Paperless practice: Embracing electronic processes
The “second wave” of paperless practice is less about the space- and money-saving aspects of electronic document management and more about the efficiency and client service improvements it can deliver. John Stokdyk explores the implications for managing internal workflows.
Saving space and money are both important benefits of going paperless, and will often justify the investment and transitional challengesin their own right. But those practitioners who have made the move in recent years have found that working electronically introduces a new internal culture
This article looks a bit more closely at how paperless technology can affect the way work is handled within the firm - for example when being passed from accounts department to tax department, or when multiple people are working on the same client files at the same time.
The firms that have prospered most from the second wave of paperless benefits are those that have embraced the workflow elements within many document management systems.
Workflow tools are increasingly common within practice management programs, and even come as standard controls and commands within the Microsoft programming environment. Workflows can set up alerts, assign tasks and route files as they are scanned or actioned to the people who need to view or work on them next.
As they are scanned, the workflow can be programmed to ask for documents to be indexed to the relevant clients so they are readily available for anyone looking at that client’s electronic file. An information copy can be earmarked for the partner to review, while a senior or manager might be alerted about the document “for action”.
While obviously more efficient than circulating paper copies, this kind of automation can be disruptive to office procedures and people who have grown used to them. But experienced paperless practitioners explain that these hurdles can be overcome, as long as you consult with staff, explain the benefits they will enjoy from using the system and back your claims up with adequate training and support.
“A system like this has to be trusted by staff so that they actually save time using it - rather than double-checking everything it does and so taking longer than they did when they just used paper! “ says Charles Verrier, the convenor of AccountingWEB’s document management discussion group.
The key for success, adds Glover Stansbury partner, 2020 Group technology director and paperless guide author Kevin Salter, is to make sure everybody does things in same way. Consultation and training make this possible -for example by taking on board staff suggests for laying out the software screens and ways for doing things - and making them aware of new features as they are added.
One of Salter’s tips for the paperless practice manager is to “be nosey” - ask how people are getting on with the system, look at files in their drawers and what is coming out of the printer.
Some people will still hanker after the old ways, but continuing conversations around the software system and processes is a way of making people aware of how they could be doing tasks in different ways that will ultimately make their work easier, Salter says.
Workflow in action
At Glover Stansbury, for example, the underlying file structure did not change with the introduction of paperless systems. It is still based on a file hierarchy for each client, with 11 separate service folders (personal tax, VAT, payroll and so on) and subfolders for computations, returns, correspondence and so on.
“From a practical point of view, the more you categorise it, the easier it is to find,” says Salter. Retaining continuity with the existing file system helped smooth the transition, but he adds, “It’s always difficult to find client info for someone who does things slightly different than you.”
Using standardised Excel-based templates means that most of the accounts working papers at the firm are paperless, and any paper-based information (vehicle additions and so on) is scanned and either embedded into the Excel file or saved as a PDF. Reports from clients’ accounting packages and other programs are printed to PDF and stored within the same file structure. Where there are still paper based workings, these are scanned at the end of the job.
The Glover Stansbury team uses PDF annotating software to write comments on these electronic files in the same way they would if they were writing on paper versions.
For more advice from Kevin Salter, consult his free Practical Guide to the Paperless Office.
Charles Verrier points out that while this unified “case management” approach is common in other sectors (law firms, for example), it has taken time to gain ground within accountancy. Until now, individual departments have tended to the select software that best suits their needs (the so called “best of breed” option) rather than looking at the internal workflows as a whole and linking the different functional units with an integrated practice-wide system.
But standardisation and the growing awareness of the potential of electronic collaboration processes is breaking down resistance. People within accountancy firms are growing used to completing electronic calendars and timesheets and sharing documents with each other across the office network - and increasingly with remote team members.
As explained in the article on the client service benefits of adopting a paperless approach, the net can be widened to clients using a secure online portal to store and exchange documents with clients. Each client is assigned their own password-protected area on the portal, where they can retrieve their returns and copies of important reference documents at any time, from any online location.
Instead of emailing draft documents to the client, they can be published to the client portal for retrieval. For anyone with an eye on data security, this approach is much more secure than email, and can help to reinforce the practice’s compliance with the Data Protection Act, says Verrier. It can also speed up delivery of the clients’ accounts and tax records at the end of the year.
Paperless technology is a tool for boosting efficiency that repays your investment in a number of ways. Many practitioners will have considered some of the options set out in this article, and will appreciated that the “second wave” benefits do demand a higher commitment of both time and money. It is hoped that the advice and examples offered here will give those hanging back a renewed curiosity about what is possible.
For a more detailed examination of these issues, download Charles Verrier's whitepaper for CCH, 'Realising the next wave of benefits'.