The Web transforms virtually everything that it touches. And these days, it touches virtually everything -- from how companies think about strategy, to how they market products, to how they find customers. But the Web doesn't just change how companies operate. It also changes how the people inside those companies operate -- how they communicate, how they share ideas, even how they relax and recharge their batteries. In short, the Web can change how you work -- if you know how to work the Web.
For Carolyn Sechler-Callton and the 14 people who work with her, going to work means going to the Web. "We're totally virtual," says Sechler-Callton, 47, who owns a small tax-preparation and consulting firm. "We have no offices." She and her crew use the Web for everything from sending and receiving faxes, to ordering business cards, to meeting with clients, to doing their banking. "The Web is a lifestyle tool," she says. "It lets us have lives. We work during the hours when we're at our best, so our productivity is incredible. Because of the Web, I get to spend more time with my daughter, my husband, my dog, and my friends."
This edition of @work will help you put the Web to work for you. You'll find descriptions and evaluations of what we consider to be some of the most valuable work-oriented services on the Web. You'll also get tips on how to be smarter about email, an in-depth comparison of five popular small-business Web sites -- and etiquette lessons from a great-grandson of Emily Post. Here is Fast Company's guide to working the Web.
Email: Still the Killer App
The Internet just keeps getting smarter, faster, and slicker. But no matter how fancy the online world gets, old-fashioned email remains, for most people, the Net's most critical application. Yet there are a couple of nagging problems with email that the Web can solve -- from concerns about whether someone got an important message to hassles associated with accessing messages from the road.
Have you ever lost sleep wondering why an important client didn't respond to an email? Maybe it never got there! Maybe you sent it to the wrong person! Well, roll over and close your eyes. Thanks to a service from CertifiedMail (www.certifiedmail.com), you can sleep soundly with the knowledge that your email has arrived safely. "It gives you a higher level of confidence -- and a higher level of confidentiality," says Shirley Cook, 47, an it consultant in Philadelphia who uses CertifiedMail to send sensitive proposals. "It gives you peace of mind that you didn't take any chances."
Here's how the service works. You register at the site with a user ID and a password that's linked to your email address. Each message that you send is stored on the CertifiedMail server along with a unique tracking number. The service sends the recipient an email that includes a URL that links directly to the CertifiedMail Web site, where the recipient can open the message and read it. CertifiedMail will notify you via email once the message has been received and opened. The confidence and security that this service provides come at a price. A Certified Silver account will set you back $99 per year or $10 per month. A Certified Gold account, which includes lots of extra features, costs $249 per year or $25 per month.
A second big headache associated with conventional email involves getting access to it when you're on the road. Web-based email is a great tool for road warriors who need a fast and easy way to check email without having to tote a laptop. Until recently, though, the primary options were consumer-focused services like HotMail and Yahoo! Mail. Such services require you to give up most of the capabilities of a desktop email client, such as search functions, automated signatures, and powerful address books. They also impose limits on storage capacity and on the size of attachments.
Enter Net Exchange (www.netexchange.com), a sort of HotMail on steroids for businesspeople. Not only does it give you all the capabilities of a normal email client, but you also get twice as much storage as a consumer service provides. You can send attachments that are as large as six megabytes -- more than enough for most PowerPoint presentations. While the service isn't free, the extra functionality that it offers is well worth the cost. (Pricing details are available on the company's Web site.)
New Tools for Old Hassles
There's more to getting your work done than sending and reading email (although, much of the time, it may not seem that way). Indeed, even the most intense "knowledge work" still involves some truly mundane headaches. And in the realm of headaches, is there anything more mundane (and yet more mission-critical) than getting an important package to a customer or a colleague overnight?
If you've got a package that absolutely, positively must get to its destination the next day, you don't have to call FedEx. Instead, you can call up the Web. SmartShip.com
(www.smartship.com) is a Web resource that will help with all of your shipping needs. The site lets you compare services and prices for Airborne Express, Federal Express, UPS, and the United States Postal Service, as well as other couriers. Once you decide on a carrier, you can print a label and even arrange for a pickup. SmartShip will also email the recipient to say that the package is on its way -- and then notify you by email once it has been delivered.
