If you’re serious about setting up a business that can run from anywhere in the world, paper just won’t hack it. You need access to your entire history of administrative bumf, but carting around lever-arch files and archive boxes is going to seriously increase your baggage costs. The obvious solution is to go paperless – something that most businesses dream of, but many struggle to make a reality.

A good step on the way to ridding your life completely of paper, is to at least digitise the administrative part – documents like incoming bills, statements, bank documents, tax notifications etc., which tend to arrive in paper format, but are also increasingly transmitted electronically. Whatever system you use, it should form part of a workflow where documents and communication, whether paper or digital, flow through the same process of inbox, processing, action and archiving.

My preferred tool for the job is Gmail, which has the following distinct advantages:

  1. It’s free!
  2. The storage allowance is massive, which means it should be years before you run out of space to store your documents; in fact, its unlikely to ever happen.
  3. It’s highly searchable, which means you can easily find what you are looking for once its archived.
  4. It has powerful organisational components, like labels.
  5. It features an ‘Inbox’, which is the cornerstone of any good workflow.
  6. It’s backed by one of the biggest companies on the planet, so my data feels safe.
  7. No need to back up or administrate any servers, it’s all done for you.
  8. It’s available all the time, anywhere in the world, from any internet connected computer.
  9. Essentially, it’s an email system, which means getting information into it is very easy.
  10. Email is ubiquitous and compatible with so many applications (like desktop email apps).

How to set up the system

Here’s a step by step guide to implementing and running Gmail as the centre of your paperless office and administrative workflow.

1. Set up a dedicated Gmail account for your paperless workflow

If you’ve already got a Google account, you’re going to need to set up another one in order to have a fully dedicated Gmail account. You don’t want to mix your regular email with your admin 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 have set up. This gives you the advantage of getting used to an email address that includes your own domain; plus, should you ever choose to use another provider instead of Gmail, you would just change the target of the redirect and go on using the same email for your admin system.

3. Get administrative email flowing into your INBOX

You’re probably already signed up to 101 different internet services, some of which you may pay for, and most of which will send you monthly administrative-type emails including statements, bills, official notifications etc. Go into all of these accounts and change the email address that they use to contact you to your new INBOX address. From now on, all of this distracting administrative stuff will flow into your INBOX, separate from your regular, every-day email.

If you do happen to get any 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 into your INBOX

The rest of the administrative load you receive is probably in paper format, some of which may arrive by post, the rest you might collect in person (like receipts). Your going to need to digitise this to get it into your new Gmail admin INBOX. Get yourself a document scanner, turn all paper into PDFs and email them into your INBOX.

Because paper can be harder to search digitally than stuff that originated as email, I prefer to use a simple indexing system for all paperwork emailed into the INBOX – both myself and my post sorter use the following scheme:

  1. Paperwork is sorted into different types: invoices, cheques, general correspondence, receipts.
  2. Each batch is scanned and emailed separately. The nature of each batch is indicated simply in the ‘Subject’ of the email with: INVOICES, CHEQUES, GENERAL, RECEIPTS.
  3. The sender, or originator, of each item is detailed in the body of the email. So, for example, for a batch of invoices from various suppliers, the body of the email would simply appear as:

Supplier A

Supplier B

Supplier C

Nothing else apart from the PDF attachment goes in the email.

This indexing framework means the archive can be easily searched using Google’s tools to find whatever item you might be looking for, e.g., ‘invoice supplier A’, will return a list of emails containing invoices from Supplier A. As they will be ordered chronologically, it should be easy to find what you need. The advantage of using Gmail is that the search functionality is extremely powerful and using advanced syntax you can always precisely pinpoint your required items.

5. Designate a time for processing the INBOX

Now that all your admin – both digital and paper – is landing in your INBOX and keeping out of your way, you should be able to get on with running your business. However, you will of course need to periodically process the contents of the INBOX, just as you would a pile of physical mail. Rather than doing this on a continued basis, it’s best to batch it. Designate a weekly slot to process your INBOX and follow this procedure:

  1. Open each item and take the appropriate action, i.e., record invoices, expenses and payments, action any notifications and reply to any letters.
  2. Once processed, hit ‘Archive’, which takes the email out of the inbox and places it in a folder called ‘All Mail’.
  3. Repeat until your INBOX is clear.

6. Use your archived mail to search for any documents you need to reference

Now that your admin is being nicely archived in Gmail instead of folders and files, you’ve got access to it wherever and whenever you are. Should you need to pull up a receipt from last year’s trade show, just go into your Gmail account and search for ‘receipt trade show’ and you’re done!

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