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The paperless office: how to work when you can’t push paper

15 July: With coronavirus accelerating the closure of physical offices, what is happening to the paperwork? Author and practice owner Della Hudson explores the practicalities, positives and pitfalls of the paperless office.

For a paperless office, my practice has a surprising amount of paperwork around! For many businesses, the paper habit is a very hard one to break, so let’s start with the paper which comes in through the door.

We can encourage clients or customers to email or use cloud-based apps but HMRC is one source of paper that we are unable to remove at the moment, despite the lingering threat of coronavirus. So how can you deal with incoming post while avoiding potential infection?

  • Quarantine all incoming post for a couple of days OR open it then wash your hands AND remind everybody else that touches it to wash their hands too.
  • Scan all incoming post so nobody else needs to touch the paper.
  • Encourage clients or customers to email or phone rather than write with queries.

Clients often drop off paperwork for bookkeeping or accounts production

  • Quarantine the incoming papers as this is rarely urgent. If the job must be done straight away, then sanitise the desk and computers at the end of the day or when work is complete
  • Use a client portal. These come as standard with many practice management systems, otherwise they’re fairly cheap to introduce. Encourage clients to upload their documents to their portal.
  • Encourage clients to use one of the cloud-based OCR apps. Don’t underestimate the older generation when it comes to technology. If they’re able to take a photo of their grandchildren, then they’re capable of using one of the apps on their phone to submit a photo of their invoices.
  • Where clients still want to send in their shoebox of papers, you can still scan or photograph then to upload to one of the OCR apps.
  • Encourage clients to use cloud accounting software so that you don’t need them to drop off anything for their year end accounts.

Consider whether you need a separate system to scan, save and distribute post

  • Do you need a faster scanner or one which can scan both sides of a document?
  • Do you need to keep a spare phone in the office to photograph papers?
  • Do you need a separate DMS (document management system) or are volumes low enough to use your existing practice management software or filing systems?

Sometimes, we like to print things out rather than flick between screens (I’m guilty of this!) It’s not necessarily a COVID issue but it is still best practice to minimise paper usage. This is where a second or even third screen comes in handy. Depending on what you require, screens are relatively cheap and screen sharing software now comes as standard with the main operating systems.

If you like to scribble on paperwork, then there are some simple PDF editors available to annotate your non-paper documents.

Signing final accounts traditionally required sending multiple printouts to clients who would then sign and send them back.

  • Look at introducing a client portal for post out as well as in.
  • Use one of the low-cost online signature apps.
  • Many practice management apps include online signing within their core product.

Firms which were already paperless were able to move smoothly to remote working, so you will be insulated against a second lockdown and many other crises, set up to enable more flexible working, and doing your bit for the environment.