Note Taking: Investigation, Grievance and Disciplinary

Note Taking; Grievance; Disciplinary; Investigation; Hearings; HR Support

When things go Wrong

No matter how careful, or how caring, you are, things can occasionally go awry in the workplace.  Issues arise which need to be investigated, people raise grievances which need to be heard and unfortunately, not everyone complies with the company rules, no matter how many times you ask them to sign the Staff Handbook.  If you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, it is necessary to deal with the investigation, grievance or disciplinary quickly and thoroughly, and to keep good records throughout the process.

In the case of investigations it is necessary to take witness statements and if the matter progresses to a disciplinary meeting these statements will be critical.  The disciplinary itself must be carried out in accordance with good practice.  You can read more about this here on the ACAS site where you can download a number of very useful documents.

Whenever something goes awry, accurate and effective note-taking and evidence recording forms a critical part of the resolution process.

Confidential and Discreet

It can feel quite personal when these things arise, particularly if the issue involves a breach of trust, or could impact negatively on the business you have spent so long building and nurturing.   It is certainly a challenging time for any business.  One thing you absolutely do not need is gossip or discussion of the issue within the workplace.  This will potentially create problems further down the line, allow the individual to raise issues relating to lack of confidentiality and of course, gossip can de-stabilise your team.  Issues must be dealt with rapidly but effectively.  It’s never good to rush these things and certainly you should never miss out a step, but everyone involved will be keen to get the matter resolved effectively so a timely progression through the steps is always the best approach.

Impartial and Experienced

Whether you are an employer or an HR Consultant, having an independent person to take the notes in disciplinary or grievance meetings can be hugely beneficial.  They will be totally impartial and will have no pre-existing knowledge of the company or team so will not have any bias or make any assumptions which could affect their note-taking.

In a small organisation it can be difficult to find someone who is both an experienced note taker, capable of taking the notes accurately, and is also unknown to the person involved.  In situations of this kind it is critically important that what happens in the room, stays in the room, no matter what the size of the organisation.  However, in smaller organisations there have been cases where the information left the room because the note taker was inexperienced and was unaware that they should not discuss the case they had just noted.

Trust

Often in situations of this kind feelings are running high.  The person involved will be upset. They may feel distrustful, angry or betrayed.  It’s very important that everyone in the room is able to be trusted by the individual involved and it can help if the person taking the notes is not from within the organisation.  It is clear the note taker will have no preconceived views about anyone or anything which is mentioned and this can help the individual to feel they can speak freely.

In this type of situation, explanations can become frantic, emotional and difficult to follow at times.  It can take a level of confidence and experience for a note-taker to ask the individual to stop, and to wait whilst they catch up, and then for that note taker to calmly read back the notes and ask whether all the key points have been included.  It also helps if your note taker has an HR background as it is easier for them to accurately pick out the important points from the irrelevant and note only the key issues.   Notes must be taken long-hand to enable them to be reviewed by all parties at the end of the meeting and, if appropriate, initialled to show agreement.

Sometimes being in a room with the people whom the individual feels had not listened previously, and being able to fully explain their concerns and issues, can be enough to allow the issue to be resolved.  And if there is a set of really good notes as an outcome of the meeting, the formality of this can be appreciated by the individual.  If matters cannot be resolved quickly and the next stage of the process is required, then the notes will be a critical part of the process at that stage.

Practical and Effective

When chairing the meeting, you need to feel confident that the notes will be full enough to rely upon throughout any stages that might follow, and  certain that they include all the relevant details (and none of the irrelevant ones).  Having someone with HR knowledge to take the notes can be invaluable for ensuring this.

Of course you can also record the meeting and in this case, the recording can be transcribed, allowing a full record of the proceedings to be made.  Even if you choose not to have the recording transcribed, it can useful  for cross-checking facts in the notes if that proves necessary at a later stage.

Minute-Taking-Service

For the HR Consultant, having a dedicated note taker rather than trying to multi-task can be a huge benefit.  It can be very difficult to chair the meeting, ask the right questions, and note the answers in meetings where feelings are running high and people may be shouting, crying or arguing.  This is particularly true in disciplinary hearings.  Trying to both take notes and consider the evidence and information being provided can be hugely challenging in some meetings.

Writing up the notes of meetings needs to be done very promptly following a meeting of this kind.  The individual and the company will both need a resolution to the situation quickly.  It can be a challenge for the HR Consultant to get everything written up in a timely way and often involves working late into the night.  I have returned notes with a 24 hour turnaround for cases in the past.  This ensures you have the information you need to make a decision quickly and accurately.  This can be particularly important if the person involved is suspended from work for a potential disciplinary offence.

Naturally the note-takers hourly rate is less than that of an HR Consultant so there are cost savings when you consider how long it can take to type up the notes.

If you are an HR Consultant or a small company and you are looking for support in this area of your business, you can contact me here for a no obligation chat. 

Work Overload: An Increasing Problem

Work, Burnout, Overload, Overloaded, Business, Mental Health

Ahead of World Mental Health day which falls on 10th October this year, I want to raise an issue that is, I think, particularly important to small business owners:  Work Overload.

