Guide

How your firm can go paperless

You can't eliminate all paper from your office. But you can reduce the amount your firm uses – while also saving money.

An accounting office using digital files instead of paper

Less paper means more efficiency

It's unrealistic to try to eliminate every sheet of paper from your office. There will always be some paperwork – to and from clients, creditors, suppliers and partners.

But by reducing the amount of paper you use, you can improve the efficiency of your firm. Digital documents are easier to store, manage, search, and process. That lets your employees spend more time working, and less time shuffling paper.

You can go paperless by scanning your existing paperwork. Then you can convert it to digital documents and file it for future use. A data capture tool like Hubdoc makes it easy for clients to upload bills and receipts using their desktop, mobile device, email or scanner – giving you access to the documents you need, when you need them.

That's not something you can do in a day though. Making your internal systems paperless requires careful planning, dedication and staff buy-in. Michael McCook of AccountabilityNet tells us how they achieved it.

Six compelling reasons to go paperless

Accounting firms can generate a lot of paper. Unfortunately that can make space an issue and daily business operations difficult. Some of the problems include:

  • Storage: Up to 25 percent of your firm's office space could be used for storage of paper documents. That's a big overhead and it may prevent you taking on more employees.
  • Productivity: It’s hard to find the right piece of paper in a pile containing thousands of others. Locating the right document can take a lot of time. A digital document archive with a powerful search function will greatly improve staff productivity.
  • Waste: You may be keeping two or three copies of some documents. They may all be filed in different places for different reasons. Going paperless reduces this duplication and waste and is environmentally friendly.
  • Appearance: An office cluttered with papers and stacks of files doesn't look like a professional working environment. Visitors – including clients – won’t be impressed.
  • Focus: A disorganised desk covered in paper can prevent employees from thinking in a clear, logical and focused way.
  • Printing expenses: Last, and by no means least, is the cost of paper, ink, printers and other associated expenses. These can be significant, even for a small firm.

The three big challenges of going paperless

Before you go paperless, you need to overcome three main challenges.

1. Resistance from employees

Some of your employees won't want to change the way they work. They may say, "This is the way we've always done it." But that's not a good reason to continue doing the same old thing. Don't try to push your people to make the change – they may resent you for it. Explain the benefits of going paperless. Ask for their input and suggestions. Then agree a schedule that gives them plenty of time to adapt to the new way of working.

2. The sheer volume of papers to digitise can be daunting

Whether you choose to scan all your paperwork in-house or ask a specialist firm to do it, there's a lot to do. Document scanning takes time, especially digging through old files and removing staples. Don't underestimate the time and effort involved. It's important to do a good job – when all your documents are scanned and filed, life will be much easier for you and your employees.

3. The expense deters many firms

Document scanning and destruction companies charge for their services. But even if you do the work in-house you'll need to buy or hire a fast scanner. You'll also need to allow time for your people to learn how to use it. And then there’s the amount of time taken to actually do the work. But the payoff can be enormous. Once all your documents are digital, you'll wonder how you worked any other way.

Finding a strategy that works for your firm

Each firm is different. Only you can decide on a strategy for going paperless that works for you. Here are some ideas to help you take the big step.

  • Set a date: Consult with your partners and employees and set a date to go paperless. Add it to the calendar and make sure everyone knows about it. This will help concentrate their minds.
  • Use the cloud: Don't store your scanned documents on a hard drive or USB stick. Keep them safe using online storage. Services like Dropbox, Box, SharePoint and Google Drive will handle data storage for you.
  • Set up a logical file structure: Try not to dump every file into the same folder. It’s more useful to set up folders for each year or each client.
  • Take care with metadata: Metadata is the information or keywords that you use to describe each scanned document. A professional scanning company may do this for you. If you do the work yourself, make sure every document has relevant metadata. This will help your employees find what they're looking for when they search the archive.
  • Scan what you need: It might be tempting to scan everything. In some cases, this might be sensible so you know your archive is complete. But if you have files going back 20 years for dozens of clients, that may not be the best approach. Instead you could start with what you need, then fill in the gaps as you go along. You could begin by digitising all papers for the current year or two. Plus you could scan every paper document that’s retrieved from storage.
  • Avoid duplication where you can: It's not always easy to tell whether two documents are identical. But if you know for sure that they are, don't waste time scanning both.
  • Allow for a productivity dip: While all this work is going on, there will inevitably be an impact on your firm's productivity. Try to arrange it so you go paperless during a quiet work period. Don't attempt it at year end! Where possible, hire temporary staff to help you manage the extra workload.
  • Train your employees to use the new system: The better you train your people, the more they'll get out of your new digital document archive. It will be much easier for them to find the information they need. Help them get to grips with the new systems and workflows, and you'll see great results.

Going paperless is an ongoing job

Once you eliminate most of the paper from your office, your firm will be more organized and efficient. But it won't be long before more paper arrives – so make sure you keep on top of it.

You could set aside one afternoon a week to scan and file new documents. Encourage all your clients and business associates to send you electronic documents instead of paper. Many will be glad to go paperless themselves.

An office without paper will give your firm a competitive edge. So take the time to plan your strategy carefully, and reap the rewards of going paperless.

Disclaimer: Xero does not provide accounting, tax, business or legal advice. This guide has been provided for information purposes only. You should consult your own professional advisors for advice directly relating to your business or before taking action in relation to any of the provided content.

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