With our iPhones or Droids, iPads or Surface tablets, it would seem the whole world has given up paper. Of course, you only have to take a cursory look at people walking in a major central business district, or getting on an airplane or in an office elevator and you quickly see that the world isn’t yet paperless. I remember well and without any fondness the days when I felt like this…
As a young lawyer, and then national commercial real estate broker, it often felt like you couldn’t leave any document behind without risking a major screw up. Whether it was driving to the office or catching a flight, being layered down with loads of documents, magazines, newspapers and binders was the proof you were on your game.
When Rising Realty Partners was formed in early 2011, our senior management team decided to make our use of technology a major focus for building our firm. We all had seen the use of technology take off with the many different businesses outside of the real estate professionals we knew. As a broker, I represented Earthlink and other technology companies; as a real estate developer, we work with architects and designers. These industries have gone “all in” on technology. But the world of old time real estate seemed stuck in the power ties and bulky brief cases of the ’80’s and ’90’s.
Our team put our heads together to try to understand why our industry was so far behind the very businesses who are our tenants. At the end of last year and through this year, our firm has become committed to really being paperless. While everyone once in a while paper may creep into our world, I am proud to say that as we head to the end of the 3rd Quarter of 2012, were are a PAPERLESS Company. Now, to be fair, there may be some piles of paper around the office (we hope just executable leases or purchase and sale agreements), but our firm has taken on the mentality of a paperless office, and at the same time, as a totally surprising benefit, we have dropped our use of email dramatically.
I thought it might be of interest to give an outline of how we have done it. It wasn’t that hard, but it does take a willingness to break old habits and experiment with what works best for you. Here is how Rising Realty Partners got rid of the paper and stopped the email deluge:
1) Commitment: This is the most difficult aspect of going paperless and moving away from email. We all learned with pencils and paper. How many times do (or did) we say, “I just like the feel of the paper in my hands”. My response is: “I’m sure people felt that way about the feel of a buggy whip vs. turning a key”. Just to put things in perspective, there are almost 80 million people in the Millennial generation, there are approximately 45 million Gen Xers. If you start with the oldest of the Gen Xers, they grew up on “Pong”, Atari and the Apple II. For most, computers were on their desks early in their business careers and email via the blackberry became the badge of honor as they grew into leadership positions. It’s almost too obvious to lay out the argument for those born after 1980, Millennials have known nothing other than multi tasking gadgets, ebooks and video counsels. My 3-year old boy can find movies and games on an iPad but can’t use a toilet. As with anything in life — exercising every day, getting enough sleep, etc., if you want to become paperless, you have to commit. Trust me, the rewards are there.
2) Couple pieces of equipment:
a) you need a smart phone – A phone is no longer just a phone, it’s a very small and very fast computer. Anything you can do on a tablet, you can do on a smart phone. Rising Realty Partners is a committed Apple company, we use iPhones (http://store.apple.com/us/browse/home/shop_iphone/family/iphone/iphone4s). This is a personal choice and not worth starting a discussion on what type of phone, just make it a smart phone;
b) you need either an iPad or a computer – We love the the 11″ MacBook Air (http://store.apple.com/us/browse/home/shop_mac/family/macbook_air/select), or a tablet – obviously the new iPad (http://store.apple.com/us/buy/home/shop_ipad/family/ipad/new_ipad) is our favorite. While I use both, some people prefer the extra capabilities of the MacBook Air and use that;
c) Scanner – I don’t even see snail mail anymore. When the personal note, brochure or invoice hits my office, our assistant puts it straight in the scanner. We like the Fujitsu Scan Snap (http://www.fujitsu.com/us/services/computing/peripherals/scanners/scansnap/scansnap-s1500m.html) and we also have scanning capability on our larger copier (remnant of old thinking, and a long term contract), Xerox WorkCentre 7525 (http://www.office.xerox.com/multifunction-printer/color-multifunction/workcentre-7545-7556/miss-enus.html).