Work overload results when the demands of the job role exceed the limits of reasonable human endurance.  People are expected to, or try to do, too much, in too little time, with too few resources.  It’s characterized by a combination of factors including:

  • Pressure to work long hours
  • Heavy workloads which cannot reasonably be completed by a normal person within the hours allotted to the tasks.
  • Few breaks, little time off and few or no holidays.
  • Unrelenting, constant and highly pressured working pace.
  • Unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved with the available time and resources
  • Carrying out, or trying to carry out, more than one role at once.

There is a lot written about work overload within large corporate and public sector environments but all of the points above afflict small business owners too.  The pressures which lead to the overload are different but the results are the same.  And those results can be devastating.  Particularly for small business owners who in most cases cannot easily choose to walk away from the business and do something else.   This element of having no choice can make the effects of work overload feel even worse.

When work overload is persistent rather than seasonal or occasional, then our bodies can’t recover, rest and restore balance.  Every role has busy periods but if we know it will be followed by a slack period when we can recover, this makes it possible for us to keep going.  That feeling that the work will just keep coming at you constantly with no respite or let up is true overload.

Do I have Work Overload?

Work overload isn’t just about work quantity but also the type of tasks that you have to deal with.  A busy workload with very clearly defined tasks and boundaries is actually good for your mental wellbeing.  What is destructive to mental wellbeing is a chaotic workload.  Competing priorities, extra tasks with short deadlines, being unsure what the day will throw at you, and trying to do tasks for which you feel unqualified.  Working like this means you cannot plan your day effectively, cannot meet everyone’s expectations and never feel you’ve finished your work.

Technology also adds to the pressure.  Work messages ping onto your phone all evening when you are trying to relax.  Home becomes an extension of work, particularly for staff who work from home and home-based small business owners.  Many articles suggest shutting the door of the home office.  This only works if the phone is trapped in there being ignored.  And how many of us do that?

When work bleeds into our home life the work overload affects our family too.  Couples end up spending more time working than they do with their family.  There are constant pressures to be the perfect parent, and the perfect worker, with Social Media telling everyone they can have it all and it’s easy.  But it’s not is it?  Something has to give and that something is often the couple’s relationship with each other and with their children.

What can you do to avoid work overload?

date night, holding hands, relationshipsMake home life and health a priority

Ensure you do not neglect your social life and any artistic or cultural activities which you value.  Whether you like to go to Rock Concerts, read quietly in a corner, create Airfix models or work in your garden, make sure you find time each week for these activities.  Schedule them into the diary if you can and make sure that you don’t make excuses not to do them.  Don’t neglect Date Nights with your significant other.  It’s important to ensure your relationship remains healthy so you can support each other when you each need it.

Get Enough Sleep.

Make it a habit to always ensure you get adequate sleep.  This has a huge impact on health and wellbeing.  Views vary on what the ideal amount of sleep is, but 6-8 hours is good unless you really are one of those rare people who only need four hours.

Exercise

Just three hours a week spread throughout the week will have a positive effect.  Ideally include both aerobic and strength training but if you aren’t that athletic, even a simple daily walk will help.  And if you choose the walking option, try to look around you as you walk.  It’s easy to plod along, looking at the ground, pondering about work issues.  Instead look at the leaves, the trees, listen for the birds, watch dogs running in the park.  If you are in a built up area, look up at the architecture and sky, or at the plants in people’s gardens.  Concentrate on the air you are breathing, notice how the earth smells in the rain, how the sun feels, or how the cold air is so fresh in the winter.

Relax your mind and body

Meditation can be very helpful in reducing stress on a daily basis.  If you make it a habit for the start and end of the day this can have a really positive impact on stress reduction.   It can also be helpful to take a couple of minutes in the daytime if things are particularly fraught, and just breathe in, and out, slowly whilst thinking of a calm and quiet place.

Frequent three day weekends can be a great idea, particularly for small business owners who struggle to get away from the business for a longer holiday.  When you are feeling overworked it can feel stressful to go away for a longer holiday as you may feel worried about what you are going to get home to.  Long weekends are a great alternative.  Try to do something truly relaxing with your long weekend.  Something that fulfills you but is not goal driven.

Feed your health

Restrict caffeine and alcohol since they produce chemical stressors on the body which can make stress worse.  Ensure you are taking in enough potassium as this affects the adrenal glands which produce the hormones that govern our fight or flight and stress response.  Potassium is found in fruit and vegetables particularly bananas, oranges, raisins, potatoes, mushrooms, cooked broccoli, spinach and soy beans.

In the workplace

There are some steps you can take to control your workload so that it doesn’t feel so overwhelming. These include:

  • Setting aside blocks of time for work and for appointments, and putting this in the diary so you have a shape to your day and know when you are working and can plan tasks that will fit the time you have available.  As mentioned earlier, it can be useful to block out time for relaxation too… it gives a goal and an end point when things are fraught and is something to look forward to.
  • Discouraging people from just “dropping by”.  The latter can be a real problem for home-based workers as friends seem to think you will be able to just stop what you are doing and have coffee with them whenever it takes their fancy.
  • Learn how to say no really diplomatically.  Someone once told me that the epitome of diplomacy was the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that the person really enjoyed the journey.    It is OK to say No.  No one ever died from being told No.
  • Leave your phone in another room whilst you are working, turn off the notifications or put it on silent.
  • Prioritise emails and correspondence.  Try to avoid the knee jerk response of “ooh, email… must answer now”.  Look at it dispassionately.  Do you really need to reply to that now?  Will it wait?
  • Break large tasks and projects into smaller bits and tackle them one at a time.  It’s easier and less overwhelming.  I’ve recently written blog posts about successful project planning here and here which you may find useful.
  • Learn to delegate.  No one can do everything.  I do lots of things myself but I have an absolutely lovely lady who does my accounts.  This was the first thing I ever outsourced because I knew that the time saved and the reduction in stress would be completely worth it.  If you aren’t sure what to delegate or how to do it, I wrote a blog post here.  However, in essence it recommends that you either automate or outsource the tasks you hate, are not good at, or those that take forever to complete.

