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Nancy Balkcom_Holding AwardDo you know what it feels like to be a rock star? I DO!

I just returned from yet another amazing WBENC Summit & Salute. In fact, I feel this was most-definitely the best one ever, for a number of reasons. I was surrounded by amazing women, many who have already become dear friends, and many new connections who I am sure will also have a special place in my life. The camaraderie among these women lifts me up and makes me proud to be a woman-owned business. I have been in situations where that wasn’t always the case, and yet, I know that when I participate in a WBENC event, I can say it is a “sure thing” that I will be inspired and motivated to become a better person and share what I can with others.

The matchmaker meetings were one of the best things about the week.  I truly appreciated the time with Blue Cross Blue Shield and the other companies who took the time to meet with us.

I must admit, the best part of the conference this year was the fact that I won such a prestigious award. The WBE 2014 Star Award overwhelmed and excited me. It’s hard to believe that when I was 15 years old and learning the business through my father, and then taking over at the age of 29, that I would have the opportunity to be up on a stage accepting an award in front of peers and my family who I respect deeply.

In fact, if you were there, it wasn’t a secret how happy I was – I proved it when I felt comfortable enough to show my enthusiasm by dancing on the stage. Yes, I may have felt a little silly afterwards, but, that is the beauty of WBENC isn’t it? You can be yourself!

tax20time20bluesTax time doesn’t have to bring on the blues. Think about all the green you could be saving, yes, saving. Follow these steps from to put more money back in your pocket.

Organize Your Records

Good organization may not cut your taxes but it can help you save money in the long-term. Keep all the information that comes in the mail in January, such as W-2s, 1099s, and mortgage interest statements.

Collect receipts and information that you have accumulated during the year.

Enter the amounts from all these documents into a computer program like Quicken or total them by hand and give the list to your tax preparer.

Make sure you know the price you paid for any stocks or funds you have sold. Know the details on income from rental properties.

You could save $300 to $400 with your tax preparer plus plenty of your time. In the event of an audit, you could save on assessments and penalties because you’ll have all your back-up on hand.

Find the Right Forms

The library won’t always have all the forms you need. Go online to view and download a large catalog of forms and publications at the Internal Revenue Service’s Web site, www.irs.gov, or call 1-800-829-3676 to have them sent to you by mail.

Need a state form or publications? Visit www.taxadmin.org/fta/link/forms.html.

Itemize

It’s easier to take the standard deduction, but you may save a bundle if you itemize, especially if you are self-employed, own a home or live in a high-tax area.

Contribute to Retirement Accounts

If you haven’t already funded your retirement account, do so by April 15. That’s the deadline for any kind of IRA, deductible or not. If you have a Keogh or SEP, though, and you get an extension, you can wait until your extension deadline to put money into those accounts.

Consider a Home-Office Deduction

In the past, many taxpayers have avoided the home-office deduction because it has been regarded as a red flag for an audit. If you legitimately qualify for the deduction, however, there should be no problem. Check with your tax advisor. You could save thousands of dollars.

Provide Dependent Taxpayer IDs on Your Return

Be sure to include the Taxpayer Identification Numbers (tax lingo for social security numbers) for your children and other dependents. Otherwise, the IRS can deny the personal exemption for each dependent and the child tax credit for each child under age 17

After you have a baby, be sure to file for a social security card right away so that you have the number at tax time.

You could save hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the number of dependents and your income.

Pay on Time

Pay on time and you can avoid interest and penalties. The IRS doesn’t really care when you file, as long as you request an extension using Form 4868.

Setting AppointmentsNo matter what business you’re in, the odds are that you spend at least some time in appointments. Your appointments may be big group meetings, one-on-ones, or even job interviews. You may even be skipping the face-to-face aspect of meeting and be taking conference calls or using Skype. No matter what type of meeting you’ve scheduled, though, these tips can help you improve your appointment setting skills.

