Improve work productivity

How to improve your work productivity

How to improve your work productivity

Finding enough hours in the day to get everything done can be a challenge for SME owners.

There are endless stories and articles about famous entrepreneurs who get up at 5am, perhaps start their day with a yoga or gym session or employ any number of variations on the starting the day theme that they argue makes them productive.

But what works well for one individual may not be appropriate for another. Some people need eight hours of sleep while others are happy with just four or five hours.

Some people are more effective and productive at some point in the morning, for others it may be in the middle of the afternoon.

The secret to being more productive at work, according to researchers, is to start the day with a plan, and to target your most productive part of the day to prioritise urgent, difficult or important tasks.

According to Christopher Barnes, associate professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business “people take a few hours from when they wake up to reach peak mental acuity”.

So, if you know where that point comes for you, you should incorporate it into your plan for the day. Perhaps start the day with simple admin tasks, prioritising the in-tray, checking the e-mail and dealing with internal memos until you are at your most alert.

You can also set time limits for these routine tasks to ensure you are not swamped by non-essentials.

It is also important in planning to limit the number of goals you may want to set for the day.

Productivity coach Jeff Sanders recommends setting no more than one or two main goals per day. He also argues that your morning sets the tone for the rest of the day, so suggests ““The best way to start is that intentional practice of saying, I’m not going to let the day distract me. I’m going to have my goals, my priorities” and that this helps stop you from becoming distracted by other things as the day progresses.


End of Support for Windows 7

End of Support for Windows 7 – what to do

In an ideal world when Microsoft ends its support for a piece of software, users should upgrade to a new version.

But for SMEs this can be a headache, especially if their current PC or laptop does not have the capacity to cope smoothly with Windows 10, which is much more space hungry than Windows 7.

Plus, if you buy a new machine there is the problem of transferring crucial documents and other data, especially if it is material that is being used all the time.

Obviously, it is important to have back-ups of data, preferably in more than one location such as in cloud storage and on an external hard drive.

It may be possible to increase the capacity of existing machines by having a SSD (Solid State Drive) installed to replace the current Hard Drive.

But if cash flow or time issues mean you either can’t spare the machine or replace it there are some ways to stay at least reasonably safe in the short term. It will still run.

However, without the regular Windows 7 security updates, cyber experts advise your machine will be more vulnerable to hackers.

They advise that you do not use internet banking or send emails on Windows 7 machines and try to use other, more secure devices.

Businesses with large numbers of computers can, however, buy Windows 7 Extended Security Updates (ESS), which will be available for Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Enterprise at £19 per device for the first year, doubling each year thereafter until the end date of 2023.

The ESS is not available to smaller businesses with only a few devices, however, so while you may be able to take the risk of continuing to use existing Windows 7 devices for a while ultimately upgrading is the only solution.


Merry Christmas


Are you considering using facial recognition technology in your business?

Are you considering using facial recognition technology in your business?

If the security of your site is an issue you may be considering installing facial recognition technology.

However, there are some issues to be considered before you go ahead.

The technology is relatively new and there have been questions about its use and its accuracy both in the UK and in the USA.

In the UK the Metropolitan Police invited the University of Essex to study the force’s trials of its facial recognition software and researchers concluded that only in 19% of the 42 cases studied could they be sure the force had identified the right person.

Then there are the privacy issues.

The ICO (Information Commissioners Office) announced this month that it would be studying the use of the technology following an outcry over its widespread use at King’s Cross Station in London.

It has already warned businesses that they needed to demonstrate its use was “strictly necessary and proportionate” and had a clear basis in law.

While there are those who argue that facial recognition technology is a useful law enforcement tool for helping keep public spaces safe from criminals and terrorists, others argue that its use is a gross invasion of privacy.

Since the introduction of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) businesses and organisations have a duty of care to protect any personal data they collect from users of their services, customers and clients.

In this context it would also apply to employees. It may be useful and more efficient if employees can gain easy access to their offices and IT equipment via facial recognition technology, but you should be very careful about how much information on them you store.

Under GDPR, as face recognition technology (or FRT) collects information of a person’s facial features, its classed under biometric data, which is labelled as “sensitive personal data”.

The regulations do include exemptions which allow the use of FRT in the following circumstances:

  • If the user has given his/her consent willingly
  • If biometric information is required for carrying out employment, social security, or social protection obligations
  • If biometric data is required to protect the vital interests of the individual and he/she is incapable of giving consent
  • If it’s required for legal issues
  • If biometric data is necessary to aid in public interest such as health

So if you are considering using FRT in your business the crucial thing to do is to make sure you have user consent, that it is a positive opt-in to allow it and that there has been no implicit or explicit coercion. You should also make clear what information will be collected and name any third parties with whom it will be shared.

