You’re probably already using “the cloud” (i.e., going online) to operate some aspects of your business.
But as Thomas Hansen, Vice President of Microsoft Worldwide SMB explains, even if you’re sold on the benefits of the cloud, it may seem daunting to get started – or do more.
He advocates taking incremental steps. Start small. Then do more over time.
So I thought I’d build on that idea, by outlining 10 things you can do – starting today – to jump on the cloud or increase your use of cloud applications. Choose a few of these tactical steps and you can save time, operate your business more efficiently, and often reduce costs:
1) Set Your Default File-Saving Location to the Cloud
It’s one thing to talk about central online file storage. But it’s another thing altogether if you and your staff have to take extra steps to transfer files to your online cloud storage platform all of the time.
Think about it. If you and your staff are saving to a local hard drive or device first, it will take double the effort to turn around and save those files to your cloud file storage later.
But you can “set it and forget it” so you don’t have to take any extra steps. And your important company files will be automatically backed up in the process.
Just configure your computers so that each staff member’s default location to save files is the company’s online storage solution of choice.
For example, if you use Microsoft OneDrive as your cloud storage solution, it’s easy to configure that in Windows 8. Click on “PC Settings” and you should see a menu item for OneDrive. From there you can click the on/off button to make OneDrive your default location for file storage.
Or do a search online for instructions for how to change it to the platform of choice on your particular device. It’s possible to set cloud storage as the default save location for many devices.
2) Go For Low Hanging Fruit: Cloud Based Email and Documents
Another logical place to start is to adopt a cloud-based email and document platform, such as Office 365. If you haven’t done this already, let me tell you, the business benefits are pretty compelling.
First, it helps with personal productivity of you and your team. If you use multiple devices (as I do!), you can have access to all your office type documents and emails no matter what device you’re using. Going to a conference, and taking your laptop or tablet with you? With a cloud productivity platform like Office 365 , you have everything you need just by logging in. You’ll never again have to transfer files from thumb drives or sync up devices later.
Second, it helps with team collaboration. In my business most of the team members work remotely from their homes. Yet, we can all still have access to files and the same tools, just by connecting with a browser or mobile app.
For example, we use shared calendars extensively. This way, we can keep track of company deadlines that affect or involve multiple people and departments, centralize the reminders, and see schedule availability at a glance.
We also use shared document collaboration — literally daily. What we do is hold meetings via conference call or video conference, and then the team looks at and edits a single document while we’re on the conference. Or we take meeting notes on a central shared document. It saves a lot of time. There’s no need to route meeting notes later. We needn’t worry about which version of the document is the latest, because we are all there creating and editing the same document.
Plus, you can spread out the cost monthly. There’s no big up front license charge — it’s a lot easier to budget and afford.
3) Create a Central Online Filing System
Once you get everyone saving to the cloud, you need a simple way for your team to find what’s there for common files.
To do this, create an online filing system. Organize the growing number of documents and files your business is creating daily.
Use a series of clearly labeled folders. Do you organize your work by projects? By clients? By departments? Create a system that makes sense for your business.
With a company-wide filing system, your team will save many hours they would otherwise spend searching for items or duplicating effort because they can’t find something.
4) Encourage Clients and Contractors to Share Via the Cloud
How many times do you find yourself emailing files back and forth? Then you have to hunt through emails later to find a file you need.
You’ll save time by sharing files directly via the cloud.
You may not be able to “force” third parties to use your cloud sharing platform, by why not ask? Quickly state the benefits, such as “We like to share and edit files on OneDrive [or Dropbox or another platform] because it saves time hunting through emails. Could I share this with you there?”
Some won’t be comfortable sharing files this way. But you may be surprised if you mention it as an option.
5) Use Electronic Signature Apps
Do you send or receive lots of documents needing signatures? If so, you and your team probably spend a lot of time emailing, printing, signing, scanning, faxing – you know the drill.
Here’s a tip: check out cloud-based, electronic signature apps. Think, Hello Sign or DocuSign. There are plenty of other electronic signature options  out there, too.