And if the things you hate to do are admin related, you can get in touch with me here.  Let’s have a chat about the things that are causing you stress, eating into your time and stopping you from increasing your business revenue.

Time-Efficient Meetings: The Agenda

Agenda, Meeting Agenda, Meeting support, Meeting documents

We have all sat in one of those meetings.  The meeting where you have to pinch yourself to keep awake.  The meeting which takes three hours from your day and you are no wiser at the end than you were at the beginning.   

It doesn’t have to be like that though.  Meetings can be very useful. If they have a purpose, are tightly controlled and ruthlessly keep to the agenda.  You do have an agenda don’t you?  You really should.  And everyone needs to know about it.  It can’t just be in your head.  People need to know what is going to be discussed so that they can arrive properly prepared to make the most of the meeting time.

Time Allocation

time for business; need more time;

Adding a time allocation to each agenda item to guide people as to how much time they have available for each discussion item can be really helpful in keeping meetings strictly within the timescale set for them.  The chairperson usually sets the timings, although they may be guided by the individuals raising the items.  For example, someone might be presenting a new process for the company and their time slot will be dictated by the length of their presentation.

Preparation

The agenda needs to be sent out by the administrator or minute-taker in plenty of time to allow delegates to prepare properly and arrive at the meeting with the correct information to share.  If you have lots of supporting papers, the agenda and papers must go out about a week ahead of the meeting.

Agenda Planning

Sometisupporting documents; paperwork; administration support, agendames you will need to invite a person who has specialist expertise.  If they are only needed to discuss one agenda item, why not consider placing the item first on the agenda and allowing the person to leave after they have presented?  Or just before the coffee break section so that they can leave during the break.

Any Other Business

If you are going to keep the Any Other Business section on the agenda then this part should be particularly tightly controlled by the Chairperson.

This section of the meeting is often abused by delegates who want to raise issues and grievances that would be better dealt with outside the confines of the meeting.

The purpose of Any Other Business is to cover items which arose in the time period between the agenda being sent out and the meeting happening.  Usually, this would be urgent issues or matters that arose which have a direct bearing on one of the items already on the agenda.

One option for keeping the Any Other Business section on the agenda but still ensuring that it remains under strict control is to add an agenda point entitled Proposals for Any Other Business at the start of the meeting, just after the apologies section.  This allows the Chairman to ask whether anyone will wish to raise items in Any Other Business.  Only items raised during this section of the meeting can then be discussed during Any Other Business itself.  The Chairperson can then veto the raising of issues that won’t add to the meeting aims.  It also means that everyone can work out how long the Any Other Business section might take, consider points they might wish to raise during the discussion and feel confident that the meeting will finish on time and not drag on and on.

Administration Support

professional support, note-taking, minute taking, writing, agendaAdministration support can really add value to a meeting. A professional administrator will not only manage and efficiently circulate the agenda, but also manage attendance and assist the Chairperson in keeping the meeting on track by reminding them of timings, asking for clarification of action points and accurately recording all the details necessary to allow delegates to recall and complete their actions effectively during the time following the meeting.

If you are looking for professional support to ensure your meetings stay on track and really deliver value, you can contact me here to discuss your requirements.

If you are looking for further support with running an effective meeting, this blog post should be useful.

Lists: The Key to Productivity

Getting things Done; Lists: Productivity

Keeping track of everything you need or want to do in a reliable and effective system is utterly critical to successfully negotiating a world in which you are bombarded by information from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep.  Getting Things Done, both quickly and effectively, has never been more important.

This is the argument which David Allen puts forward in his book Getting Things Done:  The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (ISBN 978-0-349-40894-1).   Getting Things Done is a whole system and I will only be covering some small areas of it.  However, in the book, David himself suggests that if you take only some of the ideas from the book and apply them, then you will improve your productivity.

This is the first of a series of blog posts on the method and if you find them useful then I really do recommend you purchase the book.  There is so much more to the book than the tips I will be sharing with you.

Like all methods, Getting Things Done does have a learning curve and this can make it feel a bit of a challenge to start out with.  Just like the latest productivity app, it does add some time to your day before it takes it away again, but when you have made it your own, it really does work.

The idea is to capture all of the things that you need to act upon or remember, all the things you want to do in future, and any half thought out ideas, in a trusted capture device.  The recommendation is to use a loose-leaf folder or notebook for the capture device.  You could use an electronic tool rather than paper and a pencil, but writing the lists longhand is the recommended method.   Alternatively, you can write each thing on a separate piece of paper.  This has the advantage of allowing you to deal with each item separately, shuffle the paper into themed piles and easily add items to themed lists.

