Take a look around: Are you surrounded by chaos and disarray? Do you know what comprises the towering mountain of papers sitting on the left side of your desk (and all over the floor)? Or can you flip past these next few pages, proudly stating that your paperwork is in order?
Your office can quickly become a warehouse for manuals, contracts, and work orders if you don’t have a process in place to organize, store, and reference these documents. Managing this information is an important part of managing your facilities; it can trim turnaround time, ensure compliance, improve productivity, shrink costs, and preserve business continuity (and your sanity).
More than Just Paper
“It’s not really so much about managing paper; it’s about managing information in whatever form that happens to take,” explains John Mancini, president at Silver Spring, MD-based AIIM-The Enterprise content Management Association. “Now that it’s a very mixed blend of technologies, it’s an even bigger problem than it once was. People have always struggled with the question of, ‘How do I manage this stuff in a way that’s more intelligent, more accessible, more secure, and more cost effective?’ ”
Information is everywhere and exists in every possible format. To make things even more baffling, information decentralization is becoming common as documents are kept on individual PCs and portable devices, and in e-mail inboxes.
“The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure’s e-discovery rules have changed recently; they basically put the responsibility of managing electronically stored information on the same footing as management of paper-based information,” says Mancini. He notes that 80 percent of the information surrounding a business process is unstructured electronic information (e-mail, Word and Excel files, JPEGs, architectural drawings, etc.). “These are things that aren’t necessarily defining contractual documents, but that show the context by which a decision was made. And, this information, in most organizations, is the Wild, Wild West.” Make it a priority to get your department’s information under control, regardless of the format in which it exists.
The Price of Being Disorganized
“The biggest fear would always be a lost document,” says Gregory Carbone, assistant vice president at a full-service corporate real estate organization in Pennsylvania. “When you’re talking about a lost original-signature copy of something (anything), it can turn into a big deal.” For example, Carbone makes sure that his organization saves relevant documents to exceed the existing statute of limitations in terms of how long a claim should be kept. So, if something does come up (example: someone falls in front of his building due to snow and ice, and reports it 6 months later), he’ll be able to reference the maintenance measures taken and the person responsible for snow removal that day. If he couldn’t find that information, he may be faced with a legal dilemma. In a court case, if you can’t find a document (or can’t prove that it has integrity), the other side of the case gains an advantage.
Disasters of any kind (natural or manmade) can also play into fears of losing important documents. “We’ve seen lost documentation associated with businesses in a disaster, and they aren’t able to recover,” says Mancini.
Wasted time is another incentive for making sure your documents are well organized. “You only have so many hours of the day, so many minutes, and so many seconds; to spend 45 minutes trying to locate a document is significant time away from your core duties,” says Carbone. After all, if confusion reigns, who’s really in charge - you or your documents? The bottom line: It shouldn’t take you 10 or 15 minutes (or longer) to find a document if it could take only 2 or 3 minutes with the right system in place.
You want to make the most of your time at work (and stay out of legal trouble), so you need to get paperwork under control. Where do you start? There are three decisions you need to make before you proceed.
Decision #1: To Keep or Not to Keep?
The issue that many facilities professionals face is the fact that you can’t keep everything. If you do, you’ll be bogged down by information that isn’t important. Depending on your organization’s primary business, HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley, SEC, local/state government, organizational standards, compliance guidelines, and internal retention policies should all be investigated when settling on what you’ll keep and what you won’t. Documents that serve as evidence of a transaction or activity need to be saved. Vital records (records that can’t be recreated or found anywhere else) should also be saved.
Mancini breaks the facilities manager’s “keep” pile down into two buckets of information. “The first bucket is the stuff that you need to keep because you’re legally required to keep it. The second bucket is the stuff that you need around to provide the context by which you reached a decision. Usually, there’s the document that states what the decision was (a lease, a contract, etc.). But, there’s usually a lot of other stuff that goes along with the document that led up to that point.” You’ll also want to keep any other paperwork that might be imperative later (emergency plans, equipment manuals/instructions, etc.).
Decision #2: Storage Time?
