Are You Buried in Paper?
by Tamara Martfeld
In every office I have worked there has been an abundance of paper. Some paper is for current work, but much has been for files rarely accessed or documentation kept in case it is needed later – not necessarily part of the file system.
I have been able to solve most of my paper problems with effective use of technology and regular maintenance.
Many of us have experience tossing a paper only to have it requested by the boss about a week after it can no longer be retrieved. Our experience gives us a legitimate concern regarding tossing anything. In other cases the documents, manuals, or information needs to be kept due to potential audits, possible future legal actions, public information requests (government agencies), or just plain back-up for why current systems exist.
I solved the problem by scanning most of my documents so that they could be saved in PDF format. In my case the only format available with scanning is PDF, but other systems may offer other options. I then verified that every page of the document was present (scanners will sometimes grab two pages or scan in a strange manner), made sure it was saved in at least two places to be safe, then recycled or shredded the original document. The PDF files are arranged in folders which make sense to me for retrieval. Once the project was complete I burned the files onto a CD. I now have 10 CDs of documents instead of file drawers and binders full of paper. I labeled the CDs by number and then did screen prints of the files in the file tree (what I call the system of folders and sub-folders you see in Explore – I don’t know the official name) to show me where documents exist. I keep this as an index in the front of my CD holder. I refer to this set of CDs as my library.
In addition to the CDs I keep an active library file on my computer to add any new files as they become available. When there are enough changes I simply burn another set of CDs or a supplemental CD with only the new documents. As with anything on a computer, make sure there is a back-up.
You may have noticed that I scanned most of my documents instead of all of my documents. I felt some of my documents needed to be kept due to it being an original document with an original signature or other similar potentially legal documents. You will need to use your judgment and whatever legal guidelines exist for your material to determine what might need to be kept in paper format. Scanning it might be a good idea just to have a copy in your electronic files, but you may need to keep the paper instead of tossing it.
You might wonder why old manuals need to be kept. I know of two reasons: 1) in my office auditors want to see the manual in place at the time some of our documents were created so that they can verify that written procedures were followed, and 2) I have several times taken an old procedure and used it as a base for a new procedure for a similar process.
For current files I want long-term I save them electronically as soon as I can and then add them to the active library. I now ask for items electronically when possible so that I do not have to scan as much. I have noticed that I can retrieve information much more quickly from the CDs or current library file. As a result I have files in formats other than PDF within my library.
Another action I take to help with paper files, especially those kept for the short-term, is go through them twice a year. I use my New Year Days for this – January 1 for the calendar year and July 1 for the Fiscal Year. I make sure I at least review the names of the folders and go through at least one which is likely to contain items which can be tossed. Time sometimes dictates that only the minimal can be done, but even this little bit helps keep the paper under control. Ideally I go through each active folder. Because I have most items on CD there are not that many active folders. I also go through my non-library electronic folders at the same time. I will usually use any spare time during the new year month to work on getting rid of old files I know I no longer need. On Fridays I quickly go through any e-mails, files, etc. from the week and toss what is not needed. Normally it takes about ten minutes and it keeps the junk from accumulating.
What I have described is for personal files at work and the same method can be used for most home files. An office can use the same process, but I would instead make the files read-only in a shared directory instead of having everything only on CDs and having one person in charge of keeping it up-to-date. A CD or other back-up is recommended.
It does take some time to scan the documents and get everything set up, but the freedom from the paper is worth it.
I hope you have a wonderful month. Until next time….