Holy Gadgets, Batman!

Red Mini StylusDo you know what this is?  It’s called a mini stylus…and I have a hard time living without it.

This seemingly naughty little gadget, which is 99% harmless to anyone other than a toddler, came with a cell phone case I bought online over six months ago.  I have not seen them in an actual store and have inquired about them to no avail.  Only once have I met another person who owns one and she lives in a town about an hour away from me.

If you don’t know what a stylus is, you’re missing out.  It’s a device used on touch screen technology.  This specific tool is designed to Convenienceplug into your cell phone for on-the-go convenience.  They make several designs which can be plugged into other devices.Mini Stylus

My recent discovery is that it conveniently works with my newly purchased touchpad laptop.  Now, if I actually used it for such a thing, I might see fewer fingerprint smudges on the screen before me.

What I discovered about this apparatus immediately is the ability to play word games on my cell phone infinitely faster.  Additionally, the phone case I bought online created an edge around the sides of the screen which stopped my fingers from reaching necessary touch points – this gadget corrected that issue (which is probably why they sent it with the case in the first place, brilliant marketing if you ask me).

At some point in the last six months, I lost that first stylus and had to find a replacement.  To my surprise, I was able to find them online for less than $5 in an assorted color set of 10.  A recent search proved they are attainable for the same amount, and that includes shipping.

Since the time I bought that set of 10, I’ve given away about 7 of them.  The most entertaining story was the young gentleman working in the service department where we bought my car.  He was friendly and curiously asked me what was dangling from my phone.  When I showed him, he flashed me an excited grin and I couldn’t hold back the urge to give him one I’d been harboring in my purse.  Yes, it’s time to buy more of them…

401(k) Blunder

401k Options

Are you financially able to invest the maximum allowable 401(k) contribution into your employer’s retirement plan every year OR know someone who is?  You can elect to defer an annual maximum of $17,500 into your retirement plan in 2013 (limits change annually).  If you’re over the age of 50, you can increase that deferral by another $5,500 each year.  But, did you know that you can lose money in the way you elect that deferral?

I worked with an executive who made the mistake of deferring a large percentage of income to his 401(k) plan to the extent he hit that annual maximum before the end of the year.  What were the consequences?  Well, he lost a large amount of employer match.  Let me explain.

Let’s say that you’re 55 years old and gearing up for retirement.  If you’ve already paid off your large debts and can afford to contribute all the IRS will allow, then you might be anxious to knock it out quick.  But don’t leap before you look at the long term impact of that decision.

You see, Jim’s company matches 100% of his contributions up to 4% of his gross pay.  He makes $100,000 a year, is paid bi-weekly (26 times a year) and decides to defer 50% of his earnings to his retirement plan.  Half of his gross earnings each payday is $1,923.08.  Contributing that amount, he will hit the $23,000 maximum allowable amount in 12 pay periods.  That will leave him 14 pay periods short of his company match.  Therein lies his blunder.

During those 12 pay periods, Jim would have received a maximum company match of $1,846 (rounded amount).  The educated executive would have done it a little differently.

If you take the maximum contribution of $23,000 and divide it by the number of pay periods in a year, 26 pay periods in this case, you should calculate your deferral percentage to 23%.  The 401(k) deduction is now $884.62 instead of $1,923.08 and Jim will get the 4% company match all year long.

According to my calculations, he’s now getting $2,154 more in company match each year.  Additionally, these funds have the potential to grow throughout the year depending on individual investments.

Well, now you know how to avoid a costly 401(k) mistake that some learned the hard way.  Happy investing!

Tools to do your job, efficiently

Do you have (or are you using) the tools to do your job…efficiently?  Think about that word, efficiently, for a moment.  By definition it means to perform or function in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort.  So, ask yourself that question again and think about some of the things you know would improve your timeliness and decrease your efforts.  Are there areas you have yet to explore due to lack of time or training?  Has your company, or boss, ignored your suggestions for improvement?  In my experience, the answer to both is yes!

The biggest offender I’ve seen is doing things manually.  I’m constantly astounded by the various manual processes in place throughout companies. If you can automate your processes or find ways to eliminate duplication, why would you make it more difficult by doing it manually?

Here are several ideas to get you started:

Use your Outlook Calendar – Scheduling meetings or setting reminders has never been easier.  This way you have minimal, if any, excuse for missing meetings and/or deadlines…hence keeping you out of hot water, improving your efficiency, and increasing your merit.  You can also invite attendees and set reminders for others (hint, your boss will appreciate this gesture…there’s that merit benefit again).

What are some practical ways to use this feature?  Go to the date you need to perform X task and set reminders.  Any repetitive task you have, which you tend to forget due to overwhelming responsibilities, can be setup as a reminder.  It can be set one time to re-remind you on a daily, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or annual basis and can be altered with changing factors or priorities.

  • Create an Excel spreadsheet for common issues – for example, in my line of work, we frequently have employees on leave of absence who owe the company for missed deductions.  Each time this comes up, I open one of the previous files and change the employee name, pay dates and deductions and then Save As to create a new file for the corresponding employee.

The time-saver is that you can build formulas into your spreadsheet to add everything up for you vs. doing it manually (eliminating human errors) AND copy down for duplicate deductions.  Additionally, your paycheck dates are typically the same number of days apart, so you can build formulas to populate the pay dates down for you (just be aware of payday changes around holidays).

