Navigating a Necessary Evil

Nobody likes paperwork, but there are ways to make it manageable.

Illustration by Tony Healey

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


 

Probably the only people who love paperwork are paper manufacturers. Most business owners detest it; professionals like attorneys and accountants get swamped by it; and trees certainly don’t like it.

Even the federal government passed the Paperwork Reduction Act, back in 1995. Of course, being the federal government, it’s 22 pages of small type, but at least the thought is there.

Nevertheless, entrepreneurs have to understand the obligations and benefits of managing paperwork efficiently. This means everything from completing, filing and maintaining all necessary business forms, permits, licenses and so on to compiling every last business-related receipt — and keeping them all in an organized, accessible system.

Let’s start with organization. One massive file for “business documents” is a clear path to migraine land. For both electronic and paper documents, multiple files for various categories (i.e., receipts, licenses, personnel, taxes, insurance, etc.) saves time, aggravation and actually money.

Many required forms and documents are completed online these days. This saves time and trees, but can cause people to forget to save copies. Documents that must be downloaded to fill out are easily assigned to the appropriate files. However, any time you complete an online application, form or filing, it is imperative to save a copy before submitting it. In some instances, you may have the option to have a copy emailed to you. In a worst-case scenario, print the document before hitting “submit.”

Whatever the document may be, if it is lost on the other end, the burden of proof is almost always going to fall on you. This is especially true with government-required forms, and unless your trust in government is absolute, it is wise to cover your tail.

One paperwork category that often gets messy quickly is receipts. Yet there is every incentive to make this a top priority, because virtually every receipt is potentially a tax-reducer. Again, one overstuffed “receipts” folder will cause severe headaches, and your accountant is going to double his/her fee the second you walk in with it.

All expenses, from payroll to supplies, utilities to professional services, should be catalogued and records meticulously kept. This is even more vital if you work from home, because in many instances, certain regular everyday expenses may be partially deductible.

An often-overlooked paperwork category is personnel records. Be fully aware of all federal and state requirements related to employees; these range from unemployment insurance to immigration forms. In addition, all businesses should develop and maintain employee handbooks (and have employees sign forms indicating that they have read them), performance reviews, vacation and sick leave logs, and so on. Employment is highly regulated and, unfortunately, increasingly litigious, and your records are an important protection for your business.

Managing paperwork storage is also vital. All electronic files should be maintained at least in duplicate. While many businesses rely on the Cloud these days, backing up vital documents to a flash drive is still a good practice. In addition to being more accessible and replicable when engaging professional services, they may be easier to locate in an emergency.

Businesses should also have a document retention policy, informed by legal requirements such as mandates relating to tax records, licensing requirements, etc. And when the time comes to empty one of those filing cabinets, recycling the paper can help save a few of those poor old trees.

Finally, businesses should have emergency plans relating to documents. This was again emphasized by Hurricane Ida, which severely damaged many businesses. Entrepreneurs must know what paper files, as well as electronic backup devices, they need to safeguard ahead of such disasters. Ideally, remote storage of duplicates of all important paperwork should be a standard practice, as this protects against other disasters such as fires and flash flooding.

There’s no denying that paperwork is a pain – but paperwork mismanagement leads to even greater pain, increased expenses and possible governmental and legal consequences. Think of it this way: Organizing and maintaining your paperwork efficiently is at least a Pain Reduction Act.