Small Business Guides

How to have a paperless office

7 min read

Busy offices can generate a lot of paperwork. But too much paper can reduce the efficiency of your business – and cost you money. So what steps can you take to cut the amount of paper your business uses?

Do better business with less paper

Paper is everywhere. We hardly think about it, but businesses spend a lot of time and money moving paperwork around. Analysts have been predicting the arrival of the paperless office for more than two decades, yet more paper is produced every year.

It doesn't have to be this way. In almost all areas of business, it's now possible to get rid of paper entirely. Digital documents are simpler, easier to store and send, more searchable and more versatile than paper.

But many businesses have a long way to go before they become paperless. In this guide we'll look at the benefits of digital documents, and how you can reduce your paperwork to help you run your business more efficiently.

Why do we still use paper?

Before we look at the benefits of going paperless, it's worth understanding why paper is still so common. Here are some of the reasons why businesses still use paper:

  • Government requirements
    If the government tells you that you must keep paper records, you don't have much choice. But it doesn't happen often these days. Most government departments understand that digital documents are just as good.
  • Legal necessity
    If you're applying for a loan or selling your business, signed paperwork is often a necessity. But lawyers are increasingly going paperless, so this practice is dying out.
  • Permanence and convenience
    Some paper documents have been around for centuries and can still be read today. By contrast, some computer records from 20 years ago can't be accessed at all. So for a long life, paper can still seem like a good choice. But digital storage methods are stabilizing and improving. Formats like PDF and JPEG will outlast many of the businesses that use them.
  • The way it feels
    People like the way paper feels (psychologists call this 'haptic perception') and the fact that it's a real, physical item. Sometimes information inside a computer or the cloud doesn't seem so real. But this is changing as people grow up with computers being part of their lives.
  • Cost
    Paper is cheap and easy to distribute. However, that's only part of the story. Once you start paying for printers, toner, servicing, maintenance, connectivity, cabling, user support and all the other associated costs, paper starts to look more expensive. And that's before you consider the cost of document storage.

So at least some of the reasons why we still use paper are historical and personal – not logical.

Your digital documents can be stored, retrieved, indexed and searched much faster than paper ones.

The benefits of a paperless office

Going paperless is more beneficial than it might first appear. Here's what can happen when a business starts to cut back on paper.

  • Reduced clutter
    Paperwork on desks and shelves is not only untidy, it's inefficient too. Organization of digital files is simpler, and your office will look much neater. That will help you clear your mind and focus on your business.
  • Fast access to information
    Your digital documents can be stored, retrieved, indexed and searched much faster than paper ones.
  • Simpler disaster recovery
    An entire company's documents could be stored on a single laptop instead of rooms of shelving. If there's a fire or flood, recovery from a backup is much easier with digital storage than with paper.
  • Cost reduction
    You will save money on printing, postage and associated costs. You could even pay less rent – because you won't need all that space for your files.
  • Easier growth
    Moving from an old office to a new one is much easier if you don't have to carry several filing cabinets with you.
  • It's environmentally friendly
    Less printing means fewer trees cut down for pulp, and less energy used to make and transport paper.
  • Faster communication
    Paper mail takes a day to arrive – if you're lucky. Emailed documents arrive within seconds. At a time when businesses need to move swiftly, getting rid of paper can give you a helpful burst of speed.

10 steps to a paperless office

Going paperless doesn't happen overnight, so you should plan your strategy for reducing paper use. Here are some steps to consider.

  1. Find out what you print now
    Even in a business it can be difficult to keep track of who's printing what, and when. Consider using print audit software so you can track where all the print jobs are coming from.
  2. Calculate potential cost savings
    Use quality accounting software to track all your print-related expenses. Include printers, ink or toner, paper, service contracts, storage and technical support. Deduct any revenues you receive from using paper, unless they would be matched by using digital documents instead. For example, printed newsletters might be replaced by emails, with no loss of sales revenue.
  3. Move to online applications
    Cloud-based applications let you share data easily with clients and suppliers. There's no need to worry about different file formats. So discuss some key applications with the companies you work with – see if they're willing to use the cloud too. Some useful cloud-based applications include:
    • Google Docs to collaborate on documents
    • Dropbox or Box to share files
    • Basecamp for simple project management
    • Evernote to take digital notes
    • PayPal to transfer funds

    The more areas of business you can move to the cloud, including accounts and payroll, the less you'll have to worry about technical support and file format issues.

  4. Don't forget training
    Work with your staff to ensure they can handle and process electronic documents, such as invoices.
  5. incentivize your employees
    Give your staff a printing budget and reward them for printing fewer documents.
  6. Scan any paperwork you receive from other people
    Document scanners are reasonably cheap and can store paperwork in PDF format. If there's too much to handle, get a secure scanning company to do the work.
  7. Sign documents digitally
    Most countries now have laws that make electronically-signed contracts as legally valid as those signed with pen on paper.
  8. Use online banking
    Request paperless statements from banks and other financial institutions. If you're worried about missing anything, set up alerts in your accounting software to warn you in advance of when a bill is due. Pay your bills and your suppliers online.
  9. Update your office
    With less space being taken up with document storage, you can make your office a better place to work. Consider buying larger monitors, or a dual-monitor setup, so your staff can view more than one document at a time.
  10. Phase out old technology
    Some companies still send and receive faxes. But even here you can reduce paper use. Fax software lets you send and receive faxes as electronic documents – meaning less paperwork and lower costs.

Making the transition – fast or slow?

Once you've made the decision to reduce paper use, how long will it take? The choice is really up to you.

You could try going 'cold turkey' – dramatically cutting down on all paperwork immediately. That would mean shifting to the cloud for all your business operations, clamping down on office printing, and storing all documents electronically.

But that could put a lot of stress on you and your staff, especially if you're already busy. It makes more sense to focus on one area or department at a time. You will learn a lot from the first attempt, which will make it easier the next time.

Lighten the load

Depending on how comfortable you are with technology, it may be difficult to change to a paperless office. Here are a few tips to make the journey easier:

  • Keep your documents secure
    Use encryption to keep your documents safe from prying eyes.
  • Backup everything, regularly
    Electronic documents are easier to store than paper – and easier to delete. Make sure you have backups online, using services such as backblaze.com or carbonite.com, and also offline. USB memory sticks, external hard drives, CDs and DVDs can all be used for offline storage.
  • Index everything
    Electronic documents are more useful if they are fully indexed, so you can easily search and find what you're looking for. When scanning documents, make sure they are searchable by using OCR (optical character recognition) software. Scanning service companies can do this for you.
  • Be realistic
    Going paperless is a goal, but it might be difficult or even impossible to eliminate all paper. If you're involved in real estate transactions, for example, there will still be a lot of paperwork involved.
  • Take small steps
    Do whatever you can to reduce paper use. For example, if you have to print a document, use both sides of the sheet of paper. And if you print out a PowerPoint presentation, include two or four slides to a page. Even these small steps can make a big difference.

Paper belongs in the past

People have been talking about the paperless office for years. With new technology, especially easy-to-use cloud-based applications, we are closer to reaching this goal.

Going paperless can have many advantages for you, your employees and your business partners. Aside from the cost savings, it gives you more flexibility to run your business from anywhere, and get what you need whenever you need it.

It also removes the hassle of having to physically store paperwork – and that can save you money at times when office space isn't cheap. Now you can store all your business documents safely and securely in the cloud, taking up no physical space at all.

Piles of office paperwork belong in the past. The future is definitely digital.