FOCUS ON HOW YOU WORK EACH DAY:
Before I dive into the software applications that make being paperless a reality, I think its important to focus on how one addresses their work.
The Big Files:
As a young lawyer, it was drilled into me that organization and file keeping was of the highest priority. I had a big bank of files that were outside my office. This was the “nothing gets thrown out” mentality. Not only could it not be thrown out, it all must be organized and accessible should it ever be needed. As it piled up (a badge of honor that showed you were maturing in the business world), you might even have to start storing the older stuff off-site.
The Working Files or Brief Case:
I then had files in my office, these were my working files…active lease or purchase and sale negotiations, any charitable organization information I was involved with, all my business ideas. These too were alphabetized and filed. Finally, some, if not most of these, working files found their way into one of two or three briefcases I kept at my office or my house. Let’s not forget the piles of papers neatly (or sometimes not neatly) around my office for things that were too hot to even put away for a day. Lastly, there was the treasured “In Box” and “Out Box” that sat at the top of desk.
Once these habits get ingrained, they are hard to change. Yet, with an absolute straight face, I can honestly say that I really only need my iPhone most days. This is possible because I have abandoned one theme of this thinking and embraced more fully the other.
1) Give up the alphabetized file storage mentality;and
2) think Big Files and Working Files (or Briefcase).
Improvement of Search Functions in Software Applications: With the continued improvement in chip speed and algorythims, the search capabilities of software storage applications no longer requires a hierarchical file storage mentality. This is a hard habit to break, but if you name your documents and files simply and specifically enough, you can just store your stuff in big “bucket” files. For instance, I have Personal, Rising Realty Partners, Chandler School, Loyola High School, and Duke University. This hits the major areas. I use to just have one big Charitable bucket but found myself “thinking ’80’s” and that these three separate charitable activities were consuming a lot of time and many documents. As I improve and suppress my initial inclination to think in the “folder to sub folder to sub folder” world, I plan to switch back to just one Charitable bucket. It’s easy, just recreate the master Charitable file and drag the three sub folders into that and forget if it isn’t exactly how it should be if I were opening a file cabinet. Use the search function!
Keep “everything” but have what you are working on at your Fingertips: I continually view my software storage applications as the Big Files and the Brief Case. I have great comfort that I will not lose files and can store them in their buckets. However, when you throw things into some big buckets, you don’t necessarily have them at your fingertips the moment you need them. You may not have internet access, you may have labeled a few things too similarly and that forces you to open a couple documents to get to the right one. It really isn’t much different than the Big File cabinets that used to be outside my office. Therefore, we use two types of storage software applications.
3) Storage Software Applications (the “Cloud”):
We have found the key piece to the puzzle for being paperless is having access to your documents no matter where you are:
a) Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) – For our Big Files, we use Dropbox. We love the ability to share documents across our company and with people we do business with. We try to take care to make the document titles easy to understand and we avoid the law firm tactic of giving letters and numbers as titles. The search functions make it easy to find things. I must admit, I still find myself trapped in the thinking that I have to find a Big File, then a subcategory and then a subcategory and then a subcategory…but I am getting better at just going to the search bar and typing in something I think is close. I should also note there are some similar good Cloud storage companies out there, including Box.net. We started with Dropbox and we like to be loyal and not constantly force our people to use new software. We insist that our vendors share files via Dropbox. It is a terrific product that keeps improving.
