Personally Virtual Blog

11th September, 2019

September… stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favourite chair and take out his pipe and light it and then fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since last he saw you.”

Stephen King

September often feels like a new start. Not quite the New Year/new me/new beginning of January 1st (jam packed with totally unattainable diet and fitness-based resolutions) but a definite opportunity to take renewed action in our lives and to kick-start the engine again after an extended summer break.

It’s reminiscent of a new term at a new school, with new uniforms, fresh stationery and organised school bags (without long lost bananas that have become host to brand new life forms)…  and it’s not just the ‘back to school’ feeling that signals change; September marks the start of Autumn and a transition into cooler, shorter days.  These periods of transition are a great time to stop for a moment and reflect on the year to date. What has been successful in 2019 so far? What really didn’t work out as you had anticipated? What would you have done differently? What goals have you met? Which goals are you still working towards (and are you on track to meet them in a timely manner)? Perhaps the goalposts have changed and you need to adjust your plans accordingly? Businesses aren’t static entities – they grow and change constantly, though progress isn’t always a straight line. By taking time out to re-assess and re-evaluate your business goals regularly throughout the year, you can make sure that you are still working towards the ‘ideal business’ that works for you and fits in with your unique needs; you don’t have to have a 100-strong workforce, to be regularly invoicing 6-figures per month, or to have won an armful of shiny business awards in the first 9 months of 2019 for it to have been a success – it’s all relative and ultimately, as long as your business is turning over enough to sustain your financial needs (or is working towards it!) then you are on the right track.

Think of September as an annual check in. Buy the new stationary, the notepads and #AllThePens. Take a moment to think about both the positives and negatives of the year so far and try to build on the good stuff for the last few months of the year.  That being said, it’s important to pace yourself so the chances of burning out from an unsustainable energy surge are minimised. Understand what is manageable and set achievable and realistic goals for the final quarter of 2019 and be sure to acknowledge both the little successes as well as the big wins – trust me, running a business is a challenge and every positive deserves to be celebrated. 

Just remember, keep those business goals;

*Specific - no hugely non-specific ‘I want world peace’ type goals without providing a little more detail.

*Measurable - make sure that your goal is easy to measure so that you can tell whether you are on track to meet it, or not!

*Achievable - though aiming for consistent 7-figure turnover weeks might be your ultimate aim, it might not be an achievable goal for you at the moment if you don’t have the marketing budget and business systems and processes in place to support that at the moment.

*Realistic – again, building your next office on the moon may be a wonderful dream, but how likely is that to actually happen before Christmas?

*Timely – give yourself a deadline to either achieve your business goal or to review again; quarterly reviews work really well, from my experience!

Autumn is a valuable season within our businesses. Let’s make it count!

Whether you’ve got children off for the Summer break or are jetting off to sunnier climes over the next few weeks, July and August are synonymous with holidays – possibly because in a good old British Summer you are generally allowed at least three days of fabulous weather (between back-to-back days of hail, wind, rain and possibly snow).  As a result, my ‘holiday top tips!’ blog should be useful for most of you, even if you are stay-cationing or nipping off for a long weekend in the country.

For as stress-free a break as possible, here are my top 5 recommendations:

1.)   Notify your customers in advance of your holiday – if possible, I generally recommend giving customers a month’s notice of a holiday, particularly if it’s over a week.  The vast majority of my customers can be maintained and supported by a trusted associate, should the customer request or require it, and in many cases work can also be completed prior to going away.  It’s worth giving customers plenty of notice though as you can guarantee that if you don’t, a hundred pieces of ‘urgent’ work will drop into your in-tray on your last day in the office…

2.)   Have an emergency contact in place (ideally, not you as the first point of call) – it’s always helpful to have a trusted team member available for any ‘urgent’ customer enquiries that come in.  Please note that ‘urgent’ from the perspective of the customer isn’t necessarily ‘urgent’ from anyone else’s perspective, so having a team member available to separate the ‘legitimately urgent’ from the ‘really can wait until you are back in the office' queries, you can rest assured that your holiday isn’t going to be interrupted unless absolutely necessary.

3.)   Turn your ‘out of office’ on from the morning of your last day at work – this acts as a great reminder to customers who may have forgotten you were going away (despite regular notifications!) and had been considering trying to sneak ‘a quick job’ in before you went away… trust me, ‘a quick job’ never quite turns out to be as quick or as simple as the customer believes.

