Personally Virtual Blog

For many of us, while we love a holiday as much as the next person, the idea of getting everything done ahead of it and then what you return to afterwards fills us with dread. It sometimes feels that you don’t actually take time off work, more that you work twice as many hours the week before and then twice as many the week after your holiday. So your refreshed and zen like state lasts less time than your tan.

You can’t magic away a week or two of work, it will always be a juggling act but I have collated some excellent organisation tips over the years to make getting away easier and coming back less painful. I hope that you find some of them useful.

Be Prepared!

Not just for scouts this is great motto for us planning time off. You probably told your boss, your clients, your team and everyone else who needed to know about your holiday months ago. Whilst it is very high up on your radar they will almost certainly have forgotten. Or be in total denial if they are anything like my old boss. Remind them! Two or three weeks before. Set expectations, discuss any projects and work that may need a timeline working around or others to get involved in your absence. Don’t for a second assume they will have thought about it, they almost certainly haven’t. Your life will be much easier if you remind them early enough that you don’t end up with a pile of stuff on your desk 24 hours before you head off.

Lie (just a little bit)

I don’t mean lie outright but depending on your work a little lie to yourself about when your holiday starts might not be a bad thing. This is easier for us self-employed types. So I’m flying out Wednesday morning at 6AM. I’m going to tell everyone I’m off on Tuesday – because there’s no way I’m going to fit a normal day of work and packing and painting my nails on Tuesday. So whilst I might decide to do some work on that spare day, I’m going to tell myself I am off and give myself a buffer to tie up any loose ends. I don’t want to be sitting in the airport bar still trying to finish off client emails.

The same for when I come back. I try and build in a day for catching up before anyone sees me pop up on Skype and starts giving me more work!

At the very least. Put your out of office on your emails and phone from lunchtime of your last day. That should stop a few of the “before you go can you just”s. And block that afternoon so it’s free of meetings so you can clear the decks properly and give yourself a fighting chance of returning to calm.

Manage your diary before you go

If you have a PA or a VA give them some guidelines to make your exit and re-entry as smooth as possible. Otherwise commit a bit of time two or three days before you go away to plan your first few weeks back. If you know you have particular work on projects to do when you get back, block in time for them now.

Accept that leaving a perfectly empty desk and task list and getting to inbox zero is never going to happen. It just isn't – life is too messy. And even if you did have nothing outstanding and a big shiny halo, it won't last until you return anyway. Getting stressed about not having 100% finished things is no way to begin a break. Work to an 80/20 rule of getting most things cleared and reevaluate whether you can delegate anything. This doesn't mean you skip out of the office Julie Andrews-like, ditching anything and everything, leave others to sort out your mess and come back to hell, this is a realistic assessment of how much you can actually accomplish before you go. If you use a To Do List or task system, start adding a "when I get back" list. Again, if it is a big chunk of work you are having to defer, look at your diary now and block time to get it done.

Don't book any meetings on your last day in the office, or your first morning back. Give yourself some desk time. Then, during your first afternoon back you will want to be catching up with your VIPs , your clients, PA/VA, boss, project leader, co-workers - anyone who needs to give you an update on things. Keep it to a snappy 15 minute call each and ideally, have them booked before you go so you just have to turn up day one and do what it says you have to in your diary.

Be kind to yourself! Returning from holiday is a hard landing, don't book yourself 3 work evenings out and 2 early starts in week one. Wean yourself back in gently.

And to get through day one and keep your sanity? Here's a quick and dirty guide to hitting the ground running

  • Make a strong coffee
  • Show off your tan to anyone who will let you before finding your desk.
  • Decide now on a ‘clock off time’ today and stick to it!
  • Change all your ‘out of office notices’
  • Open a pad and get writing.... Three columns, "diary, delegate (or ask), do"
  • Check your diary for the week ahead; quickly note any prep work needed
  • Emails. The biggie!
    • Do an initial whizz through and delete all junk and other rubbish.
    • Start at the oldest emails, where action is needed mark them (flags, categories etc). If it is an urgent action, note them separately on your pad.
    • Separate “things to read” from “things to do” if that helps you and add to your list anything that is “delegate to others”
    • As you work through, make sure that any threads are followed (organise by thread / conversation to help) in case the initial action isn’t the end action. Note any questions to follow up on later when you do your 20 minute calls (delegate / ask).
    • Make any changes to your diary.
    • Once you have made it through, start work on the most urgent first.
  • Write yourself a reminder for next time you take a break to get a Virtual Assistant to support you – they can take much of this pain away…

If you want to know more about how a super organised VA can look after your inbox while you are away, you can read about it here.