b) Evernote (www.evernote.com) – For my Working Files (or as I also call it, for my Briefcase), I love Evernote. I remember the days of reading newspaper articles and tearing out ones I wanted to keep. I remember filling my brief case with market reports and industry newsletters. Oh did I love the airline flight when I could go through a whole briefcase of paper and rip up everything I didn’t need and at the end, have a pile of paper that I could give to the flight attendant. That was a sense of accomplishment (and what a pain it was for the flight attendant). I literally think of my Evernote as my briefcase. It means that things don’t stay in there forever, but it has everything I am working on at my fingertips. The clipping aspect is also great. I can scan the web and clip things to read for later. I have two files that I sync for offline work: a) my In-Box and my Reading File. My In-Box is the default file where I can email anything I want to Evernote. It is where all the paper mail goes when our assistant scans it in and it is syncs so that if I am without an internet connection, I can still read what’s there. My Reading file is for all those things that I know I need to read (the airplane briefcase full of paper) and it is also accessible offline. I should note that just like my old briefcase, I need to clean Evernote out every few weeks or it defeats the purpose. Time goes by, deals die and if you aren’t diligent than it loses its effectiveness. Like a full briefcase that doesn’t get emptied often (you should be familiar with this line of thought from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”). Therefore, I tend to email documents to both Dropbox and Evernote so that when I’m done with an Evernote Note, I can just delete it.
4) Dropping the Email InBox:
While our venture toward a paperless world has been quite a positive change, there has been an even more important change for our company. Our drifting away from email as our primary form of team communication has radically improved our efficiency and effectiveness. This would not have been possible if we didn’t move away from paper and toward the Cloud storage environment. As with most things, our move away from email came out of frustration and a screw up. The frustration was collective, the screw up mine. I had become a disciple of Getting Things Done and obsessive about having an empty email inbox each end of day. I was getting very good about getting any email I needed to deal with to my Evernote InBox and deleting those I didn’t. Of course, I assumed that if I did that, I could just continue to delete my email trash. Yes, the one email, the only accurate version of one document, was on my computer (and cloud) (the sent email was from someone on another side) and I deleted it from my inbox and my Trash (including my cloud Trash). I of course was mad at myself but also mad that I couldn’t go through an email chain to find out who was owed what and when. I lost all the back and forth discussion on our side as we forwarded and cc’d each other with document attached to the first received email. Unfortunately, the email came to me first and I didn’t forward it to the team so no one else had the document.
This experience lead to team discussions about how futile email had become. You could email a task, request (sometimes an explicit order) to anyone, anywhere and other than the subsequent email chain, there was no way to keep track of who was doing what and when it would be complete. We started a search for the best team task tracking software. There are many out there and they all have their pluses and minuses. We wanted something that would have the backing to grow but was not so rigid that it couldn’t adapt to where our world was heading. Also, we wanted something that had the start up mentality (i.e.: used things like Dropbox, Evernote, Google email, etc) because those services were either free or didn’t cost much. We settled on and love working with Asana.
a) Asana (www.asana.com) – This is the company founded by Dustin Moscovitz (Facebook Founder) and Justin Rosenstein (Google). The most common phrase in our company now is “are you living in Asana”. All of our vendors now work with Asana if they work with us. Asana is designed for privacy and to allow guests limited access fully controlled by our company. It has dramatically dropped the use of email within our team and with our vendors. It allows you to assign, monitor, discuss and update tasks. It has improved from having comments to tasks (which would have been the email exchanges back and forth) emailed to you. Now, Asana has its own “Inbox” within Asana so that you can track, in real time, everything going on within the company. It is an evolving and improving task management software that is fully web based. Whether it has been their addition of subtasks (the most major break through for our effectiveness) or their new and improved mobile app, it feels like a company that understands the issues of our company, mainly, we have multiple offices and a constant need to understand what each member of our team is doing. It also makes job evaluation pretty obvious come bonus time. Everyone knows if you did what you were assigned. I personally like that it forces you to break down large tasks to very specific sub tasks. It makes doing your job very simple.
