Many organisations in the engineering and environmental sectors are beginning to capitalise on the benefits of modern workplace technology.
As a former environmental consultant myself, I realise that projects are more likely to be successful when teams show high levels of organisation, collaboration, efficiency and communication.
While many factors will influence whether project teams achieve this, technology is one area that often presents hurdles. However, modern workplace technology like Office 365 is changing this.
Office 365 is so much more than traditional Microsoft Office. If you aren’t familiar with Office 365, read our ‘What’s included in Office 365’ guide for a rundown. In a nutshell, it leverages the power of the cloud to deliver businesses a massive bundle of productivity software applications—including SharePoint Online.
How can Office 365 help consultancies?
Desk-based reporting projects are extremely common for consultancies. Large-scale projects might include hundreds of documents such as technical reports and chapters, datasets, literature, and images. These documents often have multiple authors and typically undergo multiple reviews and revisions.
Office 365 makes the process of document creation and review incredibly simple with co-authoring:
- Multiple authors can work on the same version of a document together, simultaneously, on multiple devices
- Reviewers can leave comments on a document while other colleagues address them simultaneously
- Regular Microsoft updates add the latest features to your software. For example, soon you’ll be able to @mention colleagues in a document where you require their input and they’ll receive a notification alerting them. You'll also be able to add placeholders which are tracked; it will be possible to quickly skip through the remaining gaps in a document where more information is required. It's great features like these that are being continually added to Office 365
This co-authoring function is a genuine revelation for consultancies. In the past, you might find that a document was ‘locked for editing’ by a colleague—thus preventing you from working on the document and wasting valuable time. Thanks to OneDrive and SharePoint, this is no longer a concern.
Consultancy projects typically require stringent document management—especially if your company holds ISO 9001 certification. As an employee, you want files to be named and stored efficiently so they’re easy to find.
SharePoint Online is included as part of Office 365 and excels itself at document management—providing a central repository for project files. Benefits include:
- Ability to create team sites for each project; you can use templated sites to collaborate, store project documents and schedule tasks
- Automatic version history removes the need for confusing file naming and versioning practices, providing audit trails and previous iterations of documents
- Maintain a single file in SharePoint for all users and avoid multiple 'local copies'
- Search for files across the company with intelligent search and metadata
- Easily set access permissions per project - protecting specific documents from the wrong users
Image: Example of a SharePoint Hub Site. Access your various department sites and project team sites here.
Image: Example of document management in SharePoint. Create custom columns and metadata.
In consultancy, it’s almost certain that at some point you’ll work on a project with colleagues located remotely.
For example, if you work on an overseas project, local knowledge often proves invaluable. Let’s assume your company has an office in that country, but you’re not sure which colleague to speak to. Microsoft Delve is a fantastic starting point. You can search by skills, experience, location etc. and it will present you with the Office 365 profiles of the employees that meet your criteria. Alternatively, you could start a conversation on Yammer – the equivalent of an internal Facebook for your business. Colleagues will happily tag other people within the company that they think might be able to help.
Once you’ve determined who to contact, you can easily reach out and communicate with them over multiple channels. Instant message or video call them with Microsoft Teams (soon replacing Skype for Business) or simply email them or call them with the number listed on their Office 365 profile.If they’re keen to help, you can add them to your project’s team and associated Office 365 Group.
With a project team in place, teamwork is easy regardless of location. Office 365 was designed to improve team workflows, productivity and collaboration. The key collaboration tools include:
- Microsoft Teams: Teams provides collaboration tools and a workspace for each project. Project teams can instant message, video call, book meetings and share files easily
- Microsoft Planner: Planner provides a lightweight project management tool for your project. Assign project tasks to team members and mark progress
- SharePoint Sites: SharePoint Online allows you to create Team Sites or Communication sites for your team. You can imagine this as the hub for your project where you might save files, reports, plans & policies, risk assessments, links to internal and external online resources etc.
- OneNote: OneNote is a shared space for adding notes, meeting minutes and ideas for your team—immediately updating on each team member's device
- Shared email: A team email address and inbox
- Delve: Search for documents, people, skills and experience within your organisation
- Yammer: A social network for your business
- Flow: Workflow creation between your apps, files and data to speed up your work. Put automated approval processes in place for quick document sign-off by managers.
