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Email, calendars and instant messaging: A guide for small businesses

A quick introduction to electronic messaging systems and how small business owners can ensure staff are using them in a productive and efficient way

What are the benefits of email?

Email is ubiquitous within business – most organisations use it as their primary method of communication, and it’s not difficult to see why. Quick, cheap and instant, you can use it to keep in touch with someone across the room or on the other side of the globe.
Some particular advantages of email:

  • It’s instant Messages are delivered instantaneously, and with the advent of smartphones many people can check and deal with emails wherever they are.
  • It’s convenient People can check and respond to messages at their leisure, so they are a less distracting method of communication than a phone call.
  • It’s versatile In addition to a communication tool, email can double as a mass-marketing tool, a way of dealing with customer queries, a quick way of exchanging important documents, and much more.

How do I go about getting my business set up with email?

When it comes to setting up an email account, you have a number of options:

  • Free online mail clientsWhilst these cost nothing and often offer up excellent functionality, using a free web address for your business can look amateurish. Popular clients include:
    • Windows Live Mail
    • Yahoo! Mail
    • Gmail
  • Mailboxes purchased from your web host Unless you have a separate server, this should be how you get set up by email. The company that hosts your website should be able to add a mailbox functionality fairly easily. It shouldn’t cost you much more to get this set up. Talk to your web host for more information.
  • Network server mailboxesIf you have a network server in your business, this is the best option, as it allows you to manage internal company email on your own premises. Setting one up is a complex task, and you will normally need an IT professional to help you.

There are some other things to consider when getting set up with email:

  • Spam protection Make sure the mailbox comes with spam protection, or you install spam protection software – otherwise you could become buried in unwanted marketing material.
  • Security threats Many email clients automatically scan mail for threats now, but you should install virus protection software anyway just to be sure.
  • Size of mailbox Free web providers only provide a limited amount of storage space (e.g. 2GB) which could see you unable to read new messages if your inbox fills up with emails.

What email management, security and privacy issues should I be aware of?

  • Emails can be intercepted and read This is becoming less of a problem with the advent of widespread email encryption, but you should never send sensitive details like credit card numbers over email (if you have to, put them in a password-protected attachment).
  • Emails can contain viruses Again, make sure you scan emails – especially attachments – for viruses and malware.
  • Email can distract employees To minimise this, make sure employees don’t feel they have to reply to a message as soon as it comes in
  • Employees can use email inappropriately. Set up an email policy to guard against this.

What are shared calendars?

A shared calendar is a kind of mass online diary that people in your business can collaboratively use; this way, everyone can see each other’s appointments. It makes booking meetings much easier – you can simply add a time when everyone is free to the calendar.
When setting up an online calendar service, your options are:

  • A calendar on your network server The mail client you use will probably contain some kind of shared calendar system; otherwise, you could use a stand-alone client such as Microsoft Exchange. You will probably need an IT professional to set this up for you.
  • An online calendar service. Google Calendar is a popular option here; the basic service is free. Your web host may also offer a shared calendar service; ask them about your options.

What is instant messaging?

Instant messaging, or IM, systems, allow you to hold live conversations over the internet with others. People are shown as ‘available’, ‘busy’ or ‘offline’ on a contact list. Most IM services now allow you to have audio or video conversations as well.
Some features of IM include:

  • A wide choice of providers Countless IM providers exist; most modern mail clients have an IM service, but popular standalone services include Skype, Google Talk, and Yahoo! Messenger.
  • Internal providersServices such as Slack, Jabber and Microsoft Office Communicator can be used on your office intranet to quickly chat with employees.
  • A choice of uses You can use IM as a way of having quick chats with staff online, and many businesses use IM as a way of dealing with customer queries on their website.
  • IM can be disruptive Use it sparingly or you could see business and personal use being blurred, and employees being stopped from doing their job by having to deal with constant IM queries.

Should I develop a policy for communication tools?

In short, yes. Email, instant messaging and calendar are powerful tools, and it is for this reason they are often misused.
You should develop an internet and email policy for your business – click the links to find out how.
Particular risks to watch for include:

  • Excessive personal use Make sure your staff understand how much and what personal use you consider acceptable.
  • Security breachesMake sure your employees understand the risks involved in sending information over the internet; develop a clear policy on what to do with sensitive information.
  • Inappropriate use of email Email is the most informal form of communication, so it would not be appropriate for a line manager to use when letting someone go, for example. Draw the boundaries clearly and let your staff know what they are.

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