10 ways managers can help their staff use Microsoft Word

Without a little guidance, your employees may be barely getting by when they use Word.

Organizations using Word often install it and forget it. Their employees are using it, but not always as efficiently as they could be. If you manage employees who are using Word, you have a responsibility to see that everyone is working to their potential. Here are 10 tips that can help.

1: No, everybody can't do it!

You might think that because Word is just word processing software, that anybody can launch it and start working. That's somewhat true, but an inexperienced user will only get so far. Users need time to learn and explore the program's advanced features. Generating a table, changing the page-numbering scheme, dropping in graphics, or handling complex printing tasks might be too much to expect. Proper training will produce efficient and productive users. Don't assume they know what they're doing.

2: Install an efficient configuration

Often, the individuals installing Word have little or no knowledge of how the end users actually use Word. They install an out-of-the box configuration or one that's not particularly useful to users. As a result, users must customize Word as they go (if they even know how). Encourage your IS staff to determine how your staff members interact with Word so they can configure the most efficient installation from the get-go.

3: Get everybody on the same page

It's frustrating when knowledgeable users create a document correctly and then someone messes it up. Do your employees know how to use styles to handle indents and white space between paragraphs? Are all of them properly handling any necessary custom formatting by setting up sections? Do they know not to separate paragraphs by pressing [Enter] multiple times? Do they know not to type literal values in the header for page numbers?

If you have several employees using Word, adopt conventions so they're all on the same page. Once you do, your department will generate consistent documents anyone can edit. Once you have a set of conventions, create templates and styles that put those conventions to work (#5 and #6).

4: Speak the same language

You don't have to be a Word expert to manage folks who use Word, but knowing how to express your department's needs in terms you all understand will go a long way toward finding the most efficient solutions. You (and users) should be familiar with the following terms:

  • Template: A specially structured file (.dot) that stores custom instructions and formats. Your users might depend on several templates. Don't ask for a template when what you really want is a fill-in form or a block of reusable text.
  • Section: A document's foundation. Every document has at least one section. Each section supports custom header and footer information and page orientation, among other things. A section is not the same thing as a page; the term page is relatively unimportant in Word documents. Pages don't have headers, footers, page numbers; sections do.
  • Macro: VBA procedures that automate Word features and custom tasks. Most users will need some training to use macros efficiently.

5: Implement time-saving templates

Proper implementation of templates will help your employees streamline their tasks. Unfortunately, templates are underused. They contain custom document details, such as layout, font, page numbering, margins, and so on. Instead of having to change the default settings for each new document, users can open a template. For instance, if you want every document to display the department name and page number in the document's footer, create a template with those attributes. Your organization might benefit from several templates.

6: Use styles

If templates are underused, styles are downright ignored. Users complain that they "don't work right." (You can blame that on Word; they can be a bit mysterious.) Simply put, styles store multiple formats. Using styles, you can apply several formats at once and ensure that users apply the same formats consistently from document to document. Templates and styles together will make your users more efficient and productive.

7: Use similar folder structure and filenames

Users sometimes spend too much time trying to find files. Usually, that's due to a lack of organization. If they save files to a network, there's probably a reasonable folder structure already in place. Devise a few guidelines for using it. Users saving files to their local system should all use a similar folder structure. Along the same lines, users should be using a similar file-naming convention. Files will be easier for everyone to find, not just the author, who might not be available when quick changes are required.

8: Keep up

Microsoft releases Office upgrades often -- most of us would say too often. It's expensive and can be disruptive to your group. Nevertheless, you will have to decide when your organization should upgrade. First, ask yourself if the upgrade has a new feature that will increase productivity. If not, it's fine to skip a version, or even two. However, if your users rely on a lot of automation, don't skip more than one version.

You'll also want to ensure that employees are installing updates (service packs) as they're available. Not doing so can generate some strange problems that are usually difficult to troubleshoot.