Above all, you must have clear documentation of all this and it should be made clear that people can opt out whenever they wish.


How to make your business environmentally friendly

How can you make your office or business more environmentally friendly?

It is becoming ever more important that businesses are seen to be doing their bit to reduce their energy requirements and help the environment.

But it also makes sense as a means of reducing business overheads and for a business’ reputation.

Sustainable offices that meet a global set of sustainability criteria are LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

This means they have energy-efficient walls, heat-efficient flooring and the latest in green lighting and fixtures. While the initial costs may be significant the savings in the long run will make up for it.

The benefits include lower maintenance costs and energy bills, and if you reduce your reliance on printers a reduction in the use of paper toner and ink. has a number of suggestions for becoming a “greener” office.

They include the reduction in printers, mentioned above, switching to paperless statements using e-signatures and ditching the fax machines.

You can also look closely at your supply chain and procurement habits.

For example, if your business sells products that require packaging you can source the least environmentally damaging goods.

If you have to use plastics or polythene you can try to keep it to a minimum and ensure that whatever you do use is biodegradable.

Can your business operate in a smaller space with your staff working remotely? This may be another way of reducing the business’ carbon footprint, not to mention the overheads.

Every business is different but all can employ some creative thinking toe become greener and more environmentally sustainable.


Are you drowning in emails?

Email overload is a common problem in business with many managers calculating that they get as many as 140 a day.

Part of the problem is that in a multi-location business communications can be copied into other people that the sender feels need to know about the contents.

Then there is the inevitable “spam” from other businesses and services that feel their offerings could benefit the recipient.

Not only is an over-stuffed inbox inefficient it can also damage people’s health, according to Cary Cooper, organisational psychology professor at Manchester University.

An overloaded inbox is a problem that can quickly get out of control, but there are ways of managing your inbox better according to Prof Cooper.

He says that there is little point in “sending someone an email on a Friday night saying you don’t have to deal with this until Monday, because people will then worry about it and do it that weekend.”

Some businesses have acted to control overflowing inboxes by banning the use of internal emails, using a messaging service, such as Slack, documents software from Google, and a project management system.  It has proved to be much more efficient according to those who have tried it.

Another way of managing your inbox is to make yourself do something with every email you receive, whether deleting, answering immediately or marking as a priority for later.

It means you have to be organised and efficient but being strict with yourself and setting aside specific times in the day to deal with emails rather than checking randomly when you are busy can be much more effective.

The trick is to get rid of the notion that you must be constantly in your inbox checking, deleting and sorting.


AI will not take over the world

AI will not take over the world

In a recent blog we discussed the reliability of AI and automation and the fact that these systems are devised by human beings, highly skilled human beings to be sure, but human beings make mistakes.

Wired has just published two further articles exploring the issue of AI.

In the first it explores whether it is possible to make AI technology completely unbiased and also asks how many businesses benefit as much as they could from AI technology.

It reports that the return on business investment in AI has declined by 27 per cent over the last five years.

The reason, it argues, is that “companies don’t know how to make the most of AI and data analytics, and how they can apply to business problems.”

It also suggests that businesses get things the wrong way wound when considering investing in AI, so that they under-use its potential. It advises that businesses should “start by drawing up a list of business challenges and prioritise them by whether or not they can be addressed by using AI and the expected return on investment”.

The second article, by Joi Ito, director or MIT’s Media Lab, questions the assumption that AI can and will supercede humans in almost every sphere of activity.

Ito calls this assumption singularity in which those people who have succeeded in mastering the power of AI capture all the wealth and power.

This, Ito argues is “reductionist” thinking and only works for a very narrow range of learning and thinking which can lead to over-simplified ways of “fixing” humanity’s problems.

However, Ito says, most of the challenges we face today, such as climate change, poverty, chronic disease or modern terrorism have actually been the result of this reductionist thinking and we need to respect that many human problems are actually much more complex.

Machines, and therefore AI, need to be adaptive and to augment, not replace, humans. “not artificial intelligence but extended intelligence”.

Is Alexa always listening?

Amazon’s Echo Virtual Assistant (infamously known as just Alexa) functions primarily on the idea of complete voice-control and having a single wake-word which lets these clever little robots know that it’s their time to shine. By saying “Alexa” around your device, it wakes from slumber, listens to your voice request, assists accordingly and then goes back to sleep. But in order for this method to function, Alexa has to have what Amazon call an always-on function.

