Paperless Office? Step one - out with the old

Originally published by the Upstate Business Journal, Greenville, SC, on Jan 11, 2013

By Laura Haight

As an editor, it used to drive me crazy to walk around the newsroom and see reporters' desks overflowing with piles of paper - documents, reports, and scribbled on scraps of notebook paper. They accused me of wanting the newsroom to look like an insurance office. Not true. But periodic challenges to find a specific report or notebook among the rubble proved my true point: If you can’t find things there is no point in saving them.

Decades after the phrase was first coined, we are still struggling to have a paperless office (or lifestyle) and we are drowning in the information we generate. Born of our fear of losing something, we have doubled the junk we keep and halved our ability to find anything.

We need three things to change that:
-- A major clean up to get things to a baseline level.
-- A workflow and the digital structure to move forward.
-- A backup plan for emergencies great and small.

Cleaning up files can be a huge challenge. If your business has a shared server - whether it is local or cloud-based - you probably have a directory structure you think people are using. But most likely you have employees who have decided the server's not safe enough or not convenient enough for their files and they have created and updated copies that reside on their computer hard drive only.

Identify your critical business files - client reports, contracts, research, white papers, or proposals - wherever they may be and make sure you have the one most current copy. Separate them into current and historic/archive. Include paper files in this process. If you have the time and the horsepower, create pdfs of as many files as possible.

Divide things into active (files you need regular acess to within the next 12 months, like quarterly reports, annual reviews, etc), archive (files you rarely - if ever - need, but they are contain reference or historical information that is part of your business evolution), and trash (anything that isn’t in these two categories belongs there).

I could write a book about ways to manage your Email. But it has to start with getting down to a manageable inbox and folder system. I know this sounds like one of those things consultants tell you that sounds great, but then they go away and never have to prove it can actually be done. It can. And you can do it. Imagine how much better you would feel at the start of each day if firing up your computer didn’t bring up an Inbox of 2367 unread items?

But what you need to start with is a hard-nosed approach. Start by making one archived backup of everything in your mail. You can view a screencast of how to do this in Outlook, Apple Mail or Gmail by going here. Once you have a restorable backup, you can feel comfortable in going through these steps to do a dig-deep cleanup.

Extricating yourself from these common email traps will help clear out a big percentage of your inbox:

  • Deleted items. Most people never actually empty the deleted items folder. This is silly. It’s like throwing food in the trash but then refusing to take it outside to the curb because you never know when you might want those chicken wings. You deleted the email once and chances are you have not been digging in your trash looking for things. Cut the cord.
  • Large files with attachments. A lot of email is used to share files. Email is not the best way to do this, but we’ll put that aside for now. Outlook has several functions to help you clean up your inbox and find large attachments. Use the same criteria as for your other files - active, archive or trash.
  • Delete your sent mail. If you are like most users, you are saving a copy of every message you send. Also most people never delete those messages.
  • Unneeded and unwanted messages. Newsletters, daily briefings, email you have read and responded to, but didn’t delete. Sort your inbox by subject and make it easier to identify files to delete. For 2013, set up rules to file these kinds of files into a READ LATER folder with an automatic deletion schedule set up. And check out a pretty cool Outlook feature called Reply and Delete.
  • If you have an Exchange server for your business or utilize a hosted Exchange service online, set up mailbox quotas. Make them high enough to be reasonable, but not unlimited. Most of us do not clean out the closet until we truly run out of space.

Part Two: Setting up a digital workflow

Part Three: Planning for emergencies, great and small