Written by the Small Business Computing Staff
The adoption of online software and services in lieu of their desktop-bound counterparts shows no signs of slowing. But if you're like most small business owners, you and your employees still use a locally installed office productivity suite for essential tasks such as word processing, crunching numbers and creating presentations. But today's cloud-based office suites deliver all of the features you're likely to need, plus something you really haven't had up until now: choice.
Office Productivity Moves to the Cloud
The benefits of online office productivity software mirror those of cloud applications in general. For starters, you don't have to install or maintain any software; all you need is an account log-in, a Web browser and an Internet connection. Armed thusly, you can use any computer or browser-enabled device (such as a Google Chromebook or Microsoft's Surface tablet) to access the programs—not just a PC with the suite installed.
Figure 1: Office 365 includes a version of Outlook for your email and scheduling needs.
Another plus: your files reside in the cloud for anywhere-anytime access, rather than on a desktop or network folder that's hard to access when you're away from the office. The application service provider typically provides storage redundancy, which means that your files are backed up if a server or drive on their end goes down. And you never have to worry about updating or upgrading the software, since the service provider rolls out new features and updates continuously behind the scenes.
Notable Cons to Cloud Office Suites
Granted, the cloud–based software model has its downside. The Achilles heel, of course is connectivity: If you lack Internet access, you can't get to your files and the applications to open them. Employees who travel a lot will need a Plan B, such as a locally installed office suite (good-enough freeware suites are available). And if you are on a slow connection (such as a shared Wi-Fi hotspot), you'll experience noticeable lag compared to working with a locally installed application.
However, with wider availability of Wi-Fi on planes and the ability to use your smartphone's 3G/4G cellular service to set up a personal Wi-Fi hotspot for your laptop, connectivity is becoming less of an issue.
Figure 2: Zoho's Productivity Apps includes Writer, its word processing software.
The other issue is cost. Most service providers offer free versions of their office productivity suites, but those generally deliver fewer features than business customers require and expect. Access to the business-class suites requires a subscription plan, typically priced per person/per month.
Those ongoing costs will eventually add up to more than you would have paid for a traditional desktop version of the leading office suite. Remember though, the subscription includes the cost of upgrading and maintaining the software—you no longer have that chore on your plate.
The 4 Must-have Productivity Applications
Any online service purporting to be a replacement for your desktop copy of Microsoft Office will offer email, word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications. The differences lay in the number and variety of features those applications offer—and how easy they are to use. Here's what you need to know for each application.
The Email Application
The email application is arguably the most important of the group, since you and your employees use it all day, every day. Be sure the online productivity suite that you pick has all the features we've grown accustomed to using:
- @YourCompany.com: The email program should let you create email addresses that look like they come from your domain, not the service provider's. Indeed, nothing screams "I'm a rinky-dink company" more than an email address that ends with the email service's name. Those are fine for personal email addresses, but not for professional use.
- Spell check: The only thing more unprofessional than an email without your company name in the "from" field is an email riddled with misspellings. Be sure the email application has a spell-check function to flag incorrect words and, ideally, suggest the right one. And remember: spell check is a helpful tool, but it won’t catch instances of wrong, yet correctly spelled words, such as using "their" instead of "there," so always read email before hitting "send."
- Contacts: Your email program is also a natural place to store contact information that goes beyond a person's email address. The contact list should be searchable and sortable, and it should offer fields for multiple phone numbers and a blank field where you can enter pertinent notes related to that individual.
- Calendar: The suite you select must offer a calendar component, either as part of the email application or closely integrated with it. In addition to viewing and scheduling your own appointments, the calendar should let you invite other employees to an appointment (and to see their availability). And of course, the capability to set reminders for a pending appointment is crucial to keep you on schedule.
- Folders: Don't be that person who has six months' worth of messages in his Inbox. Any good email program lets you create folders where you can store messages that are somehow related (that pertain to a particular topic or project, for example, or that come from a certain person). Making use of the feature will help you increase your productivity.
- Search: For those times when you miss-file a message or just can't remember where you put it, the ability to quickly search your mail for a particular keyword is a must.
- Tasks: The online office suite should offer an area where you can enter tasks and set reminders. It's most likely part of the email program, but some services have it as a standalone applet.
- Automatic replies: Yes, as the business owner you are always available via phone and email. But what about your employees? An often overlooked feature, the ability to set automatic replies for messages that come in when someone is out of the office is helpful for people trying to contact your business.