It makes sense as a principal; having to press a power button before any voice requests would diminish the idea of a ‘hands-free virtual assistant’ and so the only time your Alexa gets a break is when you turn her off at the mains, or when your power goes out. Other than these occasions, she is always ready and waiting to be told what to do.

But this is invoking fear into Alexa users regarding just how much their Alexa’s are really listening to, and where this data is going. Amazon has said consistently that the Echo microphones only listen in and record your voice after the wake-word has been spoken, and that there is even an option to mute all voice-interaction altogether which will turn the outer light ring red when activated. Saying “Alexa” when the Echo is in this state will get no response. But how do we really know that Alexa isn’t listening at all, or if she is just not responding?

The times that Alexa has unwantedly recorded conversations has been because of a trigger word that sounded similar to Alexa, thus triggering the device to commence recording in await of any “play music” or “turn the light off” commands. When these commands aren’t spoken, Alexa will inform you that she didn’t understand what was being asked of her, but still records your voice feedback anyway.

These ‘misunderstandings’ are then reviewed by Amazon’s human team that can depict what was actually being said, so they can put Alexa through a master class in order to help her understand everyone better next time.

Amazon has said – “We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously. We only annotate an extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers in order to improve the customer experience. For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.”

It’s a given that at least some of Alexa’s voice interactions will be taken for analysis, but this isn’t unlike other voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri or Samsung’s Bixby. All speech recognition software must function this way in order to actually function; or Alexa would only ever understand the accent of the person who designed her.

When the Echo’s were first introduced, there were plenty of videos being filmed by users with Scottish accents who would laugh at how little Alexa understood of them. Now – nearly 5 years later – Alexa can pretty much understand every accent, and this is credited to the process of analysing the recordings.

If the idea that your voice may be randomly selected for study purposes unnerves you, then there is always the option to mute your Echo device. This will inhibit any voice-interactive features, but the devices will still work perfectly well as a speaker for playing music.

For those of you named Alexa, or those that simply don’t like using this name, you can also program your device to respond to ‘Echo’, ‘Computer’, or ‘Amazon’. Otherwise, avoid saying words that sound like your wake-word if it’s not Alexa that you wish to summon.

Windows 7 has reached it’s End of Life

The date has been announced – January the 14th, 2020 – the date that Windows 7 reaches its end. After this date, Windows 7 will no longer be supported or updated by Microsoft, and current users will have to upgrade to Windows 10.

Windows 7 is a decade old this July, launched in 2009 – but it is still vastly popular and is reportedly still being used on 39% of all PCs. So this news that Windows 7 will no longer be supported means that there are many users out there who need to start thinking about moving on from their favourite operating system.
Microsoft is being very encouraging about this upgrade and are releasing an update for Windows 7 which will remind users that they need to upgrade to Windows 10 before the End of Life date. Of course, the update is optional, but all users with automatic updates switched on will receive it.
Once the End of Life date has arrived, Windows 7 will cease to receive any updates or patches, and any programs you wish to install with no longer be compatible.

Here are some advantages from moving up to Windows 10:

  • Easy to use / reduced complexity
  • More advanced security features
  • Improved search facility
  • Easy to use apps

For a lot of us, Windows 7 may have been the first operating system we ever had, or at least the first that we got along with. But it’s time to say goodbye.


Password security

Too many people are still not taking password security seriously enough

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has just published the results of its first survey analysing public databases of breached accounts to see which words, phrases and strings people used.

One of its most alarming findings was that millions of users were still using easily-guessed passwords.

The most frequently found was 123456 followed by 123456789 and then 1111111.

Names were another favourite with Ashley, Michael, Jessica and Daniel top of the list.

It is astonishing given the steadily rising numbers of personal and business accounts that have been hacked and been defrauded of money that cyber security, particularly passwords, are still not taken seriously enough.

Security experts say that picking a good password is the “single biggest control” people had over their online security.

Keeping your business safe from cyber attack

Clearly password security is crucial to protect a business as hackers become ever more sophisticated.

There are some basic good habits that bear repeating and that businesses can adopt:

  1. Use a combination of numbers and letters that is not easy to guess.
  2. Change passwords regularly
  3. Restrict the information on passwords to only the key people who need access to those accounts, especially if they involve finances and payments.
  4. Ensure that all staff receive proper cyber-security training
  5. Ensure that they report suspected breaches, such as email requests for payment supposedly authorised by a named senior manager are checked and that NO links in emails are ever opened without checking with the “supposedly” authorising person.

No business can afford the financial losses associated with cyber fraud, which has been estimated to cost each victim in the region of £1,000 per case in 2018 and resulted in the loss of an estimated 50,000 jobs.