- Stream: Your team will have its own group on Microsoft Stream – an internal company version of YouTube. Ideal for survey projects which involve video capture.
Image: Example of Microsoft Planner
Image: Example of meetings notes in OneNote
Managerial approval is often required in consultancy—especially on reporting projects which require technical and commercial reviews prior to client issue.
Approval processes can be automated in SharePoint, such as document sign-off. Managers can click on an approval button which will notify the consultant that a report is ready to send to the client. You can also easily view document status or progress with custom column formatting in SharePoint (below) to quickly see what stage a document is at.
Image: Example of custom column formatting to show project status and completion
In consultancy, you’ll often need to embark on research—whether that is billable work for a client or internal work for knowledge sharing, learning & development etc.
Information and data curation
Research will typically involve searches for:
- Academic journals
- Industry and government reports
- Publicly available datasets and reports
- Online presentation slides
- Any other form of information you can dig up
You’ll end up with duplicated effort and wasted storage space if you allow consultants to save these documents to their personal network folders or devices. How many times have you asked a colleague where a report is saved and they’ve emailed you a local copy from their desktop?
With SharePoint, you can create searchable libraries and define metadata fields so that all your reports are stored in a centralised library and accessible to everyone. When colleagues find a particularly valuable report, it can be saved in the library with clear metadata aiding future discovery. You can also use a filter function to search.
For example, if you needed to create a presentation on current UK offshore wind farms you could simply filter by:topic (Offshore Wind), location (UK), file type (PowerPoint) and date (2018). A colleague may have already created a presentation on this—saving you from duplication of effort and hours of unnecessary work.
Image: Filtering in SharePoint
Surveys and questionnaires
Research projects often require various people to answer questionnaires.
Microsoft Forms is online survey software which is included with most Office 365 plans. It provides:
- Visually attractive forms and questionnaires
- Multiple question types and customisation
- Easily sharable links, QR codes, email and embed functions
- Superb user experience—including on mobile devices
- Results and analytics from respondents
- Data export to Excel and Power BI for further analysis
- Simple to embed Forms and results into SharePoint pages
There aren’t any limits on the number of questions you can ask in your questionnaires—or number of respondents that can take the survey. Alternative solutions like SurveyMonkey and Typeform have free plans, but these are limited. Therefore, Forms is a fantastic value-add if you have it included in your Office 365 subscription.
Image: Example of a survey in Microsoft Forms
With Office 365, your Office applications are always kept up to date. You will always have the latest version of Excel with the newest features. This is particularly handy if you do a lot of data analysis in Excel.
Recent features include simple things like ‘Quick Analysis’—which allows you to rapidly analyse, format and create charts with the touch of a button. Simply highlight multiple cells and quick analysis will subtly pop up. It’s the little features like this that can really speed up your workflows and make working with data quicker, easier and more enjoyable.
Not all consultancies get out in the field, but many do. Whether you’re looking at the structural integrity of a bridge or conducting a habitat survey, Office 365 and SharePoint Online can help in several ways.
- Access all your Office 365 documentation remotely, even using mobile data on your phone. There’s no need to VPN and you can collaborate on the same versions of the documents as colleagues in the office
- Work on documents in your web browser, using Office Online (Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote)
- Communicate with colleagues in the office using Microsoft Teams
- Plan, schedule and manage shifts using Microsoft StaffHub (soon to become part of Microsoft Teams)
- Upload videos from site to Microsoft Stream– allowing office-based colleagues to check and comment on progress
- Group calendar & mailbox per project team
Driving project success
SharePoint and Office 365 can bring teams together, bridging the gap between disparate departments and offices, speeding up workflows and removing outdated working practices. By increasing levels of collaboration, efficiency and communication, Office 365 can drive project success—allowing consultancies to reap the benefits of the digital and cloud workplace technologies.
Get in touch
Interested in how Office 365 and SharePoint might work for your organisation? Get in touch for an informal chat with one of our friendly consultants!
We’d also be happy to show you some of the new features and capabilities in SharePoint with a no-obligation demo.