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How to Use Gmail for a Paperless Administration Workflow
If you’re serious about starting a business from anywhere in the world, paper won’t cut it. You want access to the entire history of your administrative bumf, but carting around lever-arch files and archive boxes will seriously add to the cost of your belongings. The obvious solution is to go paperless – something most businesses dream of, but many struggle to make a reality.
A good step towards making your life completely paper-free is at least the administrative part – incoming bills, statements, bank documents, tax notices, etc. Digitization of documents, such as those that come in paper form, is also on the rise. transmitted electronically. Whatever system you use, it should become part of a workflow where documents and communications, whether paper or digital, flow through the same process of inbox, processing, action and archiving.
My preferred tool for work is Gmail, which has the following distinct advantages:
- It’s free!
- The storage allowance is huge, meaning it will be years before you run out of space to store your documents; In fact, it is unlikely to ever happen.
- It’s highly searchable, meaning you can easily find what you’re looking for once it’s archived.
- It has powerful organizational elements like labels.
- It features an ‘Inbox’, which is the cornerstone of any good workflow.
- It’s backed by one of the biggest companies on earth, so my data feels safe.
- No need to back up or administer any servers, it’s all done for you.
- It is available all the time, anywhere in the world, from any computer connected to the Internet.
- Essentially, it’s an email system, which means it’s very easy to get information into it.
- Email is ubiquitous and compatible with many applications (such as desktop email apps).
How to set up the system
Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting Gmail up and running as the center of your paperless office and administrative workflow.
1. Set up a dedicated Gmail account for your paperless workflow
If you already have a Google account, you’ll need to set up another one to have a fully dedicated Gmail account. You don’t want to mix your regular emails with your administrative system. Choose an address like ‘email@example.com’, although it’s not that important at this point.
2. Set up an email redirect from an address you own
For example, if you own yourcompany.com domain, set an address like ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ that should be forwarded to the Gmail address you set. This gives you the advantage of getting used to an email address that includes your own domain; Also, if you choose to use another provider instead of Gmail, you simply change the target of the redirect and continue to use the same email for your admin system.
3. Get administrative emails in your inbox
You’re probably already signed up to 101 different internet services, some of which you can pay for, and most of which will send you monthly administrative-type emails with statements, bills, official notices, etc. Go to all these accounts and change them. The email address they use to contact you at your new inbox address. From now on, all this distracting administrative stuff will be in your INBOX separate from your regular, everyday email.
If you get any admin-type emails in your regular email (and you almost certainly will, at least at first), dealing with them is easy – just forward them to your admin inbox.
4. Stream your paper to your INBOX
The rest of the administrative burden you receive is probably in paper form, some of which may come in the mail, the rest you can collect in person (such as invoices). You’ll need to digitize it to get it to your new Gmail admin inbox. Get yourself a document scanner, convert all documents to PDF and email them to your INBOX.
Because paper can be harder to find digitally than stuff that originates as e-mail, I prefer to use a simple indexing system for all paperwork emailed into the INBOX – both myself and my post sorter use the following scheme:
- Paperwork is classified into different types: Receipts, Checks, General Correspondence, Receipts.
- Each batch is scanned and emailed separately. The format of each batch is simply indicated in the ‘Subject’ of the email with: INVOICES, CHEQUES, GENERAL, RECEIPTS.
- The sender, or originator, of each item is detailed in the body of the email. So, for example, for a batch of invoices from various suppliers, the body of the email would simply look like this:
Nothing else goes into the email other than the PDF attachment.
This indexing framework means that the archive can be easily searched using Google’s tools to find anything you’re looking for, eg ‘invoice supplier A’, will return a list of emails containing invoices from supplier A. They’ll be ordered chronologically, so it should be easy to find what you want. The advantage of using Gmail is that the search functionality is extremely powerful and using advanced syntax you can always pinpoint exactly what you need.
5. Set a time to process the inbox
Now that all your admin – both digital and paper – is landing in your INBOX and out of your way, you should be able to get on with your business. However, we have to process the contents of the INBOX from time to time, just as we pile up physical mail. Rather than doing this on a continuous basis, it is better to do it in batches. Designate a weekly slot to process your inbox and follow this process:
- Open each item and take appropriate action, ie, record receipts, expenses and payments, act on any suggestions and reply to any letters.
- After processing, press ‘Archive’, which takes the email out of the inbox and into a folder called ‘All Mail’.
- Repeat until your inbox is clear.
6. Use your archived mail to find any documents you need to reference
Now that your admin is neatly stored in Gmail instead of folders and files, you’ve got access to it wherever and whenever you are. If you want to retrieve a receipt from last year’s trade show, just go to your Gmail account and search for ‘Receipt Trade Show’ and you’re done!
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