Set agendas ahead of time. Knowing what you plan to accomplish in a meeting can help you decide how long to plan to stay at that appointment — assuming you can keep to your agenda. It can be hard to get other people to stay on track, but no one really wants to spend all day in a single appointment. Furthermore, completing an agreed upon agenda is really the only way to be sure when your meeting is over.

Offer time and date options for appointments. Rather than going through a lengthy back and forth, either on the phone or via email, pick two or three appointment times that work for you and present them to the other half of your appointment. If you’re dealing with a larger group, it’s almost guaranteed that at least one option won’t work for someone, and having multiple options is a much faster way to reach consensus.

Avoid fancy software applications. While there is some very snazzy appointment setting software out there, try to avoid using anything out of the ordinary. The exception to this rule is parties or very large meetings. In general, using these applications take more time than they’re worth — there’s a learning curve for new users, and having to visit a site to respond can take double the time of replying to an email. However, when you’re trying to coordinate large groups of people, using an application can provide a central location rather than sending out huge batches of emails.

Make sure you really need a meeting. Plenty of appointments are set for simple things like handing over a document for approval. Unless that document is short enough to be completely examined during the meeting, it might be more worthwhile to drop off the document and come back later to answer questions and handle the approval process. Before actually setting your appointment, think about whether the matter could be handled in a faster way.

Minimize travel time. One of the reasons that appointments eat up so much time in our calendars is the necessity of travel. We have to travel to clients’ offices, coffee shops or wherever the heck we’re meeting. We can minimize that commitment by suggesting that we meet at our own locations, meet halfway, or skip meeting in person altogether. Options like telephone calls or video conferencing can often handle all the requirements of that appointment you were going to drive across town for.

Schedule time for both preparation and debriefing. When you set your appointment, think about what you might need to do to prepare for it — review a report, prepare a presentation or iron your shirt — and schedule time for each of those activities before your actual appointment. It’s also worthwhile to schedule a fifteen-minute prep session just before your appointment for any last minute details. Same goes for afterwards: you may have certain follow-up tasks to handle after your meeting. Scheduling at least a few minutes after an appointment guarantees that you’ll have time to make sure your notes are complete and any sort of further action at least makes it on to your calendar (if you can’t do it then).

Separate personal and business appointments. Many of us try to load all of our out-of-the-office appointments into one day. Ignoring the problem of what happens if just one runs late, you’ve got the issue of trying to switch gears between the presentation you just gave to a client and the shot the doctor’s waiting to give you. That sort of mental switch up can only make it harder to handle your later appointments. Try to schedule your personal and business appointments on different days.

Keep your appointment schedulers up to date. If you aren’t the only person scheduling your appointments, it’s vital to keep the others in the loop. Otherwise, your significant other might be expecting you at a family dinner at the same time you’re finishing up a major project. I like shared calendars, such as Google Calendar for that very reason, but there are ways to share just about every type of calendar, if you’re reliant on your own system. Appointment schedulers can include your manager, your significant other, an administrative assistant (yours or the departments) and a whole host of other people.

Limit invitees. You may not need the whole company present for a progress report. Instead, decide who actually needs to be in on your appointment — you can always send out a mass email later on if people feel left out. I’ve been in situations before where higher ups felt left out if you didn’t bring them in on every single appointment you were setting up. The best bet seems to be presenting the meeting as something that wouldn’t be a valuable use of their time.

Confirm everything! Confirm when and where the meeting is, what the agenda covers, even how to get there. All you really need is a brief email a day or two before the appointment that outlines the appointment and ask for a simple yes in response if everything is correct.

Get Comfortable at WorkDid you know that there are actually a few strategies that you can follow on a daily basis to stay relaxed and comfortable during working hours? You spend a great deal of time at work, there’s no reason to sacrifice your comfort. In fact, you’ll be more productive, not to mention happier, if you follow some simple best practices.

Keep your working hours separate from your spare time. Your life can be complicated enough to complicate it further. Generally, there are only two situations: either you already have a working schedule, or you’re on your own. In either of the two, you actually can keep things separate from one another.