If you need to track a package, just go into your shipment log and select the appropriate tracking number, and SmartShip will provide an update on the progress of your shipment. If you're sending documents, don't waste time contacting a courier or downloading postage -- heck, don't even waste a minute printing them out or photocopying them. Visit NowDocs.com
(www.nowdocs.com), a new service that will print, bind, and deliver your documents -- all in the same day (or even in less than two hours), if you live in one of 13 cities. Or choose next-day service, which is available nationwide. Just enter the recipient's address; upload the documents; select a delivery method, a type of paper, and a binding option; and pay the appropriate fee.
You'll never worry about missing a FedEx deadline again: With next-day service, the deadline is as late as 11:59 PM on the East Coast, or 8:59 PM on the West Coast. (The deadline for same-day service is 4:59 PM on the East Coast.) Next-day service costs $9.95 for up to 10 black-and-white pages. Same-day service starts at $19.95 for up to 10 black-and-white pages.
Thanks to the Web, it's possible to send packages to far-off destinations faster than ever before. But what about getting you where you need to be? Well, if you need to be at a critical meeting with colleagues from several different cities, then the Web can help. Log onto WebEx (www.webex.com), a site that hosts Web-enabled meetings, and you'll be in the right place almost right away.
To schedule a meeting or to start one immediately, click on the "Create Meeting" button; enter a meeting name, a password, and a time and date; send email notifications to attendees; and choose from additional features, such as teleconferencing, polling, and chat. To join a meeting, attendees click on the "Join Meeting" icon and enter the meeting number that was sent as part of their notification. That's it. No software to download. No complicated setup.
After a meeting begins, the presenter can share any presentation, document, application, or Web page simply by clicking on the "Share" button, selecting a document to share, and opening it in the usual manner. Once the document is open, it automatically appears in the browser of every attendee.
WebEx also allows the presenter to give attendees the ability to print, highlight, or annotate anything on the shared document. Or the presenter can turn the meeting over to another attendee simply by selecting that person from a user list and clicking on the "Presenter" button. But the meeting room's most powerful feature is "desktop sharing," which enables a presenter to take control of another person's desktop (with that person's permission, of course).
Sarah Mayor uses WebEx to get her foot in the door with potential clients and to give them preliminary demos. Mayor, 29, is a sales-development representative at Siebel Systems, a San Mateo, California-based e-business-solutions company. WebEx is "great for giving clients a taste of what our applications are all about," she says. "They get a sense of the program's maneuverability. Then they usually say, 'Yes, definitely come in and give me the full demo.' "
You've got to start meeting like this!
Perhaps the only thing better than being able to meet anytime, anywhere is being able to get technical support anytime, anywhere. NoWonder (www.nowonder.com) is an online marketplace that connects computer users who have technical questions with techies who have answers -- 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. NoWonder has no employees, but it boasts a large network of thousands of techies who eagerly monitor the site.
How does it work? Users can get help in one of three ways: "Live Help" lets you interact with a support technician personally and in real time. "E-mail Help" provides answers to questions within 24 hours. And "Self Help" offers an extensive list of do-it-yourself Web resources. Users can view technicians' qualifications before seeking their help -- and then rate their performance afterward.
All Work And No Play ...
One virtue of using virtual tools to work smarter and faster is that you get more time to have fun. And the Web can help there too. If you're still at your desk but you have some free time, spend a few minutes at eMode.com (www.emode.com). Here, you'll find more than 50 multiple-choice tests and quizzes, ranging in tone from serious to outrageously hilarious. The tests explore relationships, lifestyles, and emotions; they include "Are you Loony?," "The Presidential Taste Test," and "Are You High Maintenance?" There's even an area called "your vault," where you can store your results.
If quizzes aren't your thing, then test your IQ at Quizland.com (www.quizland.com). This site has loads of trivia, covering everything from TV ("South Park Trivia Quiz") to people ("Pamela Anderson Lee Trivia Quiz") to holidays ("Halloween Trivia Quiz"). And if you love crossword puzzles, don't miss the site's interactive puzzle. Click on "7 across," for example, and as you type in your answer, the squares change color to signal that you're getting warmer, warmer, hot!
Have you saved so much time at work that you can finally dream of throwing a party? Then make Evite.com (www.evite.com) your party planner. Whether you're planning a romantic dinner for 2 at home or a birthday bash for 100 at a local restaurant, Evite.com will help you manage every aspect of the event -- from sending invitations, to keeping track of who's coming, to providing directions.