They save loads of time. Not only that, electronic signature apps take away some of the procrastination factor because you can sign a document immediately, even while on the road, instead of waiting until you’re near the printer or fax machine.
They also take away much of the hassle of circulating documents for signing. They route documents to all parties for signatures, and even send reminders.
6) Create Digital Asset Libraries in the Cloud
Let me ask you a question: how much time do you spend hunting for or forwarding company digital assets?
I’m talking about your logo, that brochure you took to the tradeshow a few years back, the board presentation template you used last year, your blank performance review form, official company photos, executive bios, press kits and other assets.
If your company is anything like mine used to be, you spend entirely too much time digging around for that kind of material.
Create a library of digital assets. Set up a central shared folder or folders on your cloud storage platform. Now these assets will be available to anyone on your team who needs them, anywhere, anytime. They won’t have to hunt for them or bother someone else to find them.
7) Convert One Important Business System to the Cloud
You don’t have to tackle all your business systems and move everything to the cloud at once. Start by looking at your top three most important systems. That might be QuickBooks, your contacts database, and your inventory management system.
If you’re still using local or desktop-based versions of those systems, start evaluating the benefits of cloud-based (online) versions. With cloud versions, you’ll gain a lot in terms of ability for the entire team to have access to information and collaborate better. And cloud systems make it easier to transfer data from one system to another, eliminating duplicate data entry and the silo effect of information being marooned in one system.
Which app will deliver the biggest bang by moving to the cloud? That’s the question to ask.
8) Insist on Cloud-Updated Malware Protection for all Workers
This is especially important with remote workers.
Large enterprises typically have a company IT department which sets up a company network with safeguards like malware protection.
But small businesses may not have a network.
Or a small business team often works with people who are not on their network. Remote workers may connect from their own devices from home, using the public cloud. They are simply logging on via the Internet.
So it is important that everyone who accesses your systems or data, or shares files, have malware protection updated regularly with new malware signatures via the cloud.
Microsoft offers a built-in Windows Defender product for desktops and Windows based devices – and it’s free. Make sure it is enabled. Or have another malware protection option in place.
Also, when Windows 10 comes out later this year, it will have added security features built in via Windows Update. Windows 10 will also offer an option called Windows Update for Business. This will provide quicker access to security updates and critical fixes and control over deploying updates, for IT administrators. For instance, if you have an IT department, it will be able to deliver patches to remote sites, using limited bandwidth.
9) Install a Cloud-Based Phone System
Consider either a voice-over-IP (VOIP) phone service, or a software-based virtual switchboard and voicemail system.
With cloud-based phone systems, you gain the ability for remote workers to have access to a central phone system — at very low cost. For small businesses with remote workers or those who work from home, this is especially important. Even if team members use their own mobile devices, you can still connect everyone to central extensions and company voicemail boxes.
You also gain a professional impression in the form of an automated voice greeting.
Voicemail messages can be routed as audio files via email, so they can be forwarded to other team members.
You also get usage statistics to help you see how your team is using the phone – perfect for managing a customer support function, for instance.
10) Use Video Meetings
Last but certainly not least, make wide use of virtual meetings via video. If you already use them, fantastic — do more of them.
Video delivers the impact of personal interaction to customers and sales prospects, without the expense of in-person travel.
Video meetings are also great for the team. People who work from home or are located in different offices may feel isolated. This can be demotivating. Email and instant messaging are useful, but they are no substitute for hearing a team member’s voice inflection or seeing the boss smile. Video makes people feel included. It smooths the way to work together.
A lot of small businesses use Skype because it’s free and so many people use it for personal purposes that they already are familiar with it. Whatever conferencing solution you choose, just do it.
I hope that these 10 ideas spur you to do more with the cloud – or confirm that your business is in good shape when it comes to the cloud.
Don’t immediately tackle all of these. Just pick one or two – and get started.
At the time of this writing, Anita Campbell is participating in the Microsoft Small Business Ambassador Program.
Low-Hanging Fruit  Photo via Shutterstock