This initial Brain Dump, which I won’t lie to you, does take time to do properly, captures every single thing that is swirling around in your head.  All you have to do is sit down with a notepad and a pen and write down anything that comes into your head, both professional and personal, that either needs doing, or you would like to do.  Even those big goals that you hope to achieve at some point, such as climbing Everest or buying a sports car.    Big ideas and small ones. Even really small things like get a lightbulb for the bathroom or brush the dog.  It doesn’t matter what it is, just dump it all out.  If you find it easier, you can put it onto separate sheets of paper headed things like work, family, goals, house, garden.  Whatever works for you.  It’s your list after all.

Once you have everything captured initially it needs to be organised into sections so that you can find things easily on your lists.  Loose leaf files work well for this reason.

I can hear people grumbling as they read.  “So, you want me to create an immense list of stuff to do?  A list that will mainly remind me of all the stuff I haven’t done?  Have you been sniffing the highlighters again and lost your mind entirely?”

But wait.  I promise it will all make sense in a moment.  Firstly, you won’t need to look at that immense list every day.  Secondly, there is a scientific reason why this process works.

A Russian psychologist, Zeigarnik, discovered that the brain can more easily recall incomplete tasks.  Knowing you will want to finish the task at some point, your brain works hard to keep that information available to you.  Once the task has been done it will breathe a sigh of relief and instantly forget that particular thing.  So, if you have lots of unfinished stuff swirling around your head, then your brain is always cursing and swearing at you, having to hold on to much more information than it was designed to hold.  It will drop some of it because there isn’t room in there for the sheer quantity of stuff that we are exposed to in the digital era.  It will also make you feel stressed, upset and on edge all the time as it constantly tries to remind you of all the things you have left undone.

Later research by Baumeister and Masicampo showed that tasks we have not completed will actively distract us from other activities.  This is why we become less productive if we have a lot of things that we are trying to juggle.  However, they also showed that distraction evaporates once we have noted down a plan for completing the distracting task at a later date.

In short, dumping stuff out of your head brings calm.  Calm allows focus.  And focus enables productivity.

The lists work because they become an external hard drive for your brain. Once your brain realises that it is all written down it can let go of all that stuff that is swirling around in your head making you feel stressed.

For those of you who are already terrified about just how long your list will be, I’ll cover the organisation step in the next post because that part is critical.

2017 Review of the Year

Review, 2017, blogging, video, Virtual Assistant, Harrogate

Feels Like The First Time

2017 was the year that JJB Office Services turned one year old and there have been a lot of firsts this year.
First recorded video in June, and more recent, and considerably more nerve-wracking…. My first ever Facebook Live.
I also did my first presentation to a professional audience. I’m not a confident public speaker but I was reasonably happy with my performance and the content was well received. So much so that I’ll be creating a series of blog posts on the subject in the new year at the suggestion of a couple of the audience members.

Although I’ve been blogging about my leisure interests for a number of years I started blogging for business for the first time in 2017 which somehow felt very different.

The top five performing blog posts for 2017 were:

Organisation is at the Heart of Productivity

Is your Email GDPR Compliant?

Running an Effective Meeting

5 Tips for Great Content

Read more in Less Time

By far and away the most popular video was the first one I ever recorded, on GDPR and Email Marketing, which you can watch here:

Computer Love

My tech necessities for 2017 were my transcription software and MS Office. It is tempting to take the Office Suite of products for granted and just talk about shiny new tech. However, without MS Office my job would be literally impossible.

The tech that I’ve really been able to have fun with was Canva (https://www.canva.com) for graphics and photo collages, and Lumen5 for cool videos (https://www.lumen5.com). If you haven’t checked out the Lumen5 videos on my YouTube channel and website then do have a look at them. It’s a great tool to use and the results look so professional.

Goin’ By The Book

Being an avid reader, it is perhaps no surprise that my first year in business included reading a number of business books. My top three from this year were:

  • Business Networking for Dummies by Stefan Thomas.
  • The Success Principles by Jack Canfield.
  • Be A Free Range Human by Marianne Cantwell.

With a Little Help From My Friends

This year I learned a huge amount, some from training courses, but by far the largest amount from the small business community, both locally and further afield, who have been hugely generous with their advice and support. Thank you to every one of you. You all know who you are.

Everything I do…. I do it for you.

No review of the year would be complete without mentioning my lovely, lovely clients. All wonderful to work with and I have been privileged to help and support them in their business journey. I have loved every moment of working for each and every one of them and am looking forward to helping them achieve even more in 2018. I must admit I feel incredibly lucky to be doing what I love, working for myself, and being able to really see the difference I’m making.

Santa Claus’ VA Team – Part Two

With the festive season almost upon us, everyone is rushing around to finish the last minute gift shopping and get all the presents wrapped and hidden from those family members who like to prod gifts to try and guess the contents.  Of course, there is also the last food shop to plan as well, making sure you have everything you need for entertaining over the festive period.  Hopefully, this will provide a spot of light relief from all the rushing about.  So sit down, kick off your winter boots, and settle down to Part Two of the Tale of Santa Claus’ VA.

If you thought you were busy trying to get all your work up to date so you can take a few days off over Christmas, just spare a thought for poor old Santa Claus.  He has only 12 hours to complete the tasks for which he is famous, and has to do so come rain, hurricane or snow.  He has to keep his clothes and beard tidy and clean even whilst flying faster than the speed of sound in an open sleigh through all kinds of weather, towed by Reindeer that don’t much like rain and aren’t afraid to mention this a few hundred times during the journey.  He certainly earns his mince pie and whisky that’s for sure.

