How to go paperless with your accounting firm

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Musician Frank Zapper once said “it isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.”

Paperwork is everywhere, and we’re drowning in it. According to a survey by printer company Kyocera, the average UK office worker prints 6,000 sheets of paper per year, of which a shocking 3,720 sheets end up as waste. When more than half of the paper used is eventually thrown away, it may be time to try something new and more efficient.

Many accounting firms are ditching paper documents in favour of establishing a paperless office. Instead of cabinets overflowing with unorganised and potentially sensitive documents, accountants are opting for the safe, structured filing cabinet that is their computer. The lack of organisation makes finding specific documents a long-winded task that accountants just don’t have the time for.

The paper business is folding

“We need to work smarter, not longer,” says Paul Miller, Director at Cornish Accounting Solutions. Miller has been in the accounting profession since 1983 and has watched as the world has transitioned from hard copies to virtual copies. “When I started, everything was done on paper and by post, but technology has advanced and we need to become more efficient. One of the biggest efficiencies we can make is to use software to store and access all of our documents in one place.”

The software that Paul uses at Cornish Accounting Solutions is Reckon’s Virtual Cabinet, a program that helps organisations conveniently store all paperwork, invoices and documents. The real value of applications like Virtual Cabinet is to make finding specific documents much easier.

“Every document we send or receive is logged away in one space, and we can search for it whenever we need it,” Miller explains. “The system picks up on names and things like ‘tax return’, so finding the right document is quick and easy.”

Going paperless

While specialist management systems like Virtual Cabinet have their place, there are simpler, cheaper ways to go paperless. Accountants and bookkeepers are already familiar with Word and Excel, but Google’s own document and spreadsheet solutions are quickly emerging as a popular rival. Google Drive enables teams to work collaboratively within spreadsheets wherever they are, and all changes are tracked and logged so mistakes can easily be reversed.

As well as improving the efficiency of operations, management systems can save accounting firms a great deal of money in the long-run. In the average office, the cost of using paper (printing, storing, etc) can range from 13 – 31 times the cost of the paper itself. A typical four-drawer cabinet can hold up to 20,000 sheets of paper. All that paper would cost roughly £19,000 to buy, and the cabinet would cost £1,500 to maintain yearly. When over half of the paper in many offices is waste, creating and storing physical documents is a costly, futile act.

There is also the added benefit of protecting the planet. By reducing the amount of paper used, accounting firms help to reduce the number of trees that are cut down for the purpose of making paper. More trees means a cleaner atmosphere, and a more sustainable future.

Data security

Following the WannaCry ransomware attacks that hit NHS hospitals in May, many accountants are more worried about the security of their data than ever before. Going paperless may seem to open the gate for cyber hackers, but Shaun Mary, partner for Lovewell Blake, disagrees.

“How can you ensure that your one paper copy will be safe when it is subject to the frailties of paper?” he asks. Lovewell Blake are currently transitioning towards becoming entirely paperless, and find storing documents online to be a much safer arrangement. “Keeping documents electronically opens the door to electronic backup, offsite replication and the type of data resilience that simply isn’t possible with paper files.”

Transitioning towards success

Paperless offices may seem like an efficiency dream, but it’s a dream not everyone can easily share it. On their paperless journeys, both Miller and Mary found their only real barrier to be older clients.

“Older clients still prefer physical copies,” Miller explains. “They’ve always dealt with physical documentation, whereas younger clients have grown up in the digital world. They’re used to clicking boxes, terms and conditions, using email. Older clients are not so keen, so you’ve got to pick your battles.”

Mary suggests improved communication between accounting firms and their clients could break the barrier of uncertainty: “You can’t underestimate the cultural issues of changing the way of working. Without communication people see barriers to change that either aren’t there or were exactly the same before the change.”

If approached effectively moving towards paperless offices could be a great step for accounting firms. The time and money saved can be better invested into expanding or improving services, and a more efficient system creates both happier clients and happier accountants.

Sophie Jardine is an editorial assistant at Flibl. She writes, researches and reports stories about finance and technology.

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