as well. Whatever your process is, the most important thing is to stick to it.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to diary management

The approach you take to diary management has to work in line with the personal inclinations of the calendar owner. So, an important part of setting up an effective process is to be honest about anything that should impact on a scheduling decision. For example, here are a few considerations to get you started:

  • What time are you comfortable starting meetings in the morning?
  • Are evening drinks an option on certain days?
  • Are there any days you would prefer to avoid travel outside the office?
  • Do you have any regular personal or family commitments that need to be factored in?
  • Are you comfortable with Zoom meetings if a physical meeting is difficult to schedule?

5 diary management tips from a VA

Here are five tips that can help you upscale your diary management process.

1. Schedule everything

Your diary isn’t just for formal appointments. If there’s a task that requires your time and attention, why not give it priority by assigning it an entry in your calendar? This could mean blocking out time for family time, travel, exercise and also work tasks such as preparation for important meetings and speaking events. Scheduling everything is the only way to get a clear picture of what time you have available. It can also highlight where you could be wasting time or using it better.

2. Time block

If you spend your days switching spontaneously between activities, are you doing your best work when your attention is scattered across multiple duties? Juggling so many tasks requires constant context switching. This makes it difficult to give any one thing your full focus.

 Considering it takes about 25-30 minutes to context switch[1], swapping between multiple tasks is an avoidable drain on your productivity. In fact, if you’re juggling five tasks, you could be losing up to 80% of your productive time each day to context switching[2]. You will be much more productive if you spend two to three straight hours focusing on a project or task, rather than slotting it in sporadically over a couple of days.

3. Colour code

Start by thinking about the types of appointments and tasks that fill your day. Set up each as a ‘category’ with its own colour. By giving every entry into your calendar a different shade, it’s easier to see at a glance what sort of day lies ahead. It shows how time is being split and what tasks are eating into your schedule most. As well as maybe highlighting areas that aren’t getting enough priority.

4. Schedule reminders

If you have regular tasks to complete, set a recurring appointment in your diary so you have the time reserved to complete the task. For example, you may assign a specified slot every Friday morning to pay invoices.

5. Timing 

How much time do you really spend in meetings? It’s easy to fall into the trap of automatically scheduling 30 or 60-minute meetings. But do you need all of this time? Or maybe you’re always over-running? Think how much time you really need and limit your availability based on this. It’s amazing how the 10-20 minutes you save here and there can add up over the course of a week.

Is diary management a drain on your time?

How many hours every week are you spending juggling appointments? Hiring a Virtual Assistant to organise your diary could unlock more time in your day. Book a consultation with us for advice on calendar management best practice and to see how working with a VA could help you.

 

 

[1] https://medium.com/helpful-human/project-fatigue-and-context-switching-bb0741e202cc

[2] https://blog.rescuetime.com/context-switching/

6 email management tips that will help you spend less time on email

6 email management tips that will help you spend less time on email

What would you do without email? The freedom to send over a quick message, without having to schedule in time for the inevitable chitchat that’s involved in a call. The convenience of being able to check in with your clients, send a quick message to a colleague and set up meetings even when you’re out and about. Email enables you to manage your work from just about anywhere and at the time that suits you. It’s brilliant. BUT email management can also be a drain on your productivity.

You might receive hundreds, maybe even thousands, of emails a day. The time taken to read, reply and react to every message can easily become a significant drain on your time and energy. In fact, research by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2012, found the average professional spends 28% of their working day reading and responding to email. My guess is this figure will only have increased over the years.

 

Are you suffering with email overload?

Despite hours of inbox-focused screen time, you may still find yourself overwhelmed by email clutter. Is your inbox over-spilling with old, unread and unimportant messages? This chaos can be a source of stress. Emails piling up, is a stark reminder of all the things you need to do and how little control you have over your workload. Constantly checking emails is also a distraction that can interrupt your progress with other tasks. And what about all that time you spend trying to track down a rogue email that seems to have vanished from your inbox?

Clearing up your inbox can also help to clear up your mind. But where do you start?

 

6 email management tips

To start clearing the clutter out of your inbox, you’ll need to get organised. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

 

1. Allocate time for your email management

Over-checking your email wastes valuable time in your working day. Instead, set aside time in your diary to focus on your inbox. This might be 30 minutes at the start or end of the day, or maybe an hour over lunch.  Choose a time that suits your schedule. Then stick to it.

If you feel uncomfortable leaving your inbox unmanned for longer periods, consider setting up an auto response to acknowledge every email instantly and explain the likely timeframe for your response.

2. Save time with templates

Do you find yourself sending a lot of the same emails over and over again? Maybe instructions on how to perform a certain task? An answer to a frequently asked question? Or a holding email to explain you’ll respond in full as soon as you can? Creating templates means you have these responses pre-drafted and handy, so you can respond promptly even on busy days. You could also share these with your PA (or VA) so they can action these common emails on your behalf.

3. Organise your inbox with a simple filing system

Group, sort, file and prioritise messages. Getting organised with your email management is a great way to take control of your inbox. Have you thought about using categories in Outlook? Or labels in Gmail? These tools help you to classify your emails so you can see immediately what needs your attention, what you’re awaiting a response on, and what’s for reading later.

4. Set up filters to classify incoming mail (so you can find it when you need it)

Use filters to send incoming emails to a label. For example, direct non-urgent items such as newsletters to a ‘READING’ folder or collect invoice emails in a folder for ‘NEXT PAYMENT RUN’. This makes going back and finding one message among the thousands in your inbox easier.