Thinking even bigger -- thinking, say, about organizing a weekend ski trip for your whole department? Then mambo on over to Mambo.com (www.mambo.com). Not only can you send invitations, manage an RSVP list, and create a Web site for your event, but you can also use the service to collect money from your guests. Just post the cost of the trip on your invitation, and guests can pay for their share through Mambo.com using their credit card. It takes the work out of having fun!
Associate Editor Gina Imperato (email@example.com) recently moved her office from FC headquarters in Boston to San Francisco. She'll use the Web to keep working with her colleagues.
Action Item: Phone Home (Page)
Web gurus agree that phone access to the Web is the next big thing. So why not invest in a Sprint PCS phone that's equipped with Wireless Web? This service, launched last September, offers two ways to access the Net. One is through a wireless browser (most Sprint PCS phones come with one). A second option is to sign up for Wireless Web Updates from Yahoo! This service provides updates of your My Yahoo! page at set times.
Coordinates: $149.99. Sprint PCS, www.sprintpcs.com
Sidebar: Polite Company
Who says that nice guys (and gals) finish last -- even in the hypercompetitive Age of the Web? Peter Post (Emily's great-grandson), 49, and Peggy Post (his sister-in-law) recently wrote a guide to good manners for the new economy. "The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success" (HarperResource, 1999) has advice for everyone from entry-level workers to road warriors. In an interview, Peter Post discussed good manners for folks who travel in fast company.
Not at the table!
"Never place your cell-phone on the table during a meal. If you're expecting a call, let your companions know about it in advance. And, when you receive the call, excuse yourself and find a lobby or some other quiet place."
Lessons on lingo.
"Email users have a whole vocabulary of 'emoticons' to indicate their emotional state. It's fine to use those symbols -- as long as they're part of the parlance of the people you do business with. But to many people, those symbols mean nothing. The same goes for online abbreviations: IMHO for 'in my humble opinion,' BTW for 'by the way.' And never use all caps. Type in all caps is hard to read. Besides, it's not polite to shout."
Coordinates: Peter Post, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sidebar: You've Got More Mail
Email has become the "database of our lives." But how do you keep email from taking over your life? That's a question that occupies much of Ken Breshears's life. Breshears, 42, is Qualcomm's senior manager of tech support for Eudora. Here are his tips for controlling your email before it takes control of you.
The check's in the email.
"How often you check your email should be a function of how much mail you get and of how critical email is to your work. If you get only 10 to 15 messages a day, checking once an hour is reasonable."
Filter by contact as well as by content.
"I filter my mail according to the field that my name appears in. Mail that I'm CC'd or BCC'd on goes into separate mailboxes."
Never type the same message twice.
"You need to devise ways to answer your email quickly. Often people write to me and ask, 'Ken, what's the difference between Eudora Light and Eudora Pro?' Typing my response takes 5 or 10 minutes. So I've created 'stationery' that explains that difference: I just hit 'reply with' and select the stationery, and I'm done. If you find yourself typing the same thing over and over again, make it into stationery."
Coordinates: Ken Breshears, email@example.com
Sidebar: Her Office Clicks
The Web can be an exectutive assistant's best assistant. Teresa Williams, 38, is an "admin" to one of the principals at Meyer, Mohaddes Associates, an engineering firm based in Long Beach, CA. She's responsible for supporting her boss and for making sure that the 125-person firm runs smoothly.
Williams's killer app is OfficeClick.com (www.officeclick.com), an online work center that helps administrative professionals track meetings, keep schedules, make travel arrangements, order office supplies, and communicate with other admins. If Williams needs to know whether her boss's flight is on time, she just enters the airline and flight number, and the flight's status appears on her screen. "He can't escape me," she jokes.
Another of her favorite features is the "To Do" list, which provides already-compiled checklists for recurring tasks. Williams can also arrange to receive email reminders at specific times. "I'm so busy that I can't remember all this stuff," she says. "My computer used to be covered with Post-it notes. Now I get a message that says, 'Teresa, Don't forget ...' These reminders have saved my life quite a few times."
Coordinates: Teresa Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org