New employees and fresh faces in the workforce, including recent graduates, typically have extra time on their hands when they start a new job. Training might take weeks or months, and fellow co-workers and managers want to give you some breathing room while you become familiar with everything. One of the most valuable ways to use that downtime is to document workflow and processes.
Documenting your workflow and processes means nothing more than writing down exactly what your job entails, step by step. It is exactly everything you're learning when you're new to a work environment. It also entails all the tweaks and changes you might make to those processes as time goes on or as you discover better or more efficient ways of getting your job done.
Businesses and governmental organisations that are very large and well-established may already have operations manuals and other documentation in abundance – but in my experience, smaller companies and teams typically don't, or if they do, they're seriously outdated.
When you're faced with downtime at a new job, document your workflow and processes, or update the manuals you've received. The benefits of doing so are enormous and many.
Benefits of documenting your workflow
For starters, documenting your workflow will reinforce the on-the-job training you've had to date. In effect, you'll learn the job quicker.
Secondly, these documents are gold to managers and the IT department, who might not know the steps and people involved in your work – and they will need to know any time they make changes or introduce new tools and have to think through all the possible effects. Let me say from experience that you'll hear nothing but praise if you can deliver a detailed and orderly document that contains everything they need. The alternative is talking them through your work ad hoc, when you might forget a step, or misspeak, or simply get it wrong.
Thirdly, managers and fellow colleagues will cling to your documents if you ever need to take an unexpected leave of absence. Likewise, when you're promoted to a new position or move on to another company, the colleagues you leave behind will be thankful to have updated manuals to pass on to the person taking your place.
How to document your workflow
The documentation you write should be simple, easy to understand, and accessible. In most cases, I recommend creating a text document (such as a Word document) with a few embedded images.
Rather than make one massive document that outlines everything, create documents that capture only one procedure or which outline a series of related procedures that must be done in order. Personally, I'm overwhelmed by documentation that's longer than about 11 or 12 pages. I much prefer to see 4 or 5 pages of simple, easy-to-read instructions. The Dos and Don'ts section at the bottom of this article will help steer you towards making concise yet thorough manuals.
Very simply put, keep notes whenever you have on-the-job training, and transfer those notes into a document. As you begin to do the work on your own, add to your notes or adjust them to more accurately reflect the tasks you're doing.
If there is a "big picture" to your work – some overview outline – put that at the beginning of the document. The points which comprise the big picture are what you should record more thoroughly, either in this same document, or in a few smaller documents if you need to break it up. For example, in newsletter marketing, the overview might look like this:
- Copywriter writes copy and submits it to the marketing manager.
- Marketing manager reviews and edits the copy, and gets approval from senior marketing manager.
- Marketing manager submits a request to run a list update.
- Marketing manager delivers final copy to assistant.
- Assistant produces newsletter and sends quality assurance test.
- QA team reviews newsletters and submits changes. Assistant implements changes, verifies, and schedules release.
Any one of those items could have a three page manual describing the steps needed to carry out the work. Where and how is the copy submitted? What format does the copy need to be? Who runs the list update, and what does that mean? Or, several of those items might be combined into one manual, for example, the three tasks that start with "Marketing manager."
What you'll need
To write the steps, you'll need to have been trained on them at least once. When you have to do the work again, use your first draft of your own procedures to guide you through the steps to see if they're accurate and easy to understand.
Screen captures. Take screenshots of anything that seems difficult to explain in text or which is best illustrated visually. Save all your screenshots in a folder first, and only add them to the document if they're needed. Having too many screenshots will seem overbearing to anyone reading your manuals.
(There are several methods for taking a screen capture, but in Windows, the quickest way is to hit the PrtScn button and then use the paste function to drop your image into an image editing program where you can crop and edit it; on a Mac, use Apple+Shift+4 and drag the target around the area you want to shoot.)
Screen capture software. The image editor you use may include tools for marking up your screenshots if you want to add an arrow pointing to something relevant or highlight a particular part of the image.
For £37, the screen capture program Snagit and Snagit for Mac will do just about everything you might need.
Diagram tools. Some workflows and procedures are best expressed through little diagrams. Mind-mapping software can help you quickly draw flowcharts and such, although you can also find a lot of these same diagramming tools in Microsoft PowerPoint, and a more limited selection in Microsoft Word under the Insert tab.
Dos and don’ts
Here's a quick summary of the things you should definitely be doing, along with bad practices you should be avoiding:
- Do create individual documents for different processes and procedures, rather than one massive document that explains your entire job.
- Do be thorough, but also concise.
- Do include screenshots (but don’t go overboard with them).
- Do take several weeks to complete the documents. Give yourself time to reflect on the processes and return to the documents to check whether you've recorded them accurately.
- Do put a date stamp at the top of the page showing when the file was most recently updated.
- Do use job titles instead of people's names when documenting workflow.
- Do keep the master copies in a shared location so that other people can retrieve them easily.
- Do keep a local backup of the files on your desktop or in a private cloud-based system (or both).
- Do review and revise your documents once a year. Think of them as living documents that are never "finished." They're ever-evolving.
- Do tell your boss and colleagues you're creating and maintaining these new records, as they may have valuable input, too.
- Don't include clip art simply to jazz up the pages. Everyone hates it.
- Don't go crazy formatting the text. Keep it simple. Use bold type for subheadings. Use bullets and numbered lists as appropriate to help people see relevant information easily. Keep paragraphs very short.
- Don't use people's names. Refer to people by their job titles. Did I say this already? Yes I did, but it's really important so I'm saying it again.
- Don't be overly protective of your documents. You've created them to help the organisation, not for your sole benefit.
- Don't output your documents to PDFs. Leave them in a format that can be edited (see above).