Once you’ve decided what to keep, it’s a good idea to formulate a retention schedule to clarify how long you plan to keep these items. “Twenty years ago, I kept every document. But, time has taught me that I only need what I think might be useful to put together a business case or to prove something historically. In the past, ‘history’ could have meant documentation up to 10 years old. We move faster now; our budgeting and purchasing process has changed so much that even 5 years of history isn’t always useful,” says Jean Sayles-Jacobson, facilities and space management supervisor at Omaha Public Power District in Omaha, NE.
While some documents already have a retention schedule associated with them (tax information, for example), you’ll want to solicit advice from your team for some of the less-obvious documents. Make a list and write down how long records should be kept. Now’s also a good time to think about how records should be disposed of once they’re no longer necessary (very few records are actually “permanent,” so they’ll need to be dealt with at some point).
Preservation periods can be driven by length of time or by an event (the completion of a project or the replacement of a piece of equipment). When you’re done, run your list past your legal department or your organization’s attorney to make sure you’re protected.
Decision #3: Paper or Paperless Management (or Both)?
Hard copy vs. electronic copy: It’s a never-ending debate with no right or wrong answer, so you won’t find the silver bullet here. What you will find is the information you need to decide how you want to proceed. The first thing you should do is establish criteria (see On Paper or Online?, above) to determine whether your department’s documents should exist in paper or electronic form. Finding out where the majority of your paperwork falls may help you choose between storing documents electronically or in hard-copy format.
Paper is tangible - you can touch it, see it, and you know it’s there. That has kept a lot of facilities managers from pursuing electronic document management. Most facilities professionals have some sort of hard-copy filing system that they’re used to, regardless of how it’s organized; it can be hard to break that practice if it hasn’t caused major problems in the past.
One benefit of having hard copies around: There’s discussion about whether or not scanned copies of documents are legally recognized as “originals” due to the possibility of modification. “Four years ago, when we first decided to go electronic, we asked our attorney if electronic files were going to be okay. We were told ‘yes,’ but to still keep hard copies of legal documents just in case,” says Ellen Darling, executive vice president at Kansas City, MO-based Zimmer Real Estate Services LC. For the most part, Mancini indicates, scanned images and copies of documents produced during the normal course of business are just as valid as original documents. But, there have been instances where real documents were needed.
When used correctly, however, a paperless document-management system helps mechanize the flow of work throughout your department and offers a way to unify the location of information. Managing documents electronically can make it easy to see which version of a document is the newest, provide a central storage location for all documents, and eliminate multiple copies of the same document floating around.
“Over the past couple of years, we’ve migrated to, more or less, a paperless office (it’s never going to be totally paperless). It’s helped a lot in terms of not only workflow, but the amount of space required to store the documents we have,” explains Lauri Greenblatt, president at San Diego-based Promus Management. “The decision was the result of a combination of factors: space constraints, advances in technology that made it easier to scan documents and put them onto a network drive, and response to client requests. A number of our clients indicated that they would prefer to receive monthly reports and narratives in an electronic format (though we still accommodate those who prefer the old technology).”
If you decide to go the paperless route, the software choices are infinite; chances are good that you’ll find what you’re looking for once you narrow in on what you need. To be most effective, you may want to consider these options:
- Powerful search, indexing, or querying tools to help find documents by keyword or content.
- Ease of use and minimization of “clicks” necessary to get to what you need.
- Automatic management of time- or event-driven retention periods (the system knows how long to keep documents, can calculate destruction dates, etc.).
- Creation of disposition reports, including destruction certificates (which may be important for certain records).
- Security levels that allow only specific employees to view certain documents or to add/delete documents.
- Immediate access to a specific page within a document without having to navigate through countless electronic files.
Convenience is one reason why managing documents electronically is gaining in prevalence. “What’s great is the fact that you don’t have to jump up from your desk and run to get a file. If I’m sitting here and a tenant calls, I can look up accounting records, paid bills, invoices, lease documents, management contracts - all of that - from my desk,” says Darling. The time associated with finding a paper document vs. finding an electronic document often motivates facilities professionals to make the switch. Another advantage: Instead of dragging paperwork around to different properties or different parts of the building when you’re out in the field, you can pull up your documents via a laptop or Palm Pilot.
