If you were working in an office at the start of this century, there's a good chance that you'd be using Microsoft Office, some specialist software like Oracle or some custom, in-house creation. Email would go through Outlook and you'd probably be connected to a huge corporate network using a large, clunky computer fixed to a desk.
The sad thing is, a lot of the practices we picked up during these years are still around and are probably holding us back.
I deliberately framed my introduction into context of the century to give you an impression of the time that has passed, because it's now all about apps and flexible cloud systems. We're moving to a point where we can be productive anywhere, and on pretty much any device, but you wouldn't know this if you looked at some offices.
Before I start recommending alternatives though, it's important to point out the importance of security. There's usually a pretty good reason reason why you can't store files on a personal device or use third party apps, so I'll try to take this into account.
There are some effective alternatives to the following 'old ways of working' though that I'll outline below.
I can't remember anyone ever saying they need more spreadsheets in their life. Dull, complex, hard to access and easy to mess up, they are an unavoidable reality of modern business life.
It's not that they don't serve a purpose though, as they are clearly the best way to store and present at lot of information, particularly if it's numerical. I just don't understand why people still try to use them to organise themselves and their colleagues though.
This can create a few problems, mainly down to the fact that it's usually hard to make sense of everything, only one person can access it and external files are usually linked with long, winding URL's that quickly get out of date.
I think the main problem is that people don't really think about what the resource they're creating needs to do. I honestly believe that an effective productivity resource needs to make itself clear within a few seconds, because you don't want to waste any unnecessary time or energy on your busiest days.
I strongly recommend using an app like Trello to get you and your team organised. The main benefit of Trello for me is that you can make it very visual and with minimal effort, it can show everyone where you are, what need to be done and who's doing it.
Everyone can also be in it at the same time if they need to be and this all helps to get things done.
Another key benefit is that it's all in the cloud, so anyone with a login can assess it anywhere. There are also apps available for mobile devices. With the additional benefit of being able to add files, it could really help someone who needs to work from home.
You can also integrate Trello with services like Slack to make it extremely effective.
Whatever you do, I'd recommend playing around with this free service in your space time to see how it can make your work life a lot easier.
If you've read though the site or some of my other posts, you'll know that I'm really not a fan of email. There's nothing worse than looking at an overflowing inbox, full of assorted coloured flags and urgent subjects, on your busiest days.
It's even worse when you realise that a lot of these messages relate to things like lunch plans, notices about the air conditioning and irrelevant chains that someone thought you needed to be included on.
Like the spreadsheet, surely it's better to have something that takes up a lot less energy, and immediately lets us work out where we are. Knowing which messages need your attention and where they are should really make a difference.
I shouldn't need to point this out, but time you spend on working out where you are is time you're not devoting to your actual work.
Email is also a great way to stir up personal issues in the workplace. It's not only the case that people will say things via email that they wouldn't say to your face, as it's also easy to completely misread what people are actually trying to say.
How many times have you blown your top before reading the message again and realising you'd attached all sorts of emotions that weren't really there.
If people also send out vile messages attempting to shift blame or discredit their colleagues while copying in senior members of staff, they should probably expect things to get personal.
While I don't expect large organisations to suddenly remove email, as it's great for external communications and announcements, I think there are better ways for staff to interact. Direct messaging using services like Slack will probably be a more effective alternative.
Surely it's better focussing your time and attention on something that's task related?
If you're using Slack, you could also integrate it with Trello to really keep things on track. This should really be an essential resource for both large, medium and small organisations.
You can also access most instant messages services anywhere and on any device.
Pictures and Folders
People seem to love folders on corporate networks, and lots of them. I'm sure you've been overwhelmed by a labyrinth of files before, with only vague titles and endless numbers giving you any hope of navigating through it.
You're usually supposed to guess which files are four years out of date or have been replaced with files stored somewhere else.
It gets even worse when several teams are accessing the information. There are endless queries about pretty much the same thing and critical files often get moved or deleted.
It even feels like some people want to make these overcomplicated at times, perhaps to gain some level of control or make their work seem more complex than it actually is.
The problem with all of this is that it creates huge problems if someone is coming in new. Even if you're familiar with it, it creates so much unnecessary work and thought when you're busy.
It also means people are lost and confused when they could be applying themselves to important tasks.
The good news is that we don't need alternatives to make this better, as just being aware of the problem can help. Taking time to think about filenames and locations and archiving old files should make a difference.
There is another problem though, as saving your work this way restricts you to the company network and even some people on it may not have access to the files they need. Surely there's a better way in the age of the cloud?
Luckily there is, as there are plenty of cloud storage options out there, with Dropbox, OneDrive and Amazon Drive as just a few examples.
If your data doesn't need to be secure, why not make it available everywhere? You should always check with your IT person though, or take some time to think about it if you're working on your own or in a small group.
I actually think Trello can come in handy again in situations like this. As well as keeping you organised, it can also be used to store files. If you're working on a project, it's the perfect way to keep everything in one place.
All your images and documents can be added, so your team can access them anywhere.
This helps if people need to work at home or are travelling and more importantly, it removes all that effort of finding things. It's also extremely visual, so it can naturally guide you to where you need to be.
Just think about this the next time you're lost in folders.
I hope this has been useful and I'm sure that integrating just one of these ideas could make a difference.
One thing I would consider though is that while IT may have changed a lot over the last decade or so, I lot of IT support structures haven't. This means that some people may actually rely on things looking difficult in order to justify their roles.
The one thing I'd advise if you encounter resistance is to simply highlight the benefits of these new ways of working as simply and as clearly as possible and make the financial impact obvious. It's also easy to provide demonstrations of a lot of these apps and services, or make a simple mock-up to show people how they really work.
Good luck, and I hope things get a lot easier I future.