Technology that will speed you through your tasks

02 January 2014 -


Much business time is wasted because skilled workers can’t get to their tasks quickly enough. But there are a few fixes for that…

If you live in a city and have a working smartphone and debit card, chances are you’ll have used one of the burgeoning roster of taxi apps such as Hailo and Get Taxi. You’ll also know that these apps direct cabs straight to punters, rather than forcing drivers to take a gamble on where there might be fares or having them sitting in inefficient taxi-rank queues outside train stations or the like. The customers, using the GPS on their phone, have the ability to sit inside, nursing the dregs of their pint, knowing they’ve got another five minutes or so before the taxi turns up.

Of course, Hailo takes a 10% cut, but cabbies who’ve driven me seem to appreciate the trade-off for the efficiency it brings. And customers, who don’t pay anything other than the fare, are increasingly falling for the apps, too. It seems to be a win-win situation for both driver and passenger. A job needs doing, the nearest qualified person comes to do it.

This revolutionary – or “disruptive”, to use that awful Silicon Valley buzzword – form of problem solving can be seen almost everywhere. It is especially prevalent in the apps leading the charge in what’s been dubbed the new “sharing economy”, from BlaBlaCar, which allows people to cut the cost of travel by sharing long- distance car journeys, to TaskRabbit, in which users do odd jobs for others. Like Hailo and co, these sharing apps bring a utilitarian efficiency to how we get stuff done. So can the same principles be applied in the workplace?

Positive feedback

Sharing-economy hits such as TaskRabbit work on basic economic principles. If someone who’s unable to do their shopping or put together their Ikea Billy book case signs up, they can find a vetted person to do it for them for a negotiated price. The incentive is obvious: one party is short on time, the other is short on cash. The same principles could be used in a way that ought to make managers’ lives easier.

Nobody wants to send a global email asking for help proofing an audit sheet or for assistance catching up with their expenses. But an internal programme (dressed up as an app) for those in need of assistance – be that anything from finding a meeting space to rewording a presentation – could make these exchanges happen. As soon as a task goes live, the closest person with some free time and the ability to be useful – the workplace equivalent of an idling cab – could jump in and help.

Obviously, the trick would be convincing staff members with their own busy workloads to help out. But the beauty of the digital records that a system like this would produce is that every good deed would be noticed. The fact that someone from accounts was able to come over to check that a piece of copywriting made sense could then be marked in the system with positive feedback (eBay-style). This could then be incentivised with cash bonuses, or just the knowledge that good deeds would be noticed come appraisal time. One accidental effect of that may end up being the creation of competition to see who is that month’s “most helpful” or “speediest rescuer” – making staff even more efficient.

Managing disruptions

But it doesn’t have to be brand-new apps such as TaskRabbit that help to get the most out of your staff. Many of the best ways to increase efficiency have been around for years. Even small-seeming innovations like the ability for multiple users to edit documents at the same time – through Microsoft’s SkyDrive and Google Docs – have saved people from waiting around to input their own data, not to mention the huge benefit of having only one master document rather than a succession of updates that can easily be missed by one of the contributors, leading to miscued projects. Other efficient apps may actually be the kind of things that a manager might assume would lead to wasted time, such as instant messaging (IM).

IM services have been popular since Microsoft’s MSN Messenger gave a generation of giddy adolescents the ability to converse digitally with their chums in the late 1990s, but their increased use in the workplace can actually be a huge timesaver. That could be from the cumulative hours of time saved from strolling around the office to chat, or it could be from interactions that may have previously been droningly long phone conversations. Also, as opposed to the phone, IM users can set their own status of availability if they need to crack on with work.

It’s a counter-intuitive idea. You might have thought that the constant bing-bing of IM notifications would make it harder to work. However, a 2007 study by R Kelly Garrett of Ohio State University and the University of California’s James Danziger suggested that the use of IM in the workplace actually led to reduced disruptions; staff were able to manage those disruptions more effectively through statuses and through being able to let an IM linger in a way you couldn’t with a phone call.

Finally, another far-from-futuristic way to boost productivity, and an office innovation that I – having trialled it – will never ever, ever give up is a second monitor. Research by Microsoft in 2003 suggested that a double screen can increase productivity by between 9% and 50% for those who spend their day jumping around between windows and forgetting what exactly it was that they were doing. There’s a lot of that forgetfulness – unintentional, unnecessary idleness – in business.

But technology can help you beat it.

Tech it away

Will’s top speeder-uppers

SOFTWARE: Skype Instant Messenger

Professional Manager rating: 4/5

Microsoft retired its much- loved Messenger service earlier in the year and integrated it into Skype (which it bought in 2011). If you still like the Messenger interface you can buy an independently made network-friendly version called Outlook Messenger (from £60 plus licences). You’re best just sticking with Skype’s system, though. It offers not only video and voice protocol, but also smartphone integration and other handy office functions such as file-sharing, screen- sharing (so you can show the person you’re talking to your work or IT problem) and SMS.

Free within Skype (as part of your Outlook licence)

HARDWARE: LG EA93 IPS-LCD super-wide monitor

Professional Manager rating: 5/5

In reality, unless your IT budget is Cupertino-sized, the easiest way to give your staff widescreen monitors is to buy an additional standard monitor and connect a VGA dual- monitor connector (which costs less than a tenner). But if you can afford it (or want one as your own productivity-boosting extravagance), the sumptuous new HD LG screen is a luxurious way to, er, have two windows open next to each other. It’s also glorious for gaming and movies – which might make it a better purchase for the home office. If anyone queries it, just tell them your productivity is being boosted by at least 9%.


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