Becoming a paperless office is a desirable goal for the majority of organisations. Doing so means reducing paper consumption and has the intention of saving a lot of money, helping the environment and speeding up business processes. Even if companies don’t attain a 100% paper-free environment, they can make giant strides.
Getting started on the right path is the hard part, but with careful planning any business will achieve its goals.
There are many advantages of paperless environments in the digital age. One of the most important is that it saves time for employees. Filing documents no longer means slowly printing them out, then having to search for them manually later on. Digital storage can be done in seconds, and retrieval involves a quick computer search. The reduction in employee work hours spent on menial tasks is significant.
Those boxes of paper files that have accumulated over time have demanded filing cabinets and special rooms. Freeing up space is one reason that paperless offices tend to be cheaper to run, too, as there’s no need to invest in on-site storage facilities. But there are lots of other savings, such as all the annual costs of ink, toner, and postage. Research suggest this adds up to on average of around £100 a year per employee. For a large organisation of 500 employees, getting rid of these paper processes provides an annual saving of £50,000.
A further advantage is that paperless storage in the cloud allows instant access across geographical boundaries. This is especially useful in multi-national organisations. If an employee in London wants to access a document from a co-worker in Australia, but it’s the middle of the night in Sydney, it doesn’t matter. With a paperless office, the London worker logs in to the company’s cloud storage, searches for the file and works on it instantly.
Paperless data may actually be more secure, too. Companies have to take care to ensure their data is encrypted and placed in a private cloud, or on a company data server, where it’s possible to restrict access. Digital files are clearly not at risk of being destroyed in a fire, or stolen in a burglary. Security is a complex subject, however, and there are arguments on both sides. Some companies may decide that they want to store particularly sensitive data on paper in secure vaults to guard against hackers. Again, a lot of thought has to go into finding the right policies for each organisation.
There are arguably benefits for the environment, too. The average company processes more than 10,000 pieces of paper a year, which is the equivalent of a small tree. Admittedly, the arguments are again double-edged. Companies with strict policies about recycling paper can mitigate the environmental losses significantly, especially as trees used to make paper are often replanted. So, there’s no need to feel guilty about using paper for printing, especially when stringent efforts are made to reduce its usage. Some companies decide paper is a superior format for certain situations. For example, when lawyers wish to avoid leaving annotations in digital format, companies favouring physical signage over digital methods, or individuals preferring to analyse long and complex documents on paper. For most companies, significant paper reduction offers big advantages. But it’s not a straightforward change to make. It’s just not possible to become paperless overnight despite the availability of the myriad of tools available. Careful thought is required and it’s best to be patient and take the time to get it right. Becoming paperless is a slow process that typically takes months, or even years.
At the outset, it is vital to get the buy-in of employees. Everyone has to understand the reasons behind each change because it will profoundly affect everything they do at work. They need to understand the organisation’s new protocols. For example, they may be asked to generate reports directly into PDFs, or use smartphone apps that capture the content of paper files and turn them into a digital format. Workshops and training are a good idea. Going paperless demands an understanding of digital technologies that a lot of the workforce have never used before.
The next step is to dispose of outdated material, such as old memos and manuals. Great care must be taken not to trash anything that is valuable and it is wise to consult accountants and lawyers to establish what needs to be kept. The remaining documents will need to be scanned in, which takes a lot of effort at the outset. A scanner with OCR software will be able to scan documents automatically into searchable PDF or Word files. They will all have to be dated and categorised for simple retrieval.
All the documents that have been scanned into digital copies should then be moved into an offsite storage unit for a month, or two, in case there’s been a mistake in the uploading process. When the allotted storage period expires, the documents can be shredded. Dumping years of records into the bin could be a gift to competitors. A specialist shredding company will guarantee that all sensitive records are destroyed. Remove temptations to ensure that employees gradually move towards a paperless environment by making it more inconvenient to use paper. Companies should remove printers and fax machines and provide dualmonitor set-ups that make it easier to read several documents at once. Staff should be required to sign up for paperless billing options, so they can email out invoices and receipts instead of posting them. Companies may want to retain the option of printing somewhere in the building, but make it harder to access the tools.
An array of technologies provides a digital alternative to paper for every aspect of office life. For example, online services such as eFax and FaxZero can replace traditional fax machines, and Google Docs allows colleagues to work simultaneously on a document. Cloud-based tools like SurveyMonkey provide free services for conducting surveys, and file transfer systems like Dropbox allow large reports and photographs to be shared. With the TurboScan app, employees can take pictures of documents with smartphones, then create PDFs and email them. These are just a few examples where careful thought is needed before selecting digital tools. Using digital technologies can help companies reach their paperless goals, but they won’t be enough on their own. When the technology is allied to careful planning, all companies can set out with confidence towards a paper-free future.