I reckon that the only way Santa can be ready for his one triumphant and hideously busy night is to have the support of a flexible team of Rock Star VA’s and Freelance Office administrators working to support him throughout the year.  So this post looks at a few more of the tasks that Santa Claus might need completing by a VA or Freelance Administration specialist.

Correspondence VA’s answers all the letters from children, taking careful note of the spreadsheet of naughty children to ensure they don’t promise gifts to those children who don’t deserve them.  The correspondence VA’s have a KPI of one week in which to reply to the letters and use template letters which they amend to show the correct gifts or to state what specific acts of disobedience have led to the child being undeserving of a gift.

Estate Management VA manages the repair and maintenance of all the workshops, offices and of course the sleighs, to ensure they are all well maintained, safe and effective.

Social Media VA manages Santa Claus and the Elves presence on various platforms and ensures that all posts are positive, brand appropriate, and effective, paying close attention to analytics and ensuring fresh content is posted regularly to maximise engagement.

Organisational VA plans sleigh routes, checks the SatNav on the sleigh, plans the most effective layout for the warehouse to minimise walking, creates filing systems for the letters and assists in the day to day management of the workshops and offices to ensure that all processes run smoothly and in a time-efficient manner.

Events management VA’s organise public appearances by Santa Claus at the North Pole as well as managing the staff Christmas party, the latter taking place in January after the big event has happened.  The office party is a particularly raucous affair as everyone lets off steam after a hugely busy December.  This inevitably leads to HR VA being exceptionally busy throughout January sorting out the usual fall out from office parties ranging from who snogged who, who took a photo of it and put it on Facebook, whose bottom was it on the photocopier, and who threw up in the yucca plant.

Sales and Marketing VA keeps the CRM up to date following Santa’s undercover visits to trade shows across the world. Santa visits selected shows alongside the Research VA as he finds this is the best way to deflect attention from himself.  The beard seems to be a bit of a giveaway and he gets mobbed if he visits alone.

HR VA provides minute taking for Disciplinary meetings because elves can get a bit giddy and inappropriate at times and this has led to a number of complaints ranging from bullying (the elves like to play “Pin the Tail on the Reindeer” on the live reindeer whilst they sleep).  Failure to follow safety rules, including the now famous ChairGate when a chair race around the warehouse had terrible consequences.  Elves have a wicked sense of humour and there have been a number of cases of shoelaces being tied together, whoopee cushions being placed under staff and tools being superglued to the workbenches.

Health and Safety VA  ensures that all the Elves have taken part in the mandatory training for Manual Handling, Working at Height and that the specialist elves have the relevant certification in Workshop Safety.

General Admin VA creates effective filing systems and manages Santa’s diary throughout the year to ensure that he always has a good work-life balance and can return home to Mrs Claus on time every night except, of course, THE night.

Reindeer Diary Management VA arranges the schedule for the reindeer, ensuring they have the right transport, documentation and equipment for their various pre-christmas public appearances around the world.

Research VA attends a variety of trade fairs throughout the world, including the Toy and Gift Fairs in Harrogate, to identify the ideal toys for children throughout the world.  She provides detailed information to Santa Claus presented in folders by type of toy, age of likely recipient, safety record, cost, choice of colour/outfit etc.  Santa Claus will then notify procurement VA to pre-order the items he has chosen.

Training Management VA tracks all the training and development needs of the office staff, elves, reindeer and of course Santa Claus himself.  It is she who updates the master training plan and ensures that everyone completes their mandatory safety training at the correct time.  She also tracks staff CPD courses, carries out annual Training Needs Analyses for all staff and updates Santa Claus on a monthly basis.

Technology VA tracks the latest technology throughout the year, attending all the major technology shows to find out what tech is likely to be requested by children. She reviews everything electronic and computerised, tracking the popularity of computers, laptops, mobile telephones, games consoles and AI devices to ensure the right gadgets can be purchased, in the right quantities, at the right price. This is a particularly difficult job as technology moves so rapidly, the manufacturers cannot always prioritise Santa’s order, or manufacture sufficient numbers to meet Santa’s order,  and unfortunately, this is the reason why some children may not get the latest iPhone for Christmas.

Most of these are tasks that a VA or Freelance Administrator could do for a less exalted personage than Santa Claus, although there may not be much need for a Reindeer Management VA outside the North Pole.  However, if you have an admin task that is taking up time that could be better spent with clients, creating revenue, or being with family and friends, then do get in touch here.

You can see the range of services that I offer here, and if you are thinking of streamlining your admin or outsourcing some of the more time-consuming elements, then go here, to see the ways in which I can help you to create more time and revenue for your business in 2018.

Santa Claus’ VA Team – Part One

VA, Santa Claus' VA, VA work at Christmas, Virtual Assistant, Christmas tasks for VA

With the festive season coming up, I thought this would give a bit of light relief from all the rushing about organising presents, food, office parties, visits to relatives, Christmas tree purchase (and the inevitable argument over where each bauble ought to be placed and how much tinsel is too much tinsel on one four foot tree).

