The Digital File Cabinet: It Pays to Go Paperless

Reduce overhead and expand productive space by digitaizing your files.

January 1, 2009

When James Longstreth replaced his paper files with digital documents last year, his goal was to clear the clutter from his residential brokerage office.

"Files were the white elephant in our office," says Longstreth, broker-owner of Your Neighborhood Realty in Saint Petersburg, Fla. "And they were everywhere."

But his move to digital storage yielded a benefit he hadn't planned on: remote access to his files. "We can look up information while we're on the road or working from home," he says.

With more real estate salespeople working mainly from home offices (73 percent maintain a home office, according to the NAR 2008 Member Profile), offsite access to correspondence, agreements, and other transaction documents is becoming increasingly important for real estate operations.

Longstreth's office is small—he's one of just five salespeople—so simplicity was critical to making his digital document management system work.

The system he chose, from eBridge Solutions in Tampa, Fla., is browser-based, so everything is hosted on the provider's Web site and is set up to be compatible with Internet Explorer. The Web location not only allows easy remote access to files but also eliminates the need to install any software on his company's computer system or make modifications to his hardware. 

To use the system, sales associates convert their hard-copy documents into digital files by scanning them and then file them in online filing cabinets they've set up. If the documents are already digital, like a PDF, they file them directly into their digital filing cabinets.

Steps to a Digital Future

To get started, Longstreth had his original paper documents scanned to create digital copies. The eBridge software requires scanners to be TWAIN-compliant so the system can communicate with graphics devices and digital cameras. Most scanners available today meet that standard.

Next, Longstreth set up file folders on the Web site eBridge provided and populated the folders with his digitized documents. He made it easier to search for a document by labeling each file (the name of the buyer or subdivision, for example) and adding as many as seven different index headings such as contracts and inspections.

Although creating files for each transaction by client name is the most obvious use of a digital file cabinet, you can use the same software to digitize and share other business documents. eBridge recommends setting up multiple filing cabinets—for accounting, human resources, and billing, among other needs—and setting password and other restrictions on who can access which cabinets.

You should also be certain that any document management company you work with maintains security by encrypting data files and hosting data at redundant data centers. eBridge provides this level of security, as well as providing its clients with a CD each month with the previous month's data files so that the client can maintain a separate backup.

Like other companies, eBridge monitors who's accessing documents. All activities are tracked by the user's name and activity, date, and time to produce an audit trail.

Filed for the Long Term

Digital document management provides another benefit to brokerages: protection against disasters such as flooding or fires at either the brokerage or the storage facility where you keep back records.

Electronic storage also eases the burden of finding the space to comply with state document retention policies. "We need to hold onto our files for five years," says Longstreth.

Replacing the space occupied by filing cabinets with desks for additional salespeople or reducing the amount of leased space for the office also makes good financial sense. "That was the main reason we started using the system," says Longstreth. "We were able to eliminate that clutter and give ourselves additional space."

Robert Freedman

Robert Freedman is the former director of multimedia communications at NAR.