5) The Mobile Working Meeting:
Another issue that our going paperless has allowed us to address is how to have an effective team meeting from multiple locations. We all know how conference calls work – you call in from wherever you are and what do you get: a) if you are on the road, there is the constant “please hit the mute button, it’s too loud”; b) if someone is at their desk, you hear the peck of the key board; c) if you’re on the box, three people are checking their smart phone for emails. We felt we had to find something that would make it as close to an “in person meeting” as possible. The easy answer, and it seems, most common today, is Skype. We have used it and we’ve used Apple’s iChat. We think we have found something better.
a) Fuzebox (www.fuzebox.com) – Fuzebox puts the video of Skype with ability to share your screen or show presentations. It has similarities to GoTo Meeting and other similar software. We find it easy to use and very effective. Skype is likely the international standard but it lacks the business effectiveness of Fuzebox.
b) Mezzanine by Oblong Industries (http://oblong.com/what-we-do/mezzanine) — I should also say that as we get bigger, the product we are drooling over is Mezzanine by Oblong. We believe the “New, New Thing” in technology will be the user interface with our computers. If you saw the movie “Minority Report” with Tom Cruise, you saw some of this technology demonstrated. We believe Skype, Fuzebox, GoToMeeting, they will all end up using the Mezzanine platform.
6) Taking Notes: I, more than anybody on our team, have wanted to stay paperless — meaning, that I would not use any paper for note taking. No more yellow legal pads, no more leather journals. I seek to be true to the paperless environment! I have tried and continue to try every stylus for the iPad that comes out. My favorite is the Cosmonaut (http://toolsandtoys.net/cosmonaut-stylus-for-ipad/), it’s like a big crayon but it really works well with NoteTaker HD on the iPad. I am awaiting a new Kickstarter stylus that is supposed to be the new top of the line, its called HAND (http://handstylus.com). The other one that I like is the Jot Pro (http://adonit.net/product/jot-pro/?utm_source=Commision%2BJunction&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=Jot%2BPro%2BCJ) and they also have a new one that is supposed to be terrific, the Jot Capacitive Touch (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/531383637/jot-capacitive-touch-stylus).
There are some incredibly effective note taking tools. I think NoteTaker HD is the best note taking application for the iPad. I also like penultimate, PDF Pen Pro and UPAD. For the iPhone, I like using EverFast so that I can take notes directly into Evernote. I also find I use the Apple default Notes app a lot.
But, I have to admit, every time I pull out my iPad to take notes or use my iPhone, there is nagging feeling in the back of my head. “Do they think I am checking email and/or that I’m not focused?” I wish it were different, but nothing bothers me more than when I am talking with someone and they are looking at a smart phone. When we have meetings and the other side is tapping away, it’s a distraction.
Course, I never think to ask if they are just taking notes. But even if one did ask, it wouldn’t solve the problem. Unfortunately, to use an iPad or an iPhone to take notes forces you to disengage, even if ever so slightly. At this point, it is somewhat the technology but it is moreso the social norm aspect. The irony is that it is much easier to get away with note taking on a small computer than on an iPhone. Our team has discussed this in great deal and we’ve come to the conclusion – in a perfect world, we would not use any paper, but when it comes to note taking in a meeting, the most respected and accepted format is the a notebook and pen.
Some on our team, use the yellow pad and scan their notes into Evernote. I have switched back to my old Moleskin black notebook and a nice pen. I tend to come out of meeting, and just like my mentor, John C. Cushman III, dictate my notes of the meeting. Of course, he still dictates into the small tape cassettes and has an assistant transcribe all his meeting notes. I am using the terrifically upgraded dictation software on my iPhone and transcribing them directly into Evernote.
I am pleased to see that Moleskin and Evernote have partnered up to create a physical notebook which will allow the camera function in Evernote to take a picture of your note page and transcribe into Evernote (http://www.moleskineus.com/evernote-smart-notebooks.html). The special paper allows the Evernote search function to scan your written word and find text. I have already preordered my notebook!
I hope this outline of how Rising Realty Partners moved to a paperless environment and also lost the email addiction is helpful to you. Feel free to ask any questions. I plan to follow up soon with a post on how you can go without the laptop when on the road. I just use a desktop iMac with a big screen (the eyesight is going) at the office and the iPad and iPhone when outside of the office. Everything from using tracking in Microsoft Word to creating beautiful slide decks.
Thx – Chris