  • Scan/Email Your Documents – This one is a no-brainer to me, but it seems like so many people are fixed on faxing.  There are several reasons to break this habit.

1.   Unless something has changed, sending a fax costs money for long distance communications.

2.   The person receiving the document(s) may not need them on paper.  In most cases, electronic copies are sufficient (this is the age of technology, right??).

3.   If you scan the document, you can keep your own electronic copy (and recycle the paper copy if you’re greenly inclined).

4.   Sending documents by email gives you, and the recipient, a communication trail with time/date stamps on it (especially handy for those who pretend they never get your documents).

5.   If you want proof of the communication, using a fax machine means you have to wait for the confirmation, print one afterwards (manually in some cases), and file it by paper.

6.   Fax numbers change over time and communications are rarely sent to notify senders of those changes.

7.   If you send an email to a person no longer with the company, or no longer performing those duties, you will generally get a response of such and you can make the necessary adjustments in your contacts and future communication efforts.

It almost feels like I could do an entire article on this topic alone.  Apparently this concept is important to me.  If you’re still not sold on it, call me and we’ll go over it again.  If you don’t know how to accomplish the task, tap the nearest techie and enlist his/her assistance.  I’m sure they’ll be glad to bring you up to date.

  • Use Your “Find” Function – In most computer systems, programs or websites, there are functions available to find keywords.  It amazes me how many people lack the knowledge of this option, yet would use it every day if they:  a) knew about it and, b) knew how to use it.

In a PDF or Word document, for example, looking for something specific using the Ctrl + F keys can get you there in a matter of seconds vs. minutes (or longer) using a paper copy.  When using a company handbook, for instance, if you’re looking for a policy on smoking, simply search that word in the electronic version.  Not only will you find the policy fast, but you will find other information related to that searched word.

In Outlook, there is a built-in search box used for this purpose.  You can navigate into specific folders (Inbox, Sent Items, Deleted Items, etc) and search keywords to find pertinent emails fast.  To demonstrate, in many cases I’ll forget the name of a specific representative who emailed me because they alternate each time I reach out to certain companies.  However, if I do a keyword search on that company name, I will find ALL emails from their representatives and eliminate exhausting hunts for precise information.

Update/Create Forms – We use forms every day for various functionalities.  In most cases, there are ways to automate or update data to eliminate duplication or dispel confusion.  Unfortunately, I rarely see these issues addressed by those authorized to do so.

Let me give you an example.  I can think of 10 different forms we use consistently which include group or account numbers, federal IDs, not to mention our company name, address, and phone/fax numbers.  If you have to write that information each time you use a form, imagine how much time you’re wasting.  Better yet, imagine where you could use that time instead.  My theory is this, figure out a way to get that consistently used data on the form ONCE and you only have to populate the new data each time you use those forms (hint, I use the Windows Snipping Tool or the editable/full version of Adobe Acrobat to accomplish this mission).

On the flip side, if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of completing multiple forms to accomplish one task (i.e. signing up for employee benefits), you would appreciate the efforts of someone combining those forms into one convenient document.  This way, you only fill in your personal data (name, address, phone number, social security number, date of birth, date of hire…you get the idea) one time.  What a concept!

Teamwork: Are Companies Discouraging It?

Have you ever experienced downtime at work?  I mean the kind which makes you look around and see how busy everyone else is and wonder how you can help.  Alternatively, have you ever been so busy at work that you can’t see the light of day?  I mean the kind which makes you look around for extra hands and even your pre-teen’s help seems plausible?

These are ideal conditions for teamwork opportunities.  In both sides of the equation, the team members, as well as the company, stand to gain substantially from working together to complete projects or stay on top of deadlines.

The Department of Labor (DOL) describes teamwork as a soft skill essential to workplace success, so essential they developed a 21-page curriculum which includes supportive quotes, exercises and skills needed to foster these efforts.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve approached my boss offering to help another department or team member only to be shot down or put off citing whatever reason they could think of on the fly.  On the flip side, I’ve been the dedicated employee staying late and working weekends to keep my head above water only to watch my peers leave on time every evening and enjoy daily social hour without me.

Either situation is discouraging and promotes isolation over the acclaimed teamwork scenario.  Eventually, I find myself de-motivated and eager to seek worthier causes.  Right or wrong, that could range from looking at other employment opportunities to helping friends revamp their resumes, all on company time.

What are some of the foreseeable yet avoidable costs to the company?

  • Loss of good employees, physically or mentally (hint, both are bad)
  • Some employees work harder or longer hours than necessary
  • Increased turnover & workforce replacement costs
  • Missed opportunity to promote teamwork
  • Negative impact on employee satisfaction
  • Wages paid at no benefit to the company
  • Paying overtime needlessly
  • Decreased productivity
  • Diminished morale

The consequences of are evident, but the cause still escapes me.  Companies say they want teamwork but there is little, if any, action taken to promote that concept.

Managers can, and should, realign their efforts for the greater good of the company vs. the department and leave any petty ideas of ownership at the door.  In the end, a company needs all its moving parts to generate success.  Otherwise, you’ve just got parts sitting around not moving.  Remind me again, how is that productive?