Kathy Soulsby, Personally Virtual

http://www.personallyvirtual.co.uk

20th May, 2016

Do you have to weave your way through a jungle of tropical plants on your way to the photocopier, or is your office a foliage-free zone?

The topic of today's blog is 'Plants in the workplace' and I'll be answering some of the questions you never thought you'd ask about how plants can influence productivity, health and overall 'good vibes' in a workspace.

Firstly - did you know that research suggests that plants can actually boost productivity? Dr Craig Knight of the University of Exeter found that by enriching a lean, 'clutter-free' office space with a few houseplants, the productivity of the workforce could be boosted by up to 15% (reference: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_409094_en.html) – a fairly dramatic increase when you consider the minimal cost of a couple of 'Swiss Cheese' plants from your local Homebase.

As well as boosting productivity, Plants also have the power to make workplaces healthier! Apparently, the average workplace is subject to all kinds of chemical fumes that are emitted from apparently harmless items of technology and stationery. That printer sat next to your desk is a major culprit, releasing xylene and trichloroethylene and all kinds of other nasties into the air. Even the box of tissues on your desk is a source of formaldehyde. But fear not! Research carried out for NASA in 1989 'A study of interior landscape plants for indoor air pollution abatement') determined that Spider Plants can effectively filter formaldehyde, xylene and toluene from the air, and Japanese Peace Lilies can effectively filter benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, toluene, trichloroethylene and ammonia. Looks like it is time to invest in a Peace Lily – unless you have a cat or dog, as they are toxic to pets I'm afraid... Spider Plants aren't though!

When it comes to the issue of plants in your home or workspace, Feng Shui also has something to say about it! For example, in order to feel the benefit of a vibrant 'Chi' or energy from a houseplant, the plant needs to be happy and healthy (read: not dead). Plants positioned in the East, South-East or South of a room work best, as do plants that are nice and smooth. Apparently, the energy produced by a cactus is spiky and therefore not conducive to a positive and calming work environment (http://fengshui.about.com/od/fengshuidecorfaq/f/Good-Feng-Shui-Plants-And-Bad-Feng-Shui-Plants.htm).

So if you are looking for a quick and simple way to boost your happiness, health and productivity at work this week, try investing in a plant. Don't forget to water it though - you don't want any bad Chi.

7th March, 2016

I'm sure that everyone reading this has had some experience of attending meetings, and can almost guarantee that you will also have first-hand experience of attending an ineffective meeting. There are always a few individuals who don't follow the basic rules of a meeting - i.e. arriving on time, keeping the meeting 'on topic', or doing their research prior to attending the meeting so that they have something constructive that they can bring to the table. As a result of this, research suggests that the average British worker spends 4 wasted hours per week in what they would describe as a 'pointless' meeting (source: http://www.managementtoday.co.uk/news/1175002/). That's time that could be spent doing something much more worthwile, like watching the entire 1967 film production of 'War and Peace'.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure what can be done to convince the worst offenders that it is possible to have an effective meeting that starts on time and stays on point. However, in the course of my research, I have found some interesting recommendations for meetings that may help the more reasonable attendees amongst us!

For a start, it is recommended that people attending meetings take notes using a pen and paper rather than a laptop or mobile device, due to the fact that "Even if you have fantastic abilities to focus on the meeting, other people may assume that you are "catching up on email" instead of paying attention to the meeting if you take notes on a computer" http://projectmanagementhacks.com/meeting-tips/. This is a great point and one that I had not previously considered. Despite the incredible handiness of being able to type notes straight into a WORD document, I hadn't really thought about the way that other meeting attendees perceive the use of computers in meeting before, so will have to bear this in mind for the future.

Another point that was raised as I searched for tips for effective meetings touches on a point mentioned in the image above - that is, making sure that all attendees listen to one another and create an environment where members are encouraged to communicate freely about the topics discussed. I found a great article by Antony Jay in the 1976 issue of the Harvard Business Review that explains why the involvement of all group members in a meeting is so important:

"A meeting is the place where the group revises, updates, and adds to what it knows as a group. Every group creates its own pool of shared knowledge, experience, judgment, and folklore. But the pool consists only of what the individuals have experienced or discussed as a group-i.e., those things which every individual knows that all the others know, too... Some ethologists call this capacity to share knowledge and experience among a group "the social mind," conceiving it as a single mind dispersed among a number of skulls. They recognize that this "social mind" has a special creative power, too. A group of people meeting together can often produce better ideas, plans, and decisions than can a single individual or a number of individuals, each working alone"

https://hbr.org/1976/03/how-to-run-a-meeting

Jay stresses the point that the pool of shared knowledge in a meeting can only consist of what the individuals have experienced or discussed as a group, highlighting the fact that if one or more meeting attendees do not feel confident enough to contribute to the discussion in the meeting, the pool of shared knowledge will be lacking certain information that could be extremely beneficial to the team as a whole.