Communication (both internal and external) is oftentimes easier with an electronic document-management system as well. “Electronic communications have really been beneficial for us when a property first goes on the market. There’s a lot of pressure to get all of the documents out to different people (prospective buyers, brokers, and prospective lenders) quickly. If the documents are all scanned, it becomes a matter of sending an e-mail with the relevant information,” says Greenblatt.
But, don’t be tricked into thinking that an electronic document-management system will solve all of your paperwork problems. If you don’t have the right software, haven’t trained your staff to use it, don’t update/maintain the records it contains, or ensure that your department is using it properly, managing documents electronically is no better than having rooms full of overflowing filing cabinets. A great illustration: If not done automatically as part of your software package, storing documents electronically can make it easy to forget about retention and destruction schedules. “With the size of hard drives and the ability to archive so many electronic documents on DVD, it’s easy to envision keeping every document you’ve ever worked with. You could end up keeping these documents and never disposing of them. At some point, you probably would have to in order to free up some space, but it’s not as much of an issue to keep track of as it is when you’re keeping the hard copies,” says Greenblatt. And, as Darling has experienced, electronic document management can cause duplication of effort if not everyone is using the same system (or if people keep their own records for themselves and don’t share them).
Electronic document management doesn’t make losing information in the event of a disaster foolproof, either. “You have to make sure that you have redundancy, and you’ve got to make sure that you’re backing things up in a location that’s away from where you’re actually doing business,” says Mancini.
Right now, the trend in document management seems to be using both hard copies and electronic document management. Mixing the two can mean the best of both worlds - the ease of use that comes along with an electronic system, but the security that comes with keeping hard copies. “We use a combination of electronic and hard-copy documentation. With time, we have arrived at a hybrid because it works,” says Sayles-Jacobson.
Mancini notes that he is seeing more and more “hybrid” workplaces as well. “It’s the reality of the world that we’re going to be in for the foreseeable future - a hybrid world with both paper and digital assets (certainly much more digital than paper over the long term, but hybrid nonetheless).”
The way most organizations make use of fusing hard copies and electronic documents is by keeping important records (those with signatures) at an off-site location or in a designated area as a back-up in case anything happens to the electronic system, out of legal obligation, or to comply with disaster-recovery policies. Those same records are also kept in an electronic system, but are scanned and stored as searchable files, and act as the designated copy for people within the organization to access. “An online archive of every communication that comes in and out of our department exists. Paper is still there, but it’s more of a back-up as opposed to the long-term plan,” says Carbone.
Smart Ways to Get Started
Once you’ve made those three crucial decisions (what to keep, how long to keep it, and in what format it should be kept), it’s time to tie up some loose ends.
Maintain a top-down approach to managing your documents - don’t implement a program until you’ve developed a plan and mapped out policies and requirements. It’s a good idea to examine where and how paperwork enters your department. Track how things move (every inter-department exchange, every revision, every extra copy made) and make an effort to understand where documents are coming from and where they end up. As a result, you may be able to identify unnecessary work or processes. “You have to look at it from almost a Six Sigma standpoint. Which redundant steps can you eliminate?” emphasizes Carbone.
Sit down with team members to observe how they currently use these documents and what they reference them for most often. Also, take note of any information that isn’t currently being shared as part of the document-management process (information being kept on PCs, for example). Does that information need to be made available to everyone? During these discussions, take the time to chat with personnel in other internal departments (accounting, human resources, etc.). How are they managing their documents? Do they already have a system in place that might work for you?
You’re probably going to do best by launching a new method gradually. “Take baby steps,” advises Greenblatt. “What are the documents that you touch the most? What do you need access to? Are there members of the team who are in remote locations and need to be able to access certain documents? Try starting with just [one type of document] and see if having it filed electronically is enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile. If that works well, start [going] through your system, one document type at a time. If your experiment works, set a firm cut-off date [for going] paperless (or as close to paperless as you possibly can be).”
Mancini recommends looking at the areas within your department where lack of document access and speed of retrieval are causing problems. “That’s usually a good place to start in terms of thinking about how to apply these technologies; they’re the places where you can gain some quick productivity enhancements and wins to keep the ball moving forward. Go after the places that are being the most disrupted by the mishandling of information.”
Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine.