How to Write a Truly Useful Standard Operating Procedure Manual




  • — December 15, 2018

    For modern, innovative entrepreneurs such as your lovely self, working with a virtual team of contractors is the absolute best way to run your business. You can hire experts who live thousands of miles away, only pay them for the hours you need, and free up your own time to focus on work you love.

    One of the only drawbacks?

    Training in new team members can be a real bear.

    Teaching people how to tackle the tasks that keep your business humming can be a lot tougher when they’re working remotely.

    However! You can make the training process FAR less painful by building up a library of templates and manuals that detail your standard operating procedures (SOPs).

    An SOP is a codified method for completing a task or project, usually presented as a list of steps. An SOP is also a total lifesaver when it comes to making sure your freelancers are doing their work correctly and up to your standards.

    So why bother to document your standard operating procedures into a template or manual?

    Well, when you do …

    • You’ll help your contractors work more quickly and efficiently
    • You’ll ensure everything goes according to schedule
    • You’ll give them a tool for avoiding careless mistakes
    • You’ll show them exactly what you expect from them
    • You’ll make their training process far easier

    Convinced? FAB!

    Here are my top 5 tips for creating a standard operating procedure manual that’s helpful, practical, and useful to team members both new and old.


    Tip #1: Keep it simple

    Why is this tip #1 on my list? Because it’s so danged important!

    You’re creating a reference guide for your freelancers to make their lives easier and their work more consistent.

    The best way to do that is to be clear, concise, and to-the-point. No need to over-complicate the process.

    Tip #2: Choose a format that works for your processes

    If you’re creating one big, monster document that details ALL of your business standard operating procedures, don’t try to force them all into a single format. Some processes are easily explained through a list, but others need support from visuals.

    Here are three formats that work well for typical work processes:

    LIST OF STEPS: If a procedure is relatively short and simple, all you need to do is create a bulleted list of simple sentences that tell the reader what to do, and in what order.

    HIERARCHICAL STEPS: Some processes require the person executing them to make decisions at certain points in the workflow. Think of responding to a nasty comment on social media. You may have a templated response to use initially, but what if the commenter escalates? How should your freelancer react then? In this case, create a list of main steps, but include substeps that clarify what to do under specific circumstances.

    FLOWCHART: If a process has a huge number of possible outcomes, flowcharts can be incredibly helpful. This is also your best format for procedures that require your team member to make choices at multiple points.

    Tip #3: Watch your language

    When you’re writing an standard operating manual, keep your audience’s prior knowledge top-of-mind. Do they know anything about your business and its various moving parts? How much industry jargon are they likely to know? The language you use needs to be simple, accessible, and clear.

    Also remember that no one is going to read this manual for fun. Avoid long sentences, unnecessary adjectives, and anything else that might cause the reader’s attention to wander.

    In general, don’t use “you” when issuing instructions. Speak in the active voice and start your sentences with command verbs.

    NO: Make sure that you add the current date to all filenames before putting them in one of our shared folders.

    YES: Include current date in all filenames before adding to shared folders.

    Tip #4: Look beyond Word docs

    While “keeping it simple” should be your mantra, also bear in mind that people learn in different ways. Your freelancers may be visual learners, or benefit from actually hearing you describe how to do a task.

    They may also want to comment and ask questions in the doc, so using a tool like Dropbox or Google Drive can be helpful.

    If processes benefit from video tutorials, set up a private YouTube channel. And if you’re working with veteran team members to create a standard operating manual, consider using Evernote or a project management system to make collaboration easier.

    Tip #5: Make it a team effort

    Don’t do this alone! It’ll take forever to write everything up on your own, and your contractors may have insights into the details of certain processes.

    So make your team responsible for updating and maintaining their own templates and standard operating procedures manual. Just make sure you have access.

    Writing up SOP manuals isn’t exactly glamorous … but it is absolutely essential to training in new virtual team members properly, and ensuring their work is up to your high standards.

    And if you apply these 5 tips, you’ll be sure to whip up documentation that’s straightforward and helpful to everyone on your team!

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    Author: Melissa Ingold

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