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.

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:

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 "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

"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.

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.

"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).

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.

"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'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?