5. Make a regular detox part of your email management routine

Are important emails struggling to get your attention amongst all your unread mail? First of all, unsubscribe from emails you don’t read. Keeping on top of your unsubscriptions can instantly remove some of the clutter in your inbox. But also, remember to habitually check your junk mail for important messages that could be lurking there incorrectly.

6. Take action straight away

Taking immediate action can help to prevent inbox overwhelm. If you can reply to an email in less than two minutes, do it immediately and move it out of your inbox. Also, make it a habit to add important emails to diary entries straight away, so this information will be right there waiting for you when you open your calendar entry. This is a simple practice that can reduce the time you spend scrambling through your inbox looking for notes relating to an appointment.

 

Is your inbox out of control?

You may need help putting an email management system in place that will work for you. Or perhaps you’d like some support with a one-off “inbox detox”? Please book a consultation and we can provide some advice on how to overcome email overwhelm.

Creating the perfect travel itinerary

Creating the perfect travel itinerary

Ever wondered how some people take the most complicated trips yet seem utterly relaxed and laid-back throughout?  Chances are these savvy travellers always have incredibly detailed itineraries to hand and there are several steps you can take to ensure your trips are just as seamless.

How do they do it?

The secret to the perfect itinerary is down to perfect planning.  And, of course, personal preferences.  There’s no right or wrong way to take a holiday, experience a city break or tag time onto business trips.  Some of us like to get up and seize the day, visiting attractions and getting immersed in the local culture.  Others like to lie in, relax by the pool and sip cocktails all day.  Perhaps, like me, you enjoy a mixture of both.

But advance planning and having relevant information to hand can turn a great trip into an amazing one.  This isn’t a case of being route-marched from A to B.  It’s about being realistic, doing your research and covering all your bases.  You certainly don’t want to waste precious time doing it while you’re away.

 

Where to start

Once you have settled on a destination, the first step is to get outward and return travel booked.  This is particularly important if you’re taking a flight.  These timings set the parameters for the whole trip and can completely alter your plans.  A recent client hoped to travel to Italy but the limitations of the flight schedules, combined with hectic diaries, meant significant sacrifices to the itinerary.

Secondly, you need to secure accommodation for the duration of the trip.  It could be the same place throughout or different hotels every night.  Other elements of your stay will be built around this and inability to book a particular hotel may change your plans.

 

The fun stuff

Once you have these important details confirmed, you can move on to the more exciting elements.  Do you have a list of recommended places to visit from a friend?  Have you read a great guide book and found some suggested sightseeing spots?  Do you like to do similar things in each city you visit?  Are there any special events or celebrations taking place during your time there?  Jot some ideas down to create an initial framework of what you’d like to include.

 

The research

This is the part where Google becomes your friend.  When planning intricate trips for clients I start by plotting all the important locations on a Google map.  This includes the airport, the hotel and any places of interest they’d like to visit.  This makes it much easier to calculate travel distances, group activities together and search for nearby restaurants.

For each of the places you visit it’s helpful to know information such as:

  • Admission prices and special offers
  • Opening times and seasonal closures
  • Tour booking processes
  • Dress codes

With travel plans, you may also need to check information such as:

  • Parking arrangements at the airport
  • How long before a flight you need to arrive
  • What the baggage allowance is
  • How to get from terminal X to terminal Y in the airport and how long it takes
  • What the best option is for transferring from the airport to the hotel
  • What time breakfast is served at the hotel
  • The check out time

All of these details can be noted in your itinerary and allow you to factor in realistic timescales every step of the way.

 

Other things to think about

As well as the points above, here are some examples of other things you may need to consider: 

  • Having a range of options available for wet and dry weather
  • Not being able to fly within 24 hours of activities such as scuba diving
  • Cutting flight times too close to prepaid excursions, cruise departures and connecting flights
  • Booking ahead for popular restaurants
  • Catering to specific dietary requirements
  • Checking seasonal opening dates and times.  Is that ferry to a tiny, remote island actually running?

Expect the unexpected and keep it flexible

Try not to plan every minute of your trip and be prepared to build in changes.  How prepared you want to be will depend on your travel style.  For some, things like having the number of their relevant country’s embassy noted down provides a certain level of reassurance.  You never know when you might find yourself without a mobile phone, Wi-Fi or an English-speaking aide!

 

Admin

PLEASE, please make sure you have the appropriate visas, travel insurance and, of course, a current passport in place.  And make sure the latter has enough spare pages and at least six months left to run.  It’s always a good idea to let a member of your family (or ideally your PA) have copies of important documents in case you get into any difficulties (stolen bag, lost phone etc).  I would strongly advise having copies accessible by email as well.

If you’re planning your trip well in advance, set a reminder to reconfirm necessary aspects at an appropriate time.  For example, entrance prices may change with a new year and small businesses might close for refurbishment at quiet times.

The format of your itinerary is entirely down to personal preference.  Some clients prefer a separate document with just the core travel details noted in their diary, others like to use apps such as TripIt or Google Trips.  There are many options and creating your own document may allow more flexibility for information you wish to include.

 

My final tip

Whether for me or one of my clients, I always try to put myself in the shoes of the person making the trip and walk through EVERYTHING they may need to know along the way.  You’re unlikely to cover every eventuality but bear in mind, as Benjamin Franklin said, “failing to plan is planning to fail”!

 

Happy and safe travels!

 

If you’re overwhelmed at the prospect of creating the perfect travel itinerary, or simply don’t have enough hours in the day, please get in touch for some advice on how a Virtual PA could assist you.