Rachel Snee takes a fresh look at the paper based aspects of business administration, and suggests that the best way to build an efficient system is to understand the basics, and then use your personality as the building blocks.
Paperwork. “What an exciting subject”, and what a strange thing for a consultancy to be writing about on its website! But it is something we all have to deal with everyday. Whether we are receiving it or creating it the supply is endless.
We may have entered the electronic age but the promised paperless office is still largely a myth, in fact most people have just as much paperwork now as before the arrival of the personal computer, if not more.
The simple truth is that a business can not be efficient unless it deals with its paperwork efficiently. But how you deal with it is down to personality.
Perhaps you are hoarder, collecting paper in comforting piles or, maybe you only keep what is essential, ruthlessly weeding out everything else for a quick trip to the shredder.
Natural approach delivers
I always advise that the best approach to working with paper is the approach that feels most natural to you. When people complain about paper-based systems it’s often because they been working within the confines of a system that has been devised by someone else and it doesn’t suit their natural style.
The key to devising an administrative system that feels natural to you is abandoning the years of rules and processes that other people have forced on to us and discovering what actually is our natural way of working. You have to start to think again about how we do the administrative tasks we have learnt to hate, so that we can relearn how to make them work for us.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Paper Flow and Paper Fear
Let’s just take a step back and consider how we think about paperwork and try to remove the negativity we feel about it.
Dealing with the paperwork is never the purpose of anybody’s role, it doesn’t generate ideas, do anything or control anybody, it plays a peripheral role, which should help to get the real job done and objectives achieved.
Think of the paper you deal with as an aid to help you get paid on time, to know the right information and to communicate your ideas effectively.
Now let’s take a look at methods you can adopt straight away to get you more organised.
I have always been naturally excited by the arrival of the post each morning and can’t wait to see what the delivery has brought. Other people can quite happily wait to open the post.
Whatever your natural style it is important to have a routine for the post. Open your mail in one place and immediately think of a home for each item. It might be an action tray, bring forward system, file or the shredder.
Wherever it is that piece of paper needs a home.
If you have no time to deal with it there and then, make sure you put it somewhere that you know you have to go back to, by a set time.
Most of us have a natural dislike of filing, which is why we always give it to the most junior member of the team, which consequently is why they also learn to dislike it.
The strength of a filing system is not measured by its ability to store, but by how efficiency information can be retrieved from it. It is for the information that you will need, but can’t be constantly carrying with you.
Put simply filing is all about giving everything an appropriate home.
Think of putting paper away as like putting your clothes away. You wouldn’t hang your socks up in the wardrobe as they belong in a drawer. Similarly, all paper has a rightful home.
Paper needs to be in the right place so that you, and possibly others, can find it when the occasion arises. Here are a few tips to help you…
Think before you file. Only file what you will definitely need again. Getting rid of unnecessary paper reduces your filing pile without doing any filing – amazing
- Do a bit of filing each day – try to avoid having a filing pile at all, then it can’t build up
- Your filing system should be sensible and logical. Could someone else put things in the right place or go quickly to the right place?
- Check your files are fit for the purpose, the right size and strength to hold what you need to store.
- File neatly. If you take care when creating a file then when you return to it, not only will it be more pleasant to look at, but you will find the information you need faster.
Otherwise known as “In-Tray” but “Action Tray” sounds like you might actually do something with the contents. If you don’t have an action tray, get one!
Keep it on your desk as a reminder of things to do, and prioritise its contents regularly, and if need be subdivide it into categories,
- This week
- Next week.
Ideally, you would have a “to do” list that would mirror the action in your tray. Electronic task lists such as ‘Tasks’ in Microsoft Outlook are excellent for managing your workload as you can assign deadlines, slot them into categories, sort them, re-prioritise them and best of all, tick them off when you’ve done.
Keep a ‘Current’ File
If you travel around with work quite a lot then your in-tray, like you, needs to be mobile.
Try keeping things you’re working on at the moment in a “Current File” such as a ring binder that keeps everything together and allows you to quickly flick through what you have to do.
If you carry a briefcase then make sure your papers are sorted in some order, such as in paper wallets or plastic files, to keep things separate, in order and easy to find, with the most urgent on top.
Bring Forward System
Every well-trained secretary knows, you can’t live without a bring forward system, that enables you to temporarily file papers away until the day they are needed. Rather than living in a subject home they have a date-related one instead.
We can all learn a few tricks from the days when every manager had their own secretary. Now that personal computers allow us all to be our own secretary we need to think ahead as to what will be needed on each day and every meeting.
The type of system you operate will depend upon what feels natural for you and your routine.
Use a weekly system divided by indexes marked with each day of the week. Simply slot your future actions or meeting notes into Monday, Tuesday, so that each day of your week is taken care of.
A monthly bring forward system can be as simple as using file dividers numbered 1 to 31 for each day of the month.
Some offices are moving towards a ‘paperless environment’ where everything is electronic. For others who are still swamped with paper (the majority of us, surely?).
We need to be sensible about what we decide to print off. Whilst working on the paper version can appear to be far simpler, working on the paper version will actually mean either you having to do the job twice, or two people being involved in a job that one could have done on screen. If you don’t really need to refer to a hard copy again then why create it in the first place.
The only justification is that working on the paper version fits with your natural style.
As long as you back up your computer and save your files properly, then I promise you that your electronic file will still be there.
Do you keep all your personal paperwork “just in case” or would you not know where to find your mortgage reference number to save your life? I must confess to having a tendency to hoard personal paperwork like old credit card bills from years ago which begs the question why?
The trick to adopt is that before you get your hands on any paperwork at all, brainstorm what you will need now or in the future.
Have clear in your mind what you want to keep and what you don’t. If in doubt ask the person who sent it, whether you are likely to need it again.
It is quite possible that they have stored a copy of it and you only received a copy for information. This will help you to be ruthless: if you don’t need it, don’t keep it. You don’t have to keep pieces of paper just because they have some useful information on them.
If you think you might need an account number and a telephone number again, then you could make a note of them in your contact system or on a separate piece of paper called “useful numbers” then shred the original. This might save you from keeping endless paperwork. The fewer papers you have, the easier it is to find what you’re looking for.
We should not allow others to define what is an efficient system for us, but should devise and review our systems so that they always compliment our natural personalities.
The reality for everybody is that we live and work in a state of constant change, so once we have found a system that works that works for us, we should always be reassessing it in light of both big and small changes, to ensure that they always feel natural.”