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So, your research office wants to go paperless. Maybe you want to cut back on paper files to save money or trees. Or maybe your paper load is starting to compromise the integrity of your filing cabinets (or even your building—it can happen!). Switching to an electronic system can be a daunting task for any office, but with the time-tested tips below, your team can ease the transition to an all-digital office.

  1. Get in the right mindset

Many people treat paper as a security blanket and fear that getting rid of paper files will mean becoming disorganized or losing documents. On top of that, if you’re used to physically interacting with the files on your desk, keeping track of electronic documents feels just plain weird, at first. But remember: Things get lost in both the paper and electronic shuffle. So as long as you’ve got organizational systems in place before going paperless, you’ll be no more in danger of disorganization than you are now.

  1. Map out your workflows

Though it takes a few months to get used to paperless processing, one of the best things you can do to prepare is to get a workflow management system in place. There are many methods you can use, whether it’s a full-featured software solution like Cayuse SP or 424, or something simpler, like an Excel spreadsheet. If you have a system in place to track where everything is in the process, everyone will be able to take a quick look to see where their files are (since they’ll no longer be cluttering up the desks).

  1. Keep things consistent

Just like your department has rules for naming and storing paper files, you should take the time to establish the same types of conventions for your electronic file naming before making the switch. Also, make sure you stress to your staff how important it is to follow the conventions. A small step, but it will go a long way towards keeping your system well-organized and preventing confusion and misplaced documents.

  1. Write everything down (and then teach it)

For everything from file naming to updated workflows, it is important to have a written set of standard operating procedures that are easy for employees to refer back to. But writing things down will only get you halfway there. Proper training is crucial. You’ll not only want to train staff on your office’s new business practices, but also on software. In addition to any new research software you may be using, it’s also worth training your staff on old standards. For example, many people don’t know how to get the most out of Adobe Reader or Microsoft Word, so it can be helpful to offer a refresher on tasks like extracting documents and using forms.

  1. Come up with a retention policy

Your existing policies for record retention and preparing for audits must also be reevaluated when you go paperless. The department will need to decide whether records will only be retained electronically or in both the electronic and paper forms.  In either case, there are different policies for different records (some will still require paper, regardless of your office’s paperless policy). Don’t forget to dictate a policy to continually purge electronic and/or paper files, so they don’t begin to pile up in cabinets or on your servers.

  1. Tackle your legacy documents

Before going paperless, your team will need to decide what to do with legacy documents—the aging files you’ve been retaining in case of audits. Institutions usually go electronic to leave paper completely behind, and many do the same with their legacy documents as well. This process takes longer because documents need to be scanned to electronic files, but in the end, you’ll have much less bulk. (Pro tip: Your digital retention files are still subject to audit, so you’ll need to invest in a good scanner—or better yet, two—for backup.)

  1. Communicate

As with any major change, communication is key. Talk not only to staff in the central office but to stakeholders in other departments who are involved in the research process. It’s especially important to notify and remind every one of the date after which the office will no longer use paper documents, so everyone can make arrangements.

Once your institution’s plan is in place, you’ll be able to rest a little easier knowing that you’ve readied your research department to go digital. There will always be growing pains, but you’d be surprised how soon everyone will get used to—if not prefer—having less clutter and spending far less money on ink and paper.

What are some challenges you’ve faced while going digital? Leave a comment below!