It is a busy time of year for everyone, particularly small businesses and HR consultants (all those fallings out over Christmas party misbehaviour and who ate the last mince pie in the communal fridge).  However, if you thought you were busy trying to get it all done whilst also handling your marketing, accounts, invoicing, admin and day to day work, spare a thought for Santa Claus.  He has to get the main bulk of his annual work done in the dark, in a twelve-hour time slot, whilst keeping his lovely red coat and white beard immaculately clean despite entering homes via the chimney.  He certainly earns his mince pie and whisky that’s for sure.

I reckon that the only way Santa can get all this done is to have a flexible team of Rock Star VA’s and Freelance Office administrators to help him throughout the year.  So this post looks at the kinds of tasks that Santa Claus might need completing by a VA or Freelance Administration specialist.

General Admin VA helps Santa’s Behavioural Review Elves to create and update a spreadsheet which can filter out naughty children, giving reasons why they may not receive any gifts.

Information Management VA keeps the spreadsheet of gifts requested by children fully up to date.  There are always a significant minority of children who change their mind about what they just before Christmas. It is the Information Management VA’s role to inform Procurement, Warehouse, Workshop and Warehouse, on a two-hourly basis, throughout December, of any changes to requirements.  Luckily, if Santa already bought the gift for the child, there is usually another child who does want the gift.   This is a huge task and there is more than one VA dedicated to this task during November and December when the television toy adverts start.

Project management VA’s plan and manage all the deadlines and sub-projects necessary to ensure a smooth-running process on the night.  Using Gantt charts to track every part of the process, they ensure that the time leading up to the big night is well used and that all project milestones are met on time throughout the year.

Warehouse VA’s manage the stock control for gifts and ensure that there is sufficient warehouse space, the shelves are properly labelled, and safe handling rules are published and observed.

Health and Safety VA ensures that PPE and uniforms are provided for all Elves, VA’s and of course for Santa Claus.  Safety boots are specially ordered for elves using the exact Pantone shade of green and even the steel toe caps are green.  Santa Claus has patent leather safety boots and needs two pairs a year.  These are specially made for him and have a lovely sheepskin lining.

Reindeer Management VA ensures that the reindeer are well cared for throughout the year and have the right mix of moss, reindeer food, and water to keep them healthy. She also ensures they follow their allotted fitness regime to ensure they are in peak condition with sufficient stamina to make the long journey on the night.  The reindeer carry out regular practice runs with the weighted sleigh and these are timed to ensure they will be able to meet the strict timings needed to get everything delivered on time.

Procurement and Stock Control VA work together to manage the regular incoming orders for the standard gifts that all children like to receive such as chocolate, sweeties, books and DVDs, and bicycles.  These are ordered in bulk ahead of time, based on previous year’s figures averaged but delivered on a monthly basis throughout the year to allow manufacturers to average out the demand on their machinery throughout the year.  A final order is placed in late November based on the actual quantities requested.  Some items are on a sale or return basis.  Being based at the North Pole, all edible gifts are kept so cold that they can be safely stored for a year without detriment.

Santa’s personal PR VA handles his personal appearances throughout the world, ensuring that his travel schedule is managed effectively to make the best use of his time during the run-up to Christmas.

A team of Mail VA’s handle the letters from children and update the spreadsheet of gifts requested to ensure that there is a clear overview of items required.  The spreadsheet is available to the finance and stock control VA’s via a shared DropBox folder so that they can collaborate to ensure that sufficient gifts of each type are going to be available on the night.

Procurement VA’s handle the purchase of gifts on behalf of Santa Claus to ensure that the best value for money is obtained when purchasing in bulk.  They work closely with the Research VA’s and Finance VA’s to provide a fully rounded service.

Research VA identifies toy trends across the year and forecasts likely quantities of each toy so that procurement VA can pre-order items to avoid disappointment.

Reporting VA manages the incoming information and produces weekly management reports for Santa Claus regarding types and quantities of gifts required as well as liaising with Stock Control VA to ensure that demand is not going to outstrip supply.  These two teams of VA’s work closely together to ensure that Santa always has the most up to date management information possible to allow him to make effective purchasing decisions.

Finance VA team manage the payment of bills as well as credit control and budget management, regularly reporting to Santa Claus who reviews the costs to ensure they are within target.

Most of these things are tasks that a VA or Freelance Administrator could do for a less exalted personage than Santa Claus.  I am not sure there is much call for a Reindeer Management VA outside the North Pole.  However, if you have an admin task that is taking up time, time that could be more productively spent with clients, creating revenue, or being with family and friends, then do get in touch here.

5 Spells to Streamline your Time Management

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Soon it will be Halloween.  Then it will be Bonfire Night.  Then we are on the countdown to Christmas.  There are costumes and candy to buy for Halloween, Fireworks to purchase, bonfire night parties to arrange, then the Christmas planning is upon us.  The thoughtful gifts, the stocking fillers, and creating a cake early enough to allow it to be fed an entire bottle of brandy without it turning to mush.  The latter is not only possible, but it is also delicious.   The list goes on and on.

Time, always at a premium, doesn’t stretch to accommodate all the extra tasks you need to complete at home or in the business.   We all sit down some nights and wish we had a magic wand that would allow us to stretch time so we could get more done in a day.   Most of us don’t have a magic wand but these time management tips can help you to make the most of the time you do have available.

Multi-Tasking: Please Don’t.

