Ian Keers OBE, managing director of Cave Tab explains how housing providers can move towards a ‘less paper’ office.
As the housing sector faces stricter regulatory and legal requirements, coupled with rising tenant expectations and ambitious post-Gershon efficiency targets, managing the exponential volume of paperwork is a major challenge. As a result, many organisations are so busy ensuring that their tenants’ houses are in order that their own can be woefully neglected, giving resulting in inefficiency and unnecessary operational risk.
Keeping records is a fact of life and the housing sector is no exception. Records have to be kept for many reasons and, along with IT systems, form an organisation’s ‘corporate memory’. Badly-kept records that contain vital information but are unavailable to the user render a business vulnerable to legal issues, compliance issues or simply poor decision-making.
On the other hand, good records management supports the fast, accurate filing and retrieval of important information and delivers hard and soft benefits including reduced physical storage requirements, staff productivity gains and reduced risk exposure.
More than simply filing
A record can be defined as an item of information necessary to business operations. It might well be a paper document, but is increasingly likely to be an email, a Word document or a spreadsheet or an image of a document which started out on paper and was subsequently digitised.
‘Records management’ covers the maintenance and control of all information held by a business in whatever form, while ‘filing’ refers to the more prosaic business of storing and indexing paper documents which in this day and age is only half the job.
Out with the old
If your organisation does not have a retention policy and simply stores everything forever, lack of space is likely to be an issue.
Every type of document has a lifespan or retention period and this varies according to statute and local policy. For example, financial records must be kept for seven years and personnel records for ten years after leaving date, etc. If you have not done so already, identify all the types of document in your organisation and apply a retention schedule to them. Once they have reached their retention date, you can destroy them unless you want to keep them for historical reasons.
In addition, it is generally accepted that all records have a lifecycle and that the majority of their activity is in the early stages, followed by a long period of declining or no activity. By identifying what point in this lifecycle a particular record has reached, a more informed decision can be made as to whether it should be stored in your expensive head office, moved to cheaper off-site storage, or digitised and its image put on a server and the original securely destroyed. The correct application of this type of policy will save surprising amounts of valuable office space and therefore cost.
In with the new
While the benefits are significant, with records on paper, on servers, in the office and in off-site storage, a proper records management software system is essential.
Most organisations have people who can knock up an Access database for all kinds of things, so why not this? As a rule of thumb, your records management system should be able to handle the following as a minimum:
Live paper records;
Archived paper records;
Digitised document images;
Retention management – knowing the age of your records and to report on those due for destruction;
Folders in boxes, boxes on shelves, shelf locations in warehouses, etc;
The contents of boxes;
Secure destruction of time-served documents.
Of course, like many things in life, you get what you pay for and a more specialised records management system will also manage the movement of records around the organisation, including:
The precise location of every record in real-time;
The movement history of every record, such as dates, times, locations, and who did what;
Forward requests for records from live or archive storage;
Separate volumes of the same record that may move independently.
A web-based system also provides access to authorised staff, whether they are in the office, on the move or working from home. In addition, the use of barcode and/or new generation RFID technology allows the movement of documents to be captured with little or no human intervention, reducing the risk of human error and giving staff no excuse not to use it.
A ‘less paper’ office
In reality, a truly paperless office is almost impossible to achieve. However, most organisations can achieve a ‘less paper’ office by following these seven steps:
Establish a document retention policy in accordance with statutory and compliance criteria;
Review all records against your new retention schedule;
Destroy records that are outside their retention date;
Move inactive records to cheaper archived storage;
Consider digitising some/all records;
Implement a records management software system to manage everything for you;
House the remaining active paper records in space-efficient storage with high-visibility indexing.
In so doing, organisations in the social housing sector can put their own houses in order, resulting in significantly more efficient, effective and compliant operations.
Ian Keers OBE is managing director of Cave Tab.