So next time you're in a meeting, leave the laptop at your desk and make sure you say what's on your mind (as long as it's on topic!). These two small changes could have a positive impact on the way you and your fellow attendees experience the meeting, and you never know - everyone might even arrive on time and stay on topic! Miracles can happen!

I have a friend who likes to say 'Everybody has a Talent', and though having watched 'Britain's got Talent' I have occasionally questioned the truthfulness of this statement, generally I have to agree. We all have certain aspects of our job that we excel at - the jobs that we can do incredibly efficiently and without even breaking a sweat! On the other hand, we all have skills that we aren't quite so proficient at (hello short hand!). Skills that we don't necessarily have the time (or inclination) to invest in improving. It's all very well for someone to say 'Practice makes Perfect!', but in real-life business situations, how many people have hours of free time to dedicate to learning how to use Excel efficiently, or how to do their own books if they struggle at Maths? And is it really the best use of your time if it is a small part of your business and not actually what you do best?

When it comes to doing your thing, nobody can do it quite like you; few people have the insight that you do into your specific field of business, or have such an extensive understanding of your customers and suppliers, or the products and services that you sell - that is definitely a talent! Sometimes though, when you are engulfed in some of the more mundane activities that are involved in running your own business or life (collating expense receipts or typing up notes from meetings, etc.), your unique talents don't have the chance to shine - frustration, boredom and irritability can sneak in to your daily work life. Or worse still, those tasks get pushed to the bottom of a list and you suddenly realise you haven't sent an invoice out in 3 months.

As a Virtual Assistant, I am acutely aware of the fact that we all have different talents and skills. Many Virtual Assistants collaborate, each specialising in several very specific areas to ensure that the client always receives the most appropriate support for them - support which is carried out by someone who really knows what they are doing! This ethos of sharing skills and experience has really helped me to embrace both my own skills and my own work-based limitations:

I have learnt that if there is something I am good at, I need to ensure I use those skills every day for the benefit of my business. If there is something I'm not great at (or loathe), and which is taking my time and focus away from what I do best, it often works better if I can get someone else to help - someone who excels in that particular area. There are so many companies out there that offer support for all kinds of issues - from bookkeeping to call handling, from social media management to cleaning; these businesses are run by professionals in their fields, people that actually enjoy the jobs you hate! So if you are struggling with certain tasks, why not consider outsourcing in order to have more time to dedicate to the things that you do best?

At Personally Virtual, our clients tell us that even a small amount of support time makes a huge impact on how they feel about work. You can find a list of a few of the things we can assist with here, but you are more than welcome to email me at Kathy@personallyvirtual.co.uk, or give me a ring on: +44 7805 390651 for a general conversation about how outsourcing some admin might look for you.

26th November, 2015

Every day, dozens of random (yet strangely compelling) messages hit my inbox. There was once a time, back when emails were still a bit of a novelty but not today, oh no! I can and do spend hours managing email. So when it comes to sending them and copying in the whole world, I now ask myself 'WWBGD?' before clicking send.

'WWBGD'? I hear you ask! Well, ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the innovative personal email sending filter that is 'What would Bear Grylls do?'

Bear Grylls: rugged outdoorsy sort, more likely to be found trout tickling with his teeth, suspended over the edge of a waterfall by a rope made out of body hair than sending out a company-wide email about the state of the fridge in the communal kitchen. But that's just the point. Bear Grylls seems to be an incredibly practical and matter-of-fact individual. If there was a problem with the fridge, he'd probably do something about it himself (possibly collecting the mould that has grown on the sandwiches that have been abandoned in there since August and saving it for a nutritious mid-afternoon snack...). To be honest, I'm pretty sure Bear Grylls would only send an email if it was extremely important, possibly if there was an emergency - although, frustrated at having to communicate via the trappings of modern life, he may end up setting fire to his computer in order to send an 'S.O.S' using smoke signals. What I'm trying to say is that Bear Grylls is a Boy Scout, and as such isn't likely to forward inappropriate emails or waste people's time (including his own) with unnecessary email correspondence.

According to research carried out by McKinsey Global Institute, more than a quarter of the average worker's day is spent answering and reading emails. Further statistics cited by the Radicati Group state that the average corporate email user sends and receives over 100 emails a day, 19% of which are classed as spam. That's a whole lot of emails - but how many of them are really necessary? Just imagine the time you could save if you only had to read, or send, emails that were concise, relevant, and actually required!

If Bear Grylls isn’t your thing – try this lovely infographic from onlineItdegree. Top tips there, although I dispute kittens as we know they are good for health, attention span and well-being!

Copyright © Kathy Soulsby. All rights reserved.