The Paperless Office: Why, How, and Where the Money Is
Tips and advice for enriching yourself while saving the planet
Getting rid of paper and going digital is good for the environment. It saves trees, it means less waste in landfills, and it reduces a business's carbon footprint.
And it can cut your costs.
Consumer Reports says that printer ink costs about $6,400 a gallon - more than twice as much as Dom Pérignon Champagne.
"Some small companies can spend up to $2500 a month on paper supplies alone," says the office-organization websiteAcademicWritingWeb.
More than a decade ago, PriceWaterhouseCoopers determined that the work time spent filing a paper document cost $20, searching for a misfiled document cost $120, and recreating a lost document cost $220 - and the rates have gone up since then.
Then there's the cost of printer purchase, maintenance, and repair; filing cabinets and other storage units; and work time spent printing.
Digital is also more secure than paper. "Digital records can be rendered unreadable to hackers through encryption. They can also be secured against printing, copying and sharing. Access controls can specify viewing privileges to a fine level of granularity. Audit trails reveal who accessed what documents and when. In contrast, printed documents are only as secure as their proximity to a copy machine," says Brian Bogie, healthcare industry marketing director at software company Sage Intacct.
Access is another issue. You can read a paper document only if you and it are in the same room. Documents stored online don't have that limit. Attorney and marketer Willie Peacock mentions "the massive advantage of being able to work from anywhere, at any time." He explains, "For me, this meant I went to the Philippines last year for a month and ran my practice without anyone knowing that I was on the other side of the world."
Given that going digital is cheaper, safer, and more convenient than using paper, what's the best way to do it?
Bring in the employees
"The most important thing to keep in mind when going paperless is that this transition requires all members of your team to develop new habits," says professional office organizer Stephanie Shalofsky. Some people, she says, "will be resistant to change, are more comfortable with a paper system, and will possibly be overwhelmed by the new system initially." Fortunately, according to productivity coach Tom Roedl, "This mentality can be addressed ... by slowly adopting paperless practices."
In addition to rolling out new tech gradually:
Deploy employee desires. "Find out why employees would want to reduce paper in the office and set actionable initiatives around these reasons," writes tech journalist Keumars Afifi-Sabet, citing a report from data-management company Nektar.
"Let them know how much time, energy, effort - and not to mention paper - they'll save by managing their documents and communications online," says Karensa Maton, head of products at the document-automation company Datagraphic.
"Train your staff on the processes you've established, including naming and filing conventions, document intake, back-filing, and navigating your document management system," says [Kara Rayburn](https://www.alarisworld.com/en-us/insights/articles/guide-creating-paperless-accounting-firm#section 1), global manager of portfolio marketing and web at Alaris, Kodak's information-management division.
"If printers are still easy to access by your team, they will continue to be used," writes Max Freedman, contributing writer at Business.com. "But if you remove them from desktops and replace them with centralized network printers relegated to dedicated areas within the office, you can limit their use."
Use a document management system (DMS)
A DMS is a type of software, sometimes called an electronic filing cabinet, that lets users store and organize digital documents. A good DMS ensures that "files, instead of potentially becoming lost, become accessible from anywhere at any time, allowing your team easier access to the information that they need," says Chris Ogletree, inbound marketing coordinator at the environmental-social-governance management firm Goby.
How do you select the right DMS for your business? "Make a list of your 'must-haves,' " for the DMS, says Lindsay Sommers, marketing manager at the time-tracking software company Timesheets.com. "Does it need to include an HR suite? Do you need time and expense tracking? Do you want to track projects?"
Once you know your needs, "start as simple as possible. A lot of companies opt for systems that have a ton of bells and whistles, but which don't do the basics well," says Paul Du Bois, founder and CEO of the app development platform Appenate.
Among the most popular document management systems are Google Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft's OneDrive. Not as famous but also highly regarded are Alfresco, DocuWare, eFileCabinet, and M-Files (often praised as easy to use).
Once you set up your DMS, you should scan, digitize, and upload your current paperwork and any older documents that you need to keep. For this task, you might need at least one scanner. As it happens, Exela has a good line of high-speed scanners.
When you're out of the office and can't use your scanner, you'll need a mobile app for the job. The leaders are Adobe Scan, which the New York Times and other authorities have called the best scanning app; Microsoft's Office Lens, a well-regarded app especially suited for Office 365 users; and Genius Scan, a lesser-known but popular option. Bonus: These apps are all free.
Other ways to go paperless
- Accept electronic signatures.
"When you think about the time and effort you spent while dealing with paper contracts, you will realize it is too much work," says Eralp Arslan, a digital marketing specialist at the online-form company JotForm. "You receive the document, print it, sign it, and scan it to send it back. In such cases, there is no reason to allocate too much of your time when electronic signatures can replace written signatures." For more on e-signatures, see Exela's DrySign.
- Communicate without paper.
Email is the most common way to communicate paperlessly, but it's just the beginning. The instant messaging of Slack offers smoother and more conversational exchanges. Another popular communications tool is Basecamp, which calls itself "the all-in-one toolkit for working remotely." And a fast-rising relative newcomer is Microsoft's Teams.
- Bill and invoice electronically.
"The need to physically exchange money is over," says serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist Dan Martell. As Tom Roedl explains, "Online payment processors allow you to accept paperless payments from your clients. They have invoice templates and built-in record keeping." Some of the most highly praised paperless payment packages are Freshbooks, Zoho Invoice, Invoice2Go (especially good for invoicing1 from2 mobile3 devices4), Xero, and Wave (often considered the5 best6 free7 invoicing8 software9).
- Take notes on screen.
With the right app on a phone, tablet, or laptop, "we can take digital notes and also share them across different platforms," says Meara Hamidiani, a content strategist at business security company Proxyclick. "We can do this from many devices, add users to edit the notes, and beautifully present them." The standard for this job is Evernote, which has earned praise like "the absolute best note-taking app." Still, some experts prefer Google Keep, and others enjoy Microsoft OneNote.
- Outsource your mail handling to another firm's employees.
"They can collect it, scan it, and deliver it to the recipient or send it directly into a workflow," says the document-management company Datamation. If you'd like to know more, check out Exela's Digital Mailroom.
"If you're nervous about the transition to this tech, don't fret!" says Timesheets.com's Lindsay Sommers. "Test out new software with employees that you trust. If the software provides a free trial, take this to your advantage and allow your employees to test and give you feedback as they practice. Allowing a small group of your workers to test the software will help you sort out problems before you show it to the rest of the team.
A final word about reducing your paper use: You'll outpace your competitors. In 2018, software development kit maker Foxit asked 3,500 business leaders about their paper use: "Just under half of the responses, at 44.23%, said that they use paper in their position on a daily basis, with only two percent admitting they never use paper."
Are you ready to be part of the leading two percent?