4.)   Set your ‘out of office’ to turn off one day after you arrive back at work and keep the diary clear on that day – despite your ‘out of office’ notification, it’s likely that you’ll come back to approximately half a million emails; if you’re dealing with customer enquiries from the second you sit down at your desk too, it’s going to take months to work through your in-tray and establish your to-do list for your first week back at work.  Give yourself a clear day (or morning) to read and file your emails and prioritise work and the positive mood that you’ve brought back from your holiday is far more likely to last!

5.)   Turn off notifications when you are away – if you use business management tools (like Slack, Asana or Todoist, for example) on your phone, or receive work emails to your mobile device, consider switching off notifications for these.  It’s all too easy to think ‘I’ll just check that!’ and end up, three hours later, embroiled in some minor customer issue that could have either been rectified without you or could be addressed upon your return.  Alternatively, you could always leave your phone in your hotel/B&B/tent and ignore it completely? I might have to give that a go this Summer holiday…

It’s so important to take some time out to relax and recharge your batteries every now and then, so make sure that your business is adequately prepared for your holiday so that you can really step away from work and come back re-envigorated and at the top of your productivity game.

The 17th Century poet John Donne famously wrote “No man is an island” and I have to agree.  Running my own business from home is fantastic – I work the hours I want, do the jobs I want, wear what I want, speak to who I want to – but in order to build my business I needed to embrace the skills and experience of other business professionals too.

As a self-employed freelancer with family commitments and hobbies, there are only a certain number of hours per day that you can dedicate to working without becoming a mad recluse.  There are also only so many skills that you can fit into your brain without falling into the worrying category of ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.  Realistically, if you want to increase the number of hours of work that you have available to assist clients, or want to broadly diversify the range of services that you offer, you need to find one or more experienced and talented professionals to help out.  I have worked with a number of freelancers over the past few years, but my core team has only really expanded within the past year and I couldn’t be happier with my current line-up of highly skilled and extensively experienced associates.

If you are considering growing your business and working closely with one or more new employees or freelancers, here are my top tips to help you build the perfect team:

1.)   Actively seek out people with a unique zone of genius that complements your own.  Unless you want to deliver exactly the same service to a much larger number of people, building a team with an exceptional and diverse skillset is a great way to develop a sustainable business.  If, for example, the call for your existing services suddenly drops off, the knowledge and experience of your fellow team members can help you to identify new opportunities for your business.

2.)   Make sure your team understand your values and ideals.  If you consider an eye for detail very important, you need to work with team members who are equally conscientious.  Anyone working outside of your business values runs the risk of upsetting loyal customers who have come to you specifically because they like the work that you do, so it’s important to have a chat about this before you start working together to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

3.)   Double check that they have a sense of humour. Admittedly, this isn’t a pre-requisite for every business owner, but it is important to me! Freelance work has its own unique challenges and may require the odd moment of humour to diffuse what could otherwise be a challenging situation.  Thankfully, my team can help keep each other positive and motivated with a back-catalogue of amusing memes and gifs to brighten even the darkest work moment.

4.)   Ask yourself, ‘Do I respect this person?’ – Unfortunately, it’s impossible to like everyone.  There are some people out there who might be extremely talented but who you just cannot bring yourself to like.  In a business relationship, it’s not necessary to be best friends with your team (though it does help if they are thoroughly lovely, like mine!), but you will find it incredibly hard to work successfully with people who you do not respect, whatever the reason for that.

5.) Make sure that you are actually ready to grow your business – taking on team members on a whim before your business is ready for growth is a definite no-no! Before you consider expansion, it’s really important to have a business plan in place that maps out the aims that you have for your business over the coming year(s).  This could be about the services that you want to provide, the customers that you want to target, etc.  If you want to maintain your existing clients but reduce the number of hours you work, or expand your services to a much larger range of customers, think about what you need in place in order to achieve this; successful growth is much more than just taking on new team members – your marketing, your networking, your sales processes and service delivery, they will all need to change! Taking on team members before you’ve addressed the actual logistics of business growth will just cause you additional stress, trust me.

Of course, there are a number of other factors that need to be considered when you are growing a team, but don’t be put off by what’s involved – when you find a great team of like-minded and talented individuals, teamwork really can help to make the dream work!

A virtual assistant can make a huge difference to your businesses productivity and effectiveness, but there is no ‘one size fits all’ VA out there! The term ‘Virtual Assistant’ covers a wide variety of remote working business support professionals offering services as diverse as diary management, bookkeeping support, marketing assistance and web development – to name but a few!

