When you read the phrase “business systems,” you might be intimidated or unsure if your business is big enough to need systems. Or, you might brace yourself for an onslaught of boring corporate buzzwords.
The good news is there’s no reason to put off systematizing your business, no matter how small it is. Setting up systems will always pay back productivity dividends, but it’s especially important now as more businesses turn to remote work.
Let’s start with the basics:
What does it mean to systematize your work?
If you aren’t familiar with them, phrases like “business systems” or “systematizing your work” can sound fairly jargony. However, systems are actually a very simple concept. A system is just a list of repeatable tasks and the information needed to carry out those tasks.
Using more systems in your business means that, instead of doing something from scratch every time, you should do two things:
- Look for where you can automate and streamline tasks
- Create a list of tasks and resources needed to complete the process at hand
Need an example? If you’re running a service-based business, you might systematize your client bookings by doing the following:
- Setting up a tool that helps your clients book appointments and synchronizes those appointments to your calendar
- Creating an intake questionnaire to gather all the information you’ll need to provide your services
- Setting up an automatic email to send the intake questionnaire to the customer after they book their appointment and/or pay their deposit
- Having invoices automatically go out at set intervals, if you offer payment plans or subscription services
Doing this kind of foundational work might take you a few hours up front. But once you’re done, it’ll save you time and energy, reduce email back-and-forth, and create a more consistent experience for your new clients.
Why are systems especially important when it comes to remote work?
Systems are something every business can use. They’ll always be helpful for streamlining work, but they’re especially useful when it comes to working remotely.
When you’re working remotely, asking your coworker a question often involves switching windows or tabs to DM them, or picking up your phone to call or text them. No matter how little effort or time it would take, adding that extra task also adds an opportunity to get distracted, procrastinate, or start doing something else instead.
Then, when your coworker receives the question, they have to navigate the task-switching on their side. They may also need to reach out to someone else to confirm the answer. Now, add in different time zones and potential delays because of them. You’re probably starting to see how a simple question can affect productivity or become a surprise roadblock.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss some areas where you can start systematizing:
There are a few things you can do to streamline and automate your meetings:
- Automate calendar invites by scheduling recurring meetings
- Include the link to the agenda in the calendar invite
- Set up your teleconferencing software to record the meeting and send the recording to everyone on the invitation list afterwards
Once you’ve done those, you can turn your eye to your meeting agendas. Creating templates for your meeting agendas can help you continue to streamline, as it makes meeting preparation much quicker and helps keep your meetings on track. Here are a few example templates to get you started:
Whether it’s a one-on-one meeting or a standup, most recurring meetings have a similar format. Topics to cover include:
- Checking in on how everyone is doing, both personally and professionally. There doesn’t need to be a place in the agenda for this; it’s just a good practice to build camaraderie within your team.
- Reviewing the agenda from last week to see if there’s anything that needs follow-up.
- New questions and roadblocks on the work you’re currently doing.
- Tasks that need to be completed before the next meeting.
Here’s an agenda template you can use to organize recurring meetings. Ideally, you’d be able to share this agenda with your team ahead of time. That way, they can add any questions or updates before the meeting starts, which will help the meeting run smoother.
For team meetings meant to address a specific problem (and come up with a solution), you’ll need a different agenda. Here’s one that we created. Again, for best results you’ll want to share with your team ahead of time so they can fill it out and put in questions and other items as they think of them.
When your entire team is working from the same location and keeping the same hours, project management is often left as an afterthought. After all, it’s easy to ask a question and immediately get an answer, or hold an impromptu meeting whenever an issue comes up. Once your team is remote, though, having more standardized systems and structures becomes a necessity.
Project kickoff agenda
If your team does a lot of project-based work, you likely already have kickoff meetings to discuss the start of new projects. This is another place where an agenda and a template come in handy to keep meetings on track. You can customize this agenda template to the type of work you do and used every time you start a new project.
Whether you’re using a project management tool, or you track project tasks in spreadsheets, creating templates for common projects can save a lot of time and effort.
If you work with a project management tool already, this is easy. Most project management tools help you create project templates. If you don’t work with a project management tool, you may want to start, but in the meantime, you can create your own template in a document. Make sure to include:
- The major milestones of the project (how you’ll know the project is 25%, 50%, 75%, or 100% completion)
- The tasks that go with each milestone
- The person or people that will be doing each task
- The deadline for each task
- The goal deadline for each milestone
- A notes field to make it easy to share important updates with the whole team
By creating a template for the most common types of projects you work on, you can make sure nobody forgets anything and that every project is finished to spec.
Training, onboarding, and other routine tasks
Some of these areas are easy to separate into their own category. Then there’s… everything else: all of the work that isn’t related to project management or meetings. That’s a lot of work!
We can fit the remaining work into two very broad categories:
- Unique work, which you only do once
- Repeat work, which is done on a recurring schedule (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.) or related to a specific event (training a new employee, onboarding a new client)
Unique work is difficult to systematize (which makes sense, because a system is a set of repeating tasks). Repeat work, on the other hand, should be systematized as much as possible. So how do you systematize those recurring tasks and projects? In most cases, you’ll create an SOP.
What’s an SOP?
“SOP” stands for “standard operating procedure” and while the name is a little dry, these documents are essential to creating a business that runs like clockwork. An SOP is basically a “how-to” document, usually used for onboarding new employees and training existing employees.
A good SOP has:
- Where to find the login credentials needed to complete the work described in the SOP. Obviously, you should never store passwords in text documents. Instead, the SOP can say something like, “You’ll need to log in to Zoho CRM to run this report, that information is in our Zoho Vault account.
- The specific steps needed to complete the task. For example, instead of saying, “log in and run the report for the last 30 days,” the process should be broken down into smaller steps. A better example might tell the reader to log in using credentials they have access to, then where to look for the reports tab, then walk the reader through the steps of creating a report.
- Images or videos to support the text. The idea here is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to finish the task. In fact, if you don’t have the time to type up several SOPs, one easy way to get started is to record a screenshare video and narrate the process as you complete it.
What should I create an SOP for?
As mentioned above, SOPs are particularly useful for onboarding new team members, or for training existing team members in something they haven’t done before. They’re also useful for tasks that are routine, but not done every day. With monthly or quarterly tasks, it often takes a new person several times before they know it by heart. Creating an SOP can save you (and them) from frustration or troubleshooting.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Running and downloading reports
- Setting up a VPN (or any other security procedures)
- Scheduling a blog post or social media post
- Putting a new contractor into your bookkeeping tools
- Submitting receipts for reimbursement
- Creating estimates and proposals
- Any other repeatable administrative task
After reading these tips, you probably have ideas for other ways you can systematize and streamline your business. Just remember: you don’t have to tackle it all immediately.
Creating sustainable ways to work better is a long-term project. It’s better to chip away at it over time than to try to do it all at once and burn out. You and your team can work on it when you have the time and energy. As you reap the rewards of the work you’ve already done, you’ll be able to create more systems, and get more work done.