If you’re serious about building a business that can operate from anywhere in the world, paper won’t cut it. You need access to your entire history of administrative tasks, but hauling lever files and file boxes will add to your baggage costs considerably. The obvious solution is to go paperless, something most companies dream of but many struggle to achieve.
A good step to completely go paperless in your life is to at least digitize the administrative part: documents like incoming invoices, account statements, bank documents, tax notices, etc., which tend to arrive in paper format, but are also increasingly transmitted electronically. No matter what system you use, you need to be part of a workflow where documents and communication, whether paper or digital, flow through the same inbox, process, action, and file process.
My preferred tool for work is Gmail, which has the following distinct advantages:
- It’s free!
- The storage allocation is huge, which means it should be years before you run out of space to store your documents; in fact, it is unlikely that it will ever happen.
- It’s highly searchable, which means you can easily find what you’re looking for once it’s archived.
- It has powerful organizational components, such as tags.
- It features an ‘Inbox’, which is the cornerstone of any good workflow.
- It’s backed by one of the biggest companies on the planet, so my data feels safe.
- No need to back up or manage any servers, it’s all done for you.
- It is available all the time, anywhere in the world, from any computer connected to the Internet.
- Essentially, it’s an email system, which means getting information is a breeze.
- Email is ubiquitous and supported by many applications (such as desktop email applications).
How to set up the system
This is a step-by-step guide to deploying and running Gmail as the hub of your paperless office and administrative workflow.
1. Set up a dedicated Gmail account for your paperless workflow
If you already have a Google account, you’ll need to set up another one to have a fully dedicated Gmail account. You don’t want to mix your regular email with your administration system. Choose an address like ‘[email protected]’, although it’s not that important at this stage.
2. Set up an email redirect from an address you own
For example, if you own the domain yourcompany.com, set up an address like ‘[email protected]’ which should simply forward to the Gmail address you set up. This gives you the advantage of getting used to an email address that includes your own domain; Also, if you ever choose to use another provider instead of Gmail, you would simply change the redirect destination and continue to use the same email for your administration system.
3. Receive administrative emails in your INBOX
You’re probably already signed up for 101 different Internet services, some of which you can pay for, and most of which will send you monthly administrative-type emails that include account statements, invoices, official notices, etc. Log into all of these accounts and change the email address they use to contact you to your new INBOX address. From now on, all this distracting admin stuff will flow to your INBOX, separate from your regular everyday email.
If you’re getting admin-type emails in your regular email (and you almost certainly will, at least at first), dealing with them is easy: just forward them to your admin inbox.
4. Get your paper flowing in your INBOX
The rest of the administrative burden you receive is probably in a paper format, some of which may arrive in the mail, the rest you can pick up in person (as receipts). You’re going to need to digitize this to get it to your new Gmail admin inbox. Get a document scanner, convert all paper to PDF files and email them to your INBOX.
Because paper can be more difficult to search digitally than things that originated as email, I prefer to use a simple indexing system for all documents sent via email to the inbox; both myself and my post classifier use the following scheme:
- Paperwork is classified into different types: invoices, checks, general correspondence, receipts.
- Each batch is scanned and emailed separately. The nature of each batch is simply indicated in the ‘Subject’ of the email with: INVOICES, CHECKS, GENERAL, RECEIPTS.
- The sender, or author, of each item is listed in the body of the email. So, for example, for a batch of invoices from multiple vendors, the email body would simply appear as:
Nothing else besides the PDF attachment goes in the email.
This indexing framework means the file is easily searchable using Google tools to find anything you might be looking for, for example ‘invoice provider A’ will return a list of emails containing invoices from Provider A. As they will be arranged chronologically, it should be easy to find what you need. The advantage of using Gmail is that the search function is extremely powerful, and by using advanced syntax, you can always pinpoint the items you need.
5. Designate a time to process the INBOX
Now that all of your administration, both digital and paper, lands in your INBOX and stays out of your way, you should be able to get on with your business. However, you will of course need to periodically process the contents of the INBOX, just as you would a stack of physical mail. Instead of doing this continuously, it’s better to do it in batches. Designate a weekly space to process your INBOX and follow this procedure:
- Open each item and take the appropriate action, ie record invoices, expenses and payments, act on any notification and reply to any letter.
- Once processed, hit ‘Archive’, which takes the email out of the inbox and into a folder called ‘All Mail’.
- Repeat until your INBOX is empty.
6. Use your archived email to search for any documents you need to reference
Now that your admin is well archived in Gmail instead of folders and files, you have access to it anywhere, anytime. If you need to get a trade show receipt from last year, just log into your Gmail account and search for ‘receipt trade show’ and voila!