9: Know when to get help

Your staff members are probably innovative and eager folks, but that doesn't make them Word developers. You might have one or two who are up to the challenge. They'll try hard, but Word development is a specialized skill. In the long run, hiring an independent contractor to work with your users might be a good cost-effective choice.

Don't hesitate to consider a Word MVP (most valuable professional). MVPs have Microsoft's stamp of approval, so you can feel confident hiring one. Make sure any potential contractor will work with a clean system -- one running the same version of your operating system, the same version(s) of Word, the browsers your users prefer, and your custom configurations.

10: Specify unique usernames

Often, IT assigns a generic string or uses "admin" for a username when setting up new machines, and no one changes this value. If that's the case, Word can't correctly track changes by user. Fortunately, it's an easy change to make:

  • Word 2010 -- Click the File tab and choose Options (under Help). Choose General in the left pane (if necessary). Under Personalize Your Copy Of Microsoft Office, enter a username and initials.
  • Word 2007 -- Click the Office button and then click Word Options. Choose General in the left pane (if necessary). Under Personalize Your Copy Of Microsoft Office, enter a username and initials.
  • Word 2003 -- From the Tools menu, choose Options. Then, select User Information.

Thanks to Martin Messick, IS manager at Honda Aircraft Company, for sharing some of his thoughts on managing Word users.

More help for Word users


Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.


There are very, very few users where I work who understand Word like I do. Even people who get elbows deep into long, heavily structured documents still don't get intermediate-level skills and too many are in the habit of leaving empty paragraph marks scattered around. We've got templates and I've even done demos but I get a lot of "fix it" or "pretty it up" or just plain "do this for me" requests. And as much as I'd like to see a sea change in users getting adept at the concepts listed here, I don't think I will, and it'll only get worse soon because we're jumping from Office 2003 to Office 2010.


Don't forget the need for good old basic document structure training. All users should know how to set and use tabs, tables, columns and paragraph line spacing. Too many users just use the space bar or preset tabs to try to line things up. The result can be disastrous if it gets imported to another document or printed with a different printer.

sissy sue
sissy sue

Good post, Susan! This isn't quite what you were getting at in Point #4, but organizations should give some thought to language when sharing documents internationally. There is little as annoying as receiving a document that was originally set up with German as the default and then, when it is translated into English and distributed to an English-speaking community (sometimes Read-Only), every word is underlined as a mispelling.


If tip #1 is not done, everything else is worthless. Regrettably, tip #6 is a death-trap. Since several people rarely thing alike, styles end up "getting in the way." Pity, Microsoft really botched Word with that mechanism. WordPerfect had and has a so much more intuitive way.


Well, that kind of sounds like job security to me -- having a skill that everyone else lacks I mean. :) I think you'd see change if management wanted it. I don't think it's mandatory by any means, but I think users are more productive and take ownership of their projects when they have the skills to do so. Everyone wins. Of course, the org needs are important too -- if you're writing occasional letters, memos, and a short report here and there, you don't need the more advanced skills. I wouldn't push an org into more than they needed.


Okay, I'm not sure what the right direction would be, but could you disable the spelling option for these documents? This could just be added to a short checklist of things to do when translating. I'm probably totally missing the boat on this one.


Styles work well if used consistently. That's the key. You provide a template that has the styles the org uses -- and that's that. If you're going to let users who don't really know what they're doing mess around with that decision, you're right -- it falls apart quickly.


I do not see how training and stern lectures can make users stop basing a new document on a similar old one, and force them to start using templates and styles. Even when you pay significant bucks to a skilled pro (with a BA attached to the team to help map organizational needs), the resulting templates and styles will still lack the useful boilerplate found in that similar document you saved last month. And it'll still be easier for users to open up that old document than to try to remember the template and style training they had a year ago.


I suppose if that's working for everyone, it's Okay. On the other hand, if the original document everyone's using had been based on a template, you could just update the template. If they're consistently using templates and styles, they won't forget them. And as the template is updated, everyone benefits.

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