Decide for yourself the appearance of your working space, while remaining true to the guidelines of your company. There are two important things you must do in order to keep things functional and, still, make your space pleasant:

Set a clear line between work-related stuff and personal objects. If you have objects that you like less (like a big, old and noisy copy machine), find an irrelevant place for them. Conversely, gadgets of preference should be central.

Choose a desk you really like. It’s important to have all your perspectives covered for this one.

Each and every hour, you need at least one small activity that is not connected to your work. It is even better if it’s not connected to your computer either. Take a look at the weather outside, see if you can state which cloud is of which type.

  • Don’t sit on your chair for more than an hour without getting up. Find reasons to do so. Instead of disrupting you, it will help you focus when you come back to your desk and will give you a sense of reality that you generally tend to lose if you increase your uninterrupted working sessions.
  • If you’re working at a computer, fix your eyes on the most distant object around you (a far-away building, that you can see on the window, your colleague’s chair, etc.) every 10 minutes for 10 seconds at least. This is beneficial for your eyes and for your intellectual comfort on the long term.

There are many more ways you can relax and find better harmony in your work environment. If you work for a company, share your ideas as they may bring it on as policy. After all, a happy employee is a reliable and productive employee.

How do you get comfortable at work? We’d love to hear your comments.

Desk Covered with Postit NotesWhen you hear the words desktop organizing do you have visions of small icons arranged tidily on your computer screen? Put aside the image of your virtual desktop and take a minute to asses your actual desktop. If you see heaps of papers and pens and binder clips strewn about willy-nilly you’re not alone. Ditto for those of you whose computer screens are partially blocked by coffee mugs and post-it notes. Time for some desktop tidying. And no, its not gong to be painful or time-consuming. So fill up that empty coffee mug with some java and let’s get to it.

We have eight easy steps to get that desk in tiptop shape.

Create a Blank Slate
Remove everything from your desk. We’re starting with a nice, blank slate. Place your phone on your left if you’re right handed and on the right if you’re left handed. Move personal items such as framed photos or children’s arts and crafts to your shelves.

Say No to Excessive Post-Its
Use post-its sparingly so they catch your eye, not obscure your monitor. Keep a notebook by the phone. Jot down phone messages or notes here. This should be your go to for to-do lists. Delete your answering machine messages after transcribing the important details.

Files, Not Piles
Many of you organize by piling; that’s fine, just try to move them off the desktop and onto a side table. Your workspace on your desk should have no more than an inbox, with three racks, one holding items not yet reviewed, one for items on hold that you have reviewed and need to act upon soon and a third for items that you need on a daily basis over the short term. Documents that don’t fall into one of thee three categories should be placed in permanent files or tossed.

Keep Blank File Folders and a Label Maker at Your Desk
People too often fail to file because they don’t have folders and labels handy. With a stack of blank folders and label maker within reach, you have no excuse.

Planner/PDA
Keep on your desk, next to the phone. Make it your right-hand man, using it to keep track of to-dos, follow-ups and ideas.

One Drawer/One Box Rule
Keep office supplies in one drawer only. Buy a dozen of your favorite, inexpensive pens and keep them in a cutlery tray in the drawer. Keep back-up supplies in a clear storage box. And say no to junk; free cups and pens and other do-dads are distracting clutter.

Eat Elsewhere
Salt and pepper packets and plastic utensils filling your drawers? Make a habit of eating away from your desk: this keeps trash from piling up and provides a needed break away from your work. Eat in the break room or better yet out of the office.

Ten Minute Cleanup
Take a quick overview of your desk at the end of each day, throwing away trash and fling papers. Place tomorrow’s top priority project in the center of your desk. You (and your desk) are ready for the new day!

Gift Giving EtiquetteIf you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an inappropriate gift from a colleague, you know that workplace gift giving can be a minefield. Making the wrong move can create lasting problems with coworkers. Alternatively, presenting a proper coworker gift or hosting an inclusive office holiday party can improve relationships, boost morale and give everyone in your workplace a warm and fuzzy feeling.