Although it is tempting to tackle several things at once to get things done quicker, your brain is not set up to work that way.  It works best if you allow it to concentrate on just one task or group of tasks.  By minimising your brain’s need to keep switching tasks, you feel more in control and your brain works more efficiently, allowing you to get more done.

Avoid Interruptions

Interrupting your work to read notifications breaks your train of thought.  Daniel Leviton, author of “The Organised Mind” calls the desire to read notifications and Emails “The Novelty Bias”.   It can take several minutes to recover focus following trivial interruptions and over a whole day, those tiny interruptions can add up to quite a bit of lost time.

If you struggle to ignore notifications there are apps that will block access to Social Media for set periods of time so that you won’t be tempted.  Or, do as I do, leave your phone downstairs when you are working upstairs.

Is it the right time?

If you set aside particular times of day to work on tasks this can really add to your productivity.  Working on complicated or creative tasks when you are feeling fresh will ensure they get done more quickly.  Most of us experience a post-lunch dip in energy and this can be a really good time to check Emails and do routine housekeeping tasks in the office.  Knowing your optimum time for creativity and making the most of this time is a great way to make the most of your time.

Planning:  It’s not just for Project Managers

Have a goal in mind for each week and create a plan for each day.  If you plan out your week and list the key tasks you will complete each day in order to achieve your end goal, this is a great way to ensure you are making progress and stay on track.  Each task on your list should move you nearer to the goal you have in mind, whether that is planning an office party or gaining more business.

Having an accountability partner can be helpful as well.  They can ensure you stay on target by challenging you to complete the tasks you have set yourself that week or month.  Choose someone who will have the confidence to give you a kick if you aren’t meeting the goals you set yourself.

Environment

Whilst some people undoubtedly work well in a messy environment, I’ve seldom met anyone who worked well in a disorganised one.  Those who work with messy desks always have a hidden method of organisation that is not apparent to the casual observer.  They can always lay hands on the thing they need, and that’s the key.  Nothing wastes time like a fruitless search for the pen you had a minute ago, the stapler you know you had last week, or that critical document that you didn’t file away.  The document is probably somewhere in the pile of documents in the corner of the office. Unless it is somewhere else of course.  If this is something you struggle with, you can read tips on how to alter your environment to aid improve both time management and productivity  here:

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Finally, if you are struggling to cast these spells effectively, why not call in an expert?

If you need some heavy duty spells cast over your admin, working with a VA might be the answer.

If you would like me to fly to your rescue, then you can contact me here.

5 Tips for Great Content

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Creativity Can’t be Coerced

It is important to understand when you are at your most creative.  For some people, this might be late at night, for others, first thing in the morning.  You will have your best chance of creating great content if you play to your strengths and write, or plan, at a time when you are feeling at your most creative.

I am sure some people can decide to sit down every third Tuesday between 10 am and 1pm, write for three hours and be very creative indeed.   But for others, inspiration cannot be coerced in that way and will come from interaction with people and ideas.  Ideas that resonate with you, challenge existing beliefs, or create an emotional reaction, these are the things which are likely to spark creativity.  Many ideas come whilst you are doing something else.  This is why I am seldom far from a notebook and pen.  Keeping a folder of content ideas can be helpful.  I keep a folder to which I add notes and ideas as they occur to me.  I find this useful for kick-starting the creative process when I am ready to write.

Begin in the Middle

Blank white paper and brand new Word documents can kill inspiration.  I start with an idea from my inspiration folder and run with it to see where it takes me.   Starting from a note, draft or idea fools my brain into thinking I’ve started already, so I don’t get that blank page paralysis.  It can be helpful to just start writing somewhere.  Have an idea where you are going of course, but there is no law that says you have to start at the very beginning.  This post formed the middle section of a post about something else entirely.   The trick is to just get your thoughts onto paper.  You can tidy them up later.  I’ve found that telling myself the document is a draft that I can tweak and tidy up reduces the pressure to create startlingly amazing content in one draft.

Don’t be a Butterfly

Commentators in the fields of both Psychology and Time Management tell us that concentrating on one task, or set of related tasks, is highly efficient.  Switching between different types of task breaks concentration.  Once concentration is lost it can take a while to get it back again.  We’ve all had that situation where we are in the midst of drafting the most impressive document ever and there is an interruption.  A colleague has a question.  The phone or doorbell rings.  We go back to the task and find we can’t remember what we were going to write next.

Setting aside a time to concentrate fully on content creation, without interruptions, is therefore worthwhile.  You will get more done and ultimately be able to create more content if you can minimise distractions during the time you are writing.

Getting all your thoughts out onto paper in one single session can be a great way to create pieces of related content.  The draft might be very rough at the end of your writing session but you can set aside time later to review and polish the content for publication.  It is easier to see the areas that need improvement if you leave the draft to sit for a few days without looking at it.  You bring a fresh eye to it and can see where the text can be improved. If your writing has accidentally gone off on a different track part way through, then you can remove that part and keep it as a draft to be incorporated into another piece of related content.  Often it is easier, and quicker, to write this second piece of content because you have already partly thought through your argument and know the direction you want to take it in.

Be Human.  Be You.

