As summer cools down in the US, the conversation around workers returning to the office is once again heating up.

Headlines are packed with related stories. For example, how about the coverage on 1,300 New York Times staffers threatening to strike if forced to come into the office, or writer Malcolm Gladwell’s viral insistence that working in an office is the only way “real” work gets done? The feelings around this topic certainly run the gamut.

The main questions for information professionals are slightly different. It has less to do with whether people are in the office or not, and more to do with answering the questions, ‘How will I ensure information is available for the right people at the right time and place?’ and ‘Does it make more sense to store physical records offsite to save on exorbitantly expensive real estate costs since most employees are working remotely anyway?’

This week, we’ll be talking about a three-step process for maximizing your organization’s use of its real estate to save money and make collaboration easier, regardless of whether you’re working at home, the office or elsewhere.

Step One: Audit Your Physical Records

Identifying and tracking which information is kept in which location is the most important and most time-consuming step in the assessment process, especially since much of that information is usually unstructured information.

While unstructured data usually refers to digital data, we also need to consider physical records under that umbrella since many organizations still struggle to understand exactly “what’s in the box”.

Unstructured data is data that is “stored in its native format”, which means, according to Ben Gitenstein’s article for Geekwire, “it lacks a pre-defined data model or schema and cannot be managed in a traditional relational database.” Gartner estimates that unstructured data represents an astounding 80 to 90% of all new enterprise data, and it’s growing 3X faster than structured data.

Thus, completing an inventory and updating box records of those stored in onsite storage rooms, is key to proceeding any further with success. You can’t decipher what information needs to go where until you do such a thorough audit.

As your team sorts through physical records stored onsite, it’s important to label boxes and files with as much information and metadata as you can. At the very least, ensure that you capture the file title and date ranges applicable. If possible, the record series identifier and the associated retention period will also be helpful information as you manage the information through its lifecycle.

The other steps you can take in this initial audit phase include:

Step Two: Understand Where The Records Need to Be (and get them there)

Once you have an idea of what information is stored where, the next step is to figure out where each file needs to go.

We’ve covered the three tiers of records previously on this blog, but, to recap, you should divide physical records into three different categories:

  • First-tier: Active copies/convenience copies or those kept on a person (ie in a briefcase)
  • Second-tier: Records stored in an office’s onsite records room
  • Third-tier: Records stored off-site that are seldomly, if ever, used

A fourth tier classifies records that are either past their expiry date or will reach it very shortly.

Records in this category should be handled immediately/dispositioned. That may mean physical destruction, returning them to their original owner, or transferring ownership to your archival department. For more information on this, check out our presentation on physical destruction in the digital age.

For the records you must keep either for process or compliance reasons, each should be handled slightly differently. We’ll outline these in the order you should handle them as follows:

Handling Tier 3 Records (Off-site Records)

Third-tier records might include records kept only for compliance purposes and/or might rarely be retrieved. For this reason, they are strong candidates for offsite storage. Additionally, third-tier records may take up significant space, so moving these records offsite enables gains in real estate cost savings or the space can be repurposed for new employee offices or break rooms.

Be sure to work with an information management partner that follows careful chain-of-custody processes that ensure your records are secure. That way, you can track your records from the time they leave your site right through to their place on the shelves in the records storage facility. Chain-of-custody provides an audit trail every step of the way.

Handling Tier 1 Records (On-person Records)

First-tier records (those kept on or near an employee), should be carefully monitored.

In organizations where first-tier records are leveraged regularly, you’ll want to guide your employees to start relying more on digital copies rather than physical convenience copies. If those records do need to get destroyed and that team member works off-site, you should have a process for remote secure destruction.

Handling Tier 2 Records (Onsite Records)

The second tier of records, which I chose to describe last not because they lack importance but because they warrant a bit more explanation, might be an organization’s most sensitive records.

For that reason, as well as for the purposes of real estate management and the assurance of optimal security, you want to try to reduce the amount of records stored onsite to the absolute minimum.

Reason being, it’s more difficult to keep physical onsite records safe from natural disasters, theft and prying eyes. Sensitive documents that have personally identifiable information (PII) need to be managed much more carefully to remain compliant with privacy regulations. Only authorized personnel should have access to such documents, and an access log of who viewed which documents and on what date/time should be kept for auditing purposes. Additionally, hard copy information held in a single physical location makes it difficult for remote employees to successfully accomplish tasks that require having access to that information.

As organizations re-evaluate how their real estate investment could be put to better use, they realize that office space can be better utilized to support revenue generating activities instead of just storing boxes of paper.

As you’re working to reduce the amount of records onsite, work with your IT team to develop a common digital repository, which might be cloud storage, an on-premises electronic records repository, or a controlled FTP site. That way, the right employees can gain access to the right files at the right time. As you’re having those conversations, be ready to hear counter arguments for certain files “needing” to be onsite despite not having been accessed in a year or more.

Step Three: Monitor & Adjust

Deciding what to do with your physical records will effect how well you can repurpose or divest your office real estate. In properly dispositioning records, you’ll also be making a profound impact on understanding what records your organization has and how best to use them.

As the definition of the office continues to evolve, your information management services needs will likely change along with it.

The most important element your IM program could have is flexibility. The better you can support the management of hybrid paper and digital environments together, the more resilience your organization at large will have.

For more information on how you can help your employees accelerate digitization to securely access the documents they need, anytime and from anywhere, check out our Access Unify solution.

Check Out Access Unify!