So how can you find the right VA for you? The first step is to make sure you know exactly what you want or need help with, as there’s no use taking on a bookkeeping specialist if you need technical edits made to your business website!  Many VAs offer very specific services, but if they can’t help you with the work you need it is likely that they will know (or work with) someone who can help, so don’t be afraid to ask!  Once you find someone who can help you, feel free to ask them about their experience in that particular task – they may have a portfolio of work that they can show you (particularly if they offer creative services) but even if they don’t, they should be able to give you an indication about their practical experiences of carrying out a specific type of task.

Another important idea to factor into your search for the perfect VA is to establish that they have a professional and responsible business; Ask about their professional indemnity insurance and insist on a contract that details your working relationship so that you know exactly what to expect from your VA (as well as what your responsibilities are).  If your VA is offering services such as bookkeeping, it may be that they need to be registered for HMRC’s Anti-Money Laundering Regulations, so do your research to ensure that they are appropriately qualified for the work you are asking them to carry out.

A very important and often overlooked part of the quest for the perfect freelancer is to actually talk to a potential candidate and make sure that they are the right personality fit for you.  Although it would be wonderful if we could be friends with everyone, it’s a fact of life that some people just don’t float your boat – and that’s fine! They could be the world’s most fabulous web developer, but if after 3 minutes of talking to them you want to shut your head in your laptop then it is likely that you aren’t going to have the most productive business relationship.  Even if they do seem like your cup of tea, make sure that you ask them about their working preferences before signing up to work with them; some freelancers may expect guidance and reassurance on a regular basis to ensure that they are carrying out your work appropriately for you, whereas others may be virtually uncontactable (which could work for you!), so make sure you find the right balance for your business needs.

Finally, I highly recommend taking a look at a freelancer’s testimonials to get an idea of how successfully they have worked with fellow business owners in the past.  Admittedly, some freelancers are hopeless at requesting feedback from their customers, but most should be able to obtain one or two relevant testimonials for you to review.  You could also ask your own network for their recommendations of great freelance business support professionals, as then you can ask more detailed questions about cost, quality of work and turnaround time.

If you’re looking for a remote business support professional to help your business work more efficiently and productively, get in touch! I’d be happy to talk through your requirements and point you in the direction of a fabulous freelancer if we don’t offer the services that you are looking for.

According to Scientific American, we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily[1], and with each person in the UK using the equivalent of 4.5 40-foot trees worth of paper per year[2] it’s clear that we need to reduce paper waste in our lives to protect our environmental resources. 

For many people, a paper-free office making use of digital note-taking and task management apps is a sustainable alternative to using reams and reams of paper. However, hand writing physical notes does have its benefits for some people (myself included), so if you’re prepared to recycle and invest in recycled paper products, it can be worth keeping a notepad to hand!

So what are the benefits of hand-written notes vs. digital notes?

1.) Reduced distractions – if you are logged on to your computer, laptop or mobile device and trying to make coherent notes, it’s all too easy to get distracted by emails and app notifications that come through as you are working.  If it is important that you maintain a single trail of thought throughout an activity (for example, if you are making notes about a complex subject or have a limited time available to make notes) it might be easier to write these down directly on paper rather than using a digital notepad or task management system.

2.) Better information retention – research suggests that when an individual writes something down on paper, they are processing that information in a physical, tangible form, making it easier for that information to ‘stick’ in the memory.  As a result, if you’ve got important tasks to remember, it could be worth creating a physical list or using an online task management system that has loud alarms and reminders!

3.) Enhanced creativity and improved wellbeing – when you’ve got a pen and paper on your desk, it’s easy to use the paper as a canvas for doodles and illustrations as well as important notes.  According to ‘The Lancet’, for some, doodling may be crucial for creativity or to aid in relaxation – things that are not necessarily associated with simply typing content into a digital tool.

Though it is highly recommended that we all try to live more sustainably, I still think that there is a place for hand-written notes in day to day life (particularly if you invest in environmentally friendly recycled paper products, and recycle after use).  Do you prefer physical notes or digital ones? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the issue!

Reaves, R., Flowers, J. and Jewell, L., 1993. Effects of writing-to-learn activities on the content knowledge, retention, and attitudes of secondary vocational agriculture students. Journal of Agricultural Education34(3), pp.34-40.

Schott, G.D., 2011. Doodling and the default network of the brain. The Lancet378(9797), pp.1133-1134.

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