Writing is just speech in written form.  Just be you.  Make your content flow as though you are talking to the reader.  The more you write, the more your unique voice will make itself known in your writing.   If you find that difficult on paper or on the computer screen, you could try recording your content using your phone’s voice recorder app. Just chat away and then either transcribe it yourself, send the recording to your VA or use a specialist transcription company.  I offer transcription as part of my package of services so if this would be helpful to you, please get in touch .

Tell a Tale

People love a story.  If you can make a narrative flow then you will draw your reader into your world and allow them to learn more about you and your subject.  It can be a challenge to make a story out of everything, and some subjects may not lend themselves to this approach. However, at the very least there should be a progression in the argument which takes the reader on a journey and draws them in, making them want to know more about the subject matter.  A logical progression in a narrative makes the reader want to learn more.  In more factual content, breaking up the text into sections will increase readability.

There are some great content creators out there who have the knack of creating memorable content.  Often they are doing this by using their own unique voice in their content, or by telling stories in a way that is memorable and effective.  Whilst you don’t want to be copying others, you want to create your own voice, it can be helpful to look closely at the structure of content which you find attractive and examine the methods the author has used to draw in their audience.  This can help you to hone and improve your own work as well as work out how you can use your unique voice to create content that others will want to emulate.

Six Key Considerations when hiring an Assistant

Six Key Considerations when hiring an Assistant

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So, you are thinking about hiring an assistant.  At least, I am guessing that is why you landed here on my blog.  But you find yourself a bit torn.  A bit unsure.  You know you need some help.  You know you have been spending way too long on your admin.  There have been those comments from family about never seeing you.  And you are always tired.  The admin is starting to feel like a total chore, and it’s getting in the way of your “real” work.  And yet.  You still aren’t sure.  It’s a surprisingly emotive thing, hiring an assistant, isn’t it?

Some common concerns are listed below, together with some ideas that may help you to decide if the time has come to invite an assistant into your business, and if so, how best to do that so that your business gains great value from your investment in an assistant.

1.  Letting Go

Do you feel you should do it all yourself? Or feel you are the only person that can do it right? Yet you still have that sneaky feeling that you do need some help?  If so, you are not alone.  To see if you are ready to take on an assistant, try looking at the areas where you do not feel you have the high-level expertise or the inclination for the task and consider whether you could outsource these areas first.  It is often easier to let go of tasks you dislike or find difficult.

For example, If you aren’t particularly organised, then managing your business documentation may well be a time-consuming chore that in the hands of an expert could take half the time.

2.  How do I know I can Trust my new Assistant?

Are you concerned about letting someone into the business?  Being able to let go of tasks does require trust, but you can build that trust with your assistant by being very clear about what you require of them.  I won’t lie to you.  Trust will take time to develop, but if you are clear about what you need to be done then your assistant will be able to provide the right result in the timescale requested.  I offer a test task to any clients who request it and always suggest something routine which won’t impact on the business itself but will save you some time.  Tasks such as data input of business cards to Excel, transcription, minute-taking or copy-typing are all popular starter or test tasks which can help you assess whether your potential assistant will be discreet, accurate, meet deadlines, and communicate with you effectively.

3.  What tasks can I Outsource?

Well, pretty much anything that needs doing which is not illegal or immoral.   One of the greatest advantages to using a freelance staff is the ability to access a wide range of specialist expertise on a per hour or per project basis.  There are assistants for most tasks, from general VA’s who tackle varied tasks, through to specialist VA’s who tackle areas as diverse as Pinterest, Medical Transcription, HR, Social Media, Marketing, Events and Website Builds.  Whatever you need, there is a VA for it.

4.  Surely a Freelance will be awfully expensive?

If your assistant charges out at less per hour than you do, then you will make money by handing over work to them.  Virtual Assistants vary in cost depending on experience and expertise but remember that your time is money, and every hour you spend on admin is an hour when you aren’t working with your clients.  And of course, there are none of the overheads such as tax, National Insurance, Pension, Holiday pay and so forth to stump up for.  When your VA tells you their hourly rate, that is all included.  There is very little admin involved in working with a VA as well.  Just an invoice at the agreed time, so no messy payroll issues to manage.

5.  How do I know if my assistant will be reliable?

A good Virtual Assistant will be reliable because their business depends on it. We are business owners too, and we understand the critical importance of reliability.  Nevertheless, it is prudent to ask around amongst your business contacts to find out which Virtual Assistants have proven reliable for them.  In addition, most Virtual Assistants will include a testimonial section on their website which will give you an idea not only of their reliability but also of the type of work they have done in the past and their skill set.

6.  How do I find an assistant I will be comfortable working with?  

I won’t lie to you.  It takes time for an assistant to fully integrate into your business and for the relationship to develop to the point where support is completely seamless.  If you have never had an assistant before, it may take you some time to adjust too.  But with clear communication between you, a good assistant will soon understand your way of working and provide the support you need.  Naturally, you will meet with the potential VA’s you are considering, either in person or via Skype/Facetime and during those discussions will gain a fuller understanding of their personality and whether you feel it will complement yours and they will be someone you would be comfortable working with.

Every assistant/business owner relationship is different and both you and your assistant will, if you work at it, create a way that works for you both which supports your business in the way you need.  A good assistant will adjust to how you want to work because we want to make things as easy as possible for you. After all, that’s why we do what we do.

If you feel you may be ready for an assistant, then please get in touch.  You can contact me via any of the methods listed here.