So as you get ready to spread your own holiday cheer, heed these cautionary tales and words of etiquette advice when it comes to celebrating and giving gifts at work:

Make the Gift Exchange About More Than a Present

Done right, gift giving can be a positive workplace experience. Consider adding another dimension to your coworker gift exchange by extending your generosity to the local community. Anyone who wants to participate in any sort of gift swap must also contribute to a food, clothing or toy drive. Such a collective effort can transform a fun game into a meaningful tradition everyone in the company can feel good about.

Rethink the Office Holiday Party

With all the holiday hype that goes on this time of year, we seldom take the time to remember that not everyone celebrates the same holidays. This is your chance to work on your diversity sensitivity. Research other people’s religions and traditions, and try to make everyone in your workplace feel included in the festivities. Ask people to share their family or cultural traditions. Remember to include new employees in your office holiday party planning.

Coworker Gift-Giving Etiquette

To make the right choices, employees need a well-thought-out gift-giving strategy in the workplace. Consider these tips, adapted from Peggy and Peter Post:

  • Diversions such as Yankee Swap, Secret Santa and the like are fine, as long as nobody gets carried away. Underscore the lighthearted nature of the game.
  • If you are giving gifts to people who are special to you in the workplace, do it in private. There’s no need to upset people who aren’t on your gift list.
  • Don’t give your boss or supervisor a gift that is just from you (unless they are a close personal friend, in which case the above rule applies). Ask others in the office to contribute so you look like a team player.
  • Don’t give offensive, extravagant or joke gifts. Also steer clear of gifts involving alcohol, fragrance or clothing.
  • Always send thank-you notes for personal gifts.

Taking meeting notes is not as easy as it sounds. We offer some advice on how to take meeting notes that we’ve garnered from talking to top administrative assistants.

The average administrative assistant finds minute-taking almost as appealing as a root canal.

But although the task of compiling accurate meeting notes is difficult and time-consuming, it is also a necessary one . . . And with the right approach, it might not be as painful as it seems.

Organization is the key to successful note-taking. Veteran note-takers have learned that an effective organization strategy involves breaking the job down into three distinct phases, each one requiring just as much attention as the others.

Before the Meeting
Since taking meeting notes usually involves more than simply writing down what happens in the meeting, you need to be on top of your game long before the meeting actually occurs. The first step of the note-taking process involves organizing the meeting agenda, minutes from the last meeting, and any other material that may arise in the course of the meeting. These materials should be distributed to meeting participants at a least a few days before the meeting itself.

Without overstepping your boundaries, part of your job is to ensure that the meeting agenda makes sense. For example, if the minutes from the last meeting indicate that an issue has been tabled and that issue doesn’t appear on the agenda, consider bringing the oversight to the attention of the person leading the meeting.

During the Meeting
It’s not unusual for the note-taker’s role during a meeting to travel far beyond simply recording outcomes and discussions. Plan to keep a record of the meeting’s attendees and make note of those who arrived late so they can be briefed later about any decisions that were made during their absence, especially if those decisions impact them individually.

While it is usually not necessary to maintain a verbatim transcript of the conversation, keep track of the order in which items were actually discussed (versus the order in which they appear on the agenda) and write down the highlights of the discussion for each issue.

If an item is brought to a vote, record the motions that were made as well as the names of the people who made them and (in some cases) seconded them. Then record the outcome of the vote, the method used (hand, voice, or ballot), and if appropriate, the individual names of those who approved, rejected or abstained. This may seem onerous, but in many situations the record of board votes provides a legal basis for decisions of the corporation.

After the Meeting
After the meeting is over, transcribe the minutes from handwritten notes to a more formal, typed format as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to remember important details you may have missed. Once you are pleased with a final version, distribute copies to all attendees, making note of any action items requiring follow-up. Depending on the meeting, it may also be necessary to archive a copy of the minutes in paper and/or electronic formats.