Small firms usually avoid defining formal procedures. They worry about becoming too rigid and hampering growth, thinking they’ll have difficulty attracting and retaining innovative staff. The opposite is true.
There are legal and financial risks when departments like HR and procurement lack guidelines. All departments, though, can benefit from clear procedures for repeat activities. Since employees wear many hats in growing companies, carefully honed processes increase their productivity and reduce anxiety. When employees are given a stable framework that clarifies what everyone is accountable for and how activities should be handled, they will no longer be frustrated by a seemingly endless list of responsibilities. Even the most unstructured individuals will be relieved to know that simple tasks can be accomplished in a predictable manner, freeing them to be inventive where it counts.
The key is to design processes that are straightforward and flexible enough to accommodate evolving company cultures and changing business needs.
Process documentation is the blueprint for efficiently accomplishing a task. It should include:
- An explanation of what’s to be accomplished and its purpose. Employees will be more receptive to new processes if they understand the significance of their assignments.
- “Owners” of specific tasks and their dependencies on others.
- Step-by-step instructions for handling the task.
- Frequency– should the process occur on a regular, scheduled basis or is it triggered by a specific event?
- Detailed quality specifications.
- Estimated completion time.
When one of our clients was considering a telecommuting policy, we advised them to define offsite processes and company expectations. Before finalizing documentation, many questions needed to be answered, such as:
- What types of work can be effectively performed remotely and who is eligible for telecommuting? It may be advisable for client-facing or operational employees to remain onsite.
- What tools will be used to facilitate meetings, chat and document-sharing? Skype? Google Docs? iChat? Step-by-step instructions for using the tools are often necessary.
- Are there hours when all employees must be accessible? In the client’s case, multiple time zones were involved.
- Should local employees be available on certain days for in-person meetings? How will remotely located staff participate?
- Will employees use personal or company-owned cell phones and computers? If employees use their own devices, will they be reimbursed for service or hardware?
Making Processes Efficient and Flexible
Processes should be simple and time-conserving, without sacrificing quality. They should also be adaptable enough to satisfy changing business conditions. For example, a young firm might develop a policy that employees must “use or lose” vacation days within the calendar year. But what happens if business surges and, in order to meet client deadlines, employees begin spending more time at the office? An employer might consider working with individuals to establish a one-time extension of the deadline —a flexible approach that rewards loyalty and benefits everyone.
Describing the Process
Some individuals absorb information better through written explanations, while others prefer diagrams, so use both methods when detailing a new process. The objective is to make your directions simple to understand. If you find that you require more than a single page for each approach, you’re probably combining several processes, so consider splitting the document into several page-long descriptions. As the client example illustrates, a single decision can require several processes in order to effectively communicate how individuals should perform their jobs.
It’s well worth the effort to make processes clear. Removing ambiguity reduces stress for employees and headaches for management. It also makes the organization much more effective.