In the past, printing was usually the method of choice, simply because most materials were paper-based and it was easier and less time-consuming to print whatever arrived by email. These days, however, the majority of communication happens electronically, often with a lot of attachments at the back of each email, so electronic filing systems have become more prevalent and are set to become the main repository of the future.
However, while it appears to be easier to stick to electronic versions and scan whatever bits of paper we still have, that is not always true, and things are not as simple as they look at this point.
Take contracts or banking details (and many other, more obscure, papers): there is a legal requirement to keep those references in their original form. Since electronic signatures are still not recognised everywhere and scanned documents are often considered copies rather than originals, a certain level of paper filing must be maintained.
My advice: keep a full electronic file and scan all documents, but mark the electronic files in some way to indicate that an original paper file is available elsewhere. This marking could be as simple as a mention of ‘COPY’ in the file name.
Take tax receipts: even though it may not be necessary to add proof to your tax return forms, you are required to keep those proofs for several years (depending where you are, please make sure you know your national or local rules). And keeping those means ‘in their original form’. That does not preclude scanning everything (if you have a bookkeeper, you’ll be likely to scan most materials anyway), but there is need to organise your receipts in a way that allows to easily recognise and track them.
My advice: take an old-fashioned glue stick and organise your receipts into normal sized pages, THEN scan them for reference. And again, mention ‘COPY’ to remind you that the originals are saved elsewhere.
Emails are tricky in themselves: most of us have an email system that allows to create structures or tags to track certain elements, and that is brilliant for simple communications. However, if an email contains information pertaining to project work (plans, quotes, estimates, calculations, or confirmations of things discussed in person), using a filing system for documents AND a secondary email filing system may just work for current projects, but tracking down information on a closed project over two electronic repositories (plus a physical paper file!) will become tedious very quickly.
Similarly, it can be difficult to find email attachments containing important data, especially if those attachments are different versions of the same thing, but with the same or very similar names.
My advice: it is imperative to keep a full electronic file of ALL pertinent information. That includes saving email attachments into the proper folders, and potentially even having a pdf copy of an email containing relevant information saved there. All in line with having a full record of any project or client business.
Don’t forget another thing: these days, information is often only referred to as downloadable links in an email. Those links could be temporary or point to a website that undergoes regular change (and therefore need downloading within a certain period of time). Add to that the information you might find online and want to refer to without having to find it again. There is a point to be made to NOT printing all of that stuff, but keeping it safely tucked away in an appropriate folder in your filing system.
I have often encountered a common issue with electronic filing: many people shy away from even starting because they fear the time and effort involved to digitise their existing files. Yes, indeed, that is a concern. However, nobody said that you have to digitise everything! You could have a cut-off date from which everything will be digital going forward! Or you could test the digital filing system with a subset of your customers going forward, and then gradually expand to include more or all customers, and then gradually scan relevant documents you need to complete the files of current customers. In any case, leave finished projects or non-current customer files alone, there is no need to digitise those just yet, until they return as customers in the future.
As with most things related to business, moving to fully digital archives takes effort, especially making sure that the files are and remain complete, and avoiding the pitfalls of scanning everything by making clear choices about what needs to be scanned. A clear naming convention is paramount, and if you are using a document management system, a useful (and simple) tagging system has to be developed. The advantages are clear, though: less hassle with papers, less need for storage space, easier access, easier exchange of information, possibility for remote working, etc.
A word of caution: just like paper files, electronic files are prone to security breaches. Where paper files have to be locked away when they are not used, the same applies to their electronic cousins. Make sure proper data security is in place, and follow the data protection procedures laid out by the ICO.
Ask the ClutterMeister
Some pertinent ideas from the 'old office dog' who has seen it all, to help clear away the mess in your office.
Sign up for FREE decluttering advice
My name is Tilo Flache and it is my mission to help my clients organise and declutter their work spaces.