How to Learn Basic Office Management Skills
September 27, 2018 3:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm doing some admin for a small business that is growing. How can I learn the basic office skills of - how and where to file things where other people can find them easily, both digital and hard copy? How to create digital templates for forms that can be completed but can't be otherwise altered? Where to keep everything and how to set up user-friendly systems? I'm pretty sure there are accepted standards and procedures and the wheel doesn't have to be reinvented here: where can I find out about them and learn them? Are there books? Online tutorials? Where can I find them and what search terms should I be using?

This business has both clients and workers and handles confidential information. Up to now the business has been small enough for the managers to hold a lot of information in their heads; now they are rushed off their feet (they are very hands on and take on the work themselves when necessary) and have hired two part-time admin people. Obviously the former system WON'T WORK AT ALL. Because it is a small business and occupies a particular cultural niche, any system we adopt will need to be flexible and adaptable and able to be used by people with variable language and literacy skills. We need to use and file worksheets and rotas, for instance, that will be filled in by people without much digital access but which will then need to be digitised easily. But please note my question is more 'How does an office file and organise work flows level 101?' than 'What spiffy new system will manage all my office tasks?'
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (4 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Good news: You won't be reinventing the wheel.
Bad news: No, there is absolutely nothing like standard practices for digital filing, forms use and management, and data security.

Every company has slightly different needs, and the closest things to "standards" are managed by mega-corporate enterprise software bundles (packed with procedures that nobody follows because they're not adaptable to specific business needs). And the available software changes drastically about every 18 months, so once you get a system in place, there's something new with bells & whistles that you don't have. (Which you may not want to bother with, but the new company down the block does, so... no standards.)

This is my job. This is my career of choice (or rather, my career of choice is document conversion, but docs management came out of that). My job is one long argument about "I have set up this process" and "...I will now spend three days grabbing every file on the shared server, and renaming them and sorting them into folders."

"User-friendly systems" involve figuring out the technical abilities and adaptability of your users. It doesn't matter how wonderful the filing system is, if they have a desktop full of "Invoice.pdf" and "Invoice (2).pdf" and "Invoice (3).pdf."

Unalterable templates come in two major flavors: Word Doc templates (.dotx files), and fillable Acrobat PDF forms. While there are pros and cons for each, the major decision-maker is based on what you need the files to do- if people need to add a lot of info, you use Word; if you can have a stable form structure with text and checkboxes, you use PDFs. File security/unalterability is a constant struggle between "preserve data" and "make it easy to use," especially if you have non-techie people who are confused by complex instructions.

Starting approach:
1) Pick a budget level. This can range from $0, "we will use free software only," to $10k+ per month. Of course you can change it later if needed, but start with an expected budget. Freeware means a whole lot of patchwork solutions; software packages means less flexibility but usually better documentation and some tech support.

2) Acknowledge your average user's tech skills level. Are they fluent in Word, Excel, Outlook? Do they know what a database is? Can they map a network drive? Or do they get confused with using keyboard commands to copy and paste text?

3) As you develop the beginnings of systems, DOCUMENT EVERY PROCESS. List things like, "for every application, save-as to the New Accounts directory on the Z drive, naming it accountname_number_date-of-signature." Do not assume that you, much less anyone else, will be able to look at that folder later and realize what needs to be done.

4) Decide how much time is going to be spent on upkeep, rather than setup. Less upkeep time = more specific and stringent processes needed; more means allowing things to get sloppy, and then fixing them. This is fine if you (a) have the time and (b) don't get horribly frustrated doing the fixes.

5) Someone will need to be the "office ogre" and insist on the new standards, once they're decided on. People will need to be reminded, over and over, until it becomes habit. The "ogre" will be accused of being nitpicky, obsessed with unimportant details, throwing their weight around, and causing slowdowns in "the real work;" this will happen even if the "ogre" is polite and calm all the time. Your "ogre" is likely to decide that a few battles are not worth the effort; be willing to adapt the processes when that happens. (Example: my company policy is that filenames have underscores instead of spaces. My team refuses to use them. I will fight for dates being in filenames; I'm not fighting for underscores.)

I'm happy to talk via memail; I can rattle on about how to set up templates and the hassles of securing PDFs for hours.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:49 PM on September 27, 2018 [7 favorites]

The key issue isn't coming up with a system. It's coming up with a system that your people will follow, and going from "no particular system; everyone kinda manages their files" to "here's the plan to deal with digital documents" is a huge step.

There are plenty of guidelines on how to set up systems; there is nothing that can help you figure out whether your staff will put up with any given aspects of a system.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 6:01 PM on September 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

if you can have a stable form structure with text and checkboxes, you use PDFs

I recently had to help someone set up a new Windows laptop to fill out some government forms of this sort and in the course of the process verified that the free version of the company Foxit's PDF reader software is capable of filling out forms... it's called "Foxit PhantomPDF" these days, I think? In any case, whichever one in the Microsoft Store offered by that company which is free is capable of filling out PDF forms—your form-filler-out users don't need the paid one.

As far as what software to use to create PDF forms which can either be printed out to fill in or filled in on a computer and saved as a file (I assume "people without much digital access" refers to someone with an offline computer, when they aren't using paper?) I expect ErisLordFreedom will be able to advise.

Unfortunately since, as ErisLordFreedom says, the available software changes drastically about every 18 months, even if you found a book or online tutorial speaking on these topics generally, by the time you got your hands on it it'd probably already be out of date. So, you probably need advice customized to your situation from someone who's constantly doing this stuff.
posted by XMLicious at 8:08 PM on September 27, 2018

From the OP:
Thanks so much for these answers, ErisLF and XMLicious, they are reassuring and informative. I'm taking up Eris on their kind offer to correspond on memail.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:42 AM on September 29, 2018

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