You can manage your day more efficiently by choosing the right mix of online services.
The average employee receives thousands of interruptions every day, from instant messages and texts to e-mails and the good old ringing phone. Workers are so distracted by the various methods people use to get in touch that they often blame technology for reduced productivity and longer hours.
But used right, many of today's e-technologies can help make it possible for you to spend less time working, not more. Here is the lowdown on a few of the top productivity savers, many of which are available online at no cost.
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Video Calls: Gathering employees in one location can be both expensive and time-consuming, but the telephone doesn't offer the same level of intimacy for a back-and-forth conversation, or the ability to provide a demonstration. Online services like Skype, which is free and available in 28 languages, allow you to connect visually with anyone in the world. All you need is a Webcam and a microphone.
Holly Bornstein, director of marketing for CleanWell, a manufacturer of environmentally friendly cleaning products, telecommutes cross-country and uses Skype to assist in developing new products.
"We were creating a new set of custom-scented, all-natural hand sanitizers and soaps for Bath & Body Works, and I couldn't get to the San Francisco office," she says. "Using Skype, our senior designer could hold up different bottle options and talk through the pros and cons of each one. She could demonstrate the advantages that a particular label design would have on the shelf--showing how it would look from different angles and next to other products--and we could comment."
Webinars: Webinar technology allows for one-way communication from an individual speaker to an audience, and it can include polling and electronic Q&A. It saves time and money, just like video calling. You can now avoid two days meandering around airports on both ends of an instructional conference, which is a major win if you're a working parent.
Businesses that typically spend tens of thousands of dollars ponying up funds for fancy lunch linens and glossy event programs are grateful for Webinars too. Cisco (nasdaq: CSCO - news - people ) claims that more than 2 million people participate in WebEx sessions every day. Services like WebEx don't require any special software or hardware. All you have to do is launch your Web browser from your home office and you can deliver real-time training, seminars and presentations to far-flung individuals and groups.
Google Applications: According to experts, Google's offerings, including Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google Sites, are considered best-in-class because of how they streamline tasks and facilitate collaboration among people working together on projects. Many are free, and the data are safely backed up and available everywhere you have an Internet connection.
"Gmail is by far the most critical tool in my arsenal," says Steve Rubel, senior vice president and director of insights for Edelman Digital. "I tie Gmail's integrated instant messaging into a service called notify.me, which sends me special alerts when blogs mention me or CNN breaks a story. Since Gmail has tons of storage and terrific search capabilities, I house my personal library there and constantly refer to it to quickly find articles, statistics and case studies that I want to source in my work for clients."
Networking Services: Everyone has heard of Facebook and LinkedIn, but what about an online service that can actually help you keep track of the people you meet and the interactions you have with them?
Thanks to products like Jibber Jobber, you no longer have to spend countless hours thumbing through business cards or musty old notebooks searching for cellphone numbers or tidbits from an old conversation. The information you need for that power lunch is all in one place and easy to access.
"It's important to consciously manage relationships with your contacts over the long term," says Jason Alba, CEO of Jibber Jobber. "Using Jibber Jobber, you can quickly and privately import contacts from a variety of sources, rank relationships, log notes about relationships, create action items and tie them to people or companies."
By selecting the right mix of services for your type of work, technology can become your best friend once more. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls. "For instance," says Rubel, "when working with Web-based applications, choose ones that are not likely to go belly-up. Look for those that have revenues and a stream of new features."
Also, even services that are programmed for efficiency can become all-encompassing if you let them. To sustain a high level of productivity, focus on completing one important task at a time, and don't play around with your applications during the time of day when you do your most creative and innovative work.
Finally, don't allow these useful services to overshadow your in-person relationships. You don't need to have Webinar training for the team downstairs, and you should avoid the temptation to play constant rounds of e-mail tennis with your manager instead of occasionally sitting down in her office. Human beings are social creatures at heart, and simply talking to a colleague or client is sometimes the best way to communicate a clear message.