Before the financial crash, property experts were fond of saying that investing in property was as good as making money in your sleep. Today, times are tougher, and sleeping itself won’t earn you much – but you can be open for business even when the office is closed. Here are five ways to turn downtime into productive time.

  1.  Open a website

There’s no better way to extend your opening hours than putting together a website. It’s now easier than ever: you won’t have to become a technology whiz, in fact creating your first website should be a fun process of picking templates and colour schemes, and adding your branding and some enticing words. You can get started completely free of charge with Office Live.

If you sell products or run a shop, you can augment your site with the ability to take online transactions (Paypal, WorldPay and Nochex are popular services; your bank may already offer an online payment system too).

  1.  Be in the office when you’re not

You can still look after your customers when you’re tucked up on the sofa – and there’s no need for them to be any the wiser!

  • With a simple broadband connection, you can of course send traditional emails.
  • Then, be available in real-time for chat with Windows Live Messenger.
  • You can access your documents online with Windows SkyDrive.
  • And now even edit Office documents (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) through nothing more than an internet browser. It’s called Office Web Apps.
  1.  Manage your money

Almost every manager in a small business is over-stretched, and ends up taking jobs home. If you find yourself writing out invoices at midnight, you’re not alone – controlling the finances ends up at the bottom of the ‘To-Do’ list for thousands of stressed-out owner-managers across the nation.

Let Excel come to the rescue – not only does Excel include easy templates for invoices, receipts and lots more everyday documents, it can now help you with forecasting and sales predictions, thanks to visually stunning tools like Sparklines. Oh, and of course there’s an Excel Mobile, too.

  1.  Cut out the commute

Whilst there’s sometimes no substitute for face-to-face meetings, many journeys for business could be avoided altogether. Indeed, many small business owners working from home travel just because they can’t invite clients back to a house full of children, pets and squeaky toys.

You can cut your travel commitments, and the environmental cost into the bargain, by conducting meetings online. Office Live Meeting gives you web conferencing, full audio, shared desktop, a whiteboard and even real-time video; everything you need to have a discussion or get a presentation across without actually being there.

  1.  Email Your Customers

Microsoft’s Business Contact Manager (BCM) will ensure that every contact with your customers is meaningful – it will even prompt you to call up clients when it’s time to further each relationship.

However, if you don’t have BCM, you can still keep in touch with groups of customers using the ‘Distribution Lists’ function built into Outlook. A distribution list is like a pot of email addresses which you can refer to as a group – ‘People who bought homewares’, for example. Add individuals to a distribution list, and you can email them all easily, directly from Outlook itself.

If you have Outlook on your home PC, there’s no reason you can’t send an email to your customers in the evening – it’s actually quite a good time to send. Your email will be read either by customers at home (when they’re receptive to non-work-based marketing) or first thing in the morning (when they switch on their PCs at work).