When done right, a paperless office can improve productivity, save time, and save costs — but if executed incorrectly, it can result in the permanent loss of important documents and lead to negative push-back from employees. Learn how to decide on the right level of paper in your office and how to prepare for a smooth transition.
If you have more questions about converting to a paperless office, or want guidance for your specific business situation, we offer a few paperless office efficiency consulting packages.
A paperless office isn’t the best fit for every business. If you have one drawer of paper files that’s rarely opened, purchasing a scanner may not be worth it. Additionally, if your business culture is not very technology-oriented, a paperless system can quickly become a nightmare as employees struggle to locate and/or scan records on computers they are uncomfortable using.
You may decide that a partially paperless office is the best option, or decide to convert only a limited number of pieces into electronic form as a test before fully committing.
Include as many employees as possible in the decision-making process. If an employee is involved in the initial process and able to contribute ideas, they are much more likely to embrace the new system instead of rejecting it. Soliciting feedback from every level of your company can also help you gauge whether a paperless office can work within your existing culture.
Often, the majority of employees will be comfortable with the idea of going paperless, but one or two will be scared and/or resistant. (They are usually the ones least comfortable with new technologies.) Be proactive about providing additional training and hands-on examples to your team without singling anyone out.
If at all possible, purchase one scanner and encourage every team member to experiment with it (even with their own personal documents). Dropping in an electric bill and being able to copy and paste the tiny fine print on the back from a PDF a minute later can genuinely be fun and exciting. (Admittedly, after scanning 100 electric bills, this excitement wanes.) Try to scan fast food receipts, newspaper articles, posters on the wall, or even (clean) candy bar wrappers; it’s amazing how energizing this exercise can be in an office. If everyone is comfortable with the scanning process ahead of time, the transition will be much smoother.
A particularly successful strategy for encouraging adoption of a paperless office is to let employees use company scanners for their own records (either during lunch or on their off-hours). If they take steps to use less paper in their personal lives, those habits will naturally influence their behavior at work, too.
Where you store your now-electronic files depends on how often they’re accessed, and who needs to access them.
The easiest place to store documents commonly shared by a team is within an existing CRM like Salesforce. Your CRM should already provide granular permissions (so you can specify which employees have access to which files). A web-based CRM will also provide you with remote access, so traveling employees can get what they need without having to ask others to fax or email them specific pieces of paperwork. (You can also shut this option off.)
For documents that are rarely accessed, or that are accessed by just one person, a set of folders on a single computer station can work just fine.
The right scanner and OCR (optical character recognition, aka text-recognition) software means the difference between a pleasant and a disastrous paperless office experience.
How many documents will you scan on a daily or weekly basis? How precise does the OCR software need to be? Does it need to read handwriting or just computer type? Do you need it to scan large piles of paper by itself? (Tip: a flatbed scanner is never a good choice for a paperless office.) Do you need quality image scanning, too? A scanner that can scan images at a high enough quality to reprint them later will be more expensive.
In a high-volume office, the best choice may be a large central scanner (manned by an administrative assistant) with smaller desktop scanners on certain employees’ desks.
I love the ScanSnap S1500 (Windows) or ScanSnap S1500M (Mac) and suggest it for any office or employee that scans 25 or less documents each day. (Fujitsu often provides ScanSnap rebates, so be sure to check when ordering.)
A document backup plan must be implemented and tested before you start scanning a single sheet.
Your backup system must have an on-site component (i.e. external hard drives) and a remote component (i.e. automatic backup via JungleDisk). Having only an on-site backup leaves you at risk for theft, fire, water damage, or simply faulty hardware; having only a remote backup can result in a restore process that takes multiple hours (if you have a lot of files that must be re-downloaded). For ultimate security, purchase multiple on-site hard drives and store the inactive one(s) in a safe deposit box.
If you are backing up sensitive information, ensure that access to the backup files is just as restricted as access to the originals. You may want (or need, depending on your industry) to have your backup plan reviewed by a computer security consultant.
I suggest JungleDisk for most backup situations. It stores files on Amazon S3 servers and offers you the option to encrypt files. JungleDisk also provides secure remote access and can double as a shared file server within the company.
Review your current incoming documents for opportunities to eliminate paper in the first place.
Can you elect to receive certain bills electronically (and stop paper statements)? If you can, be sure it’s crystal-clear which email address the bills will go to, and who is responsible for making sure the electronic files are stored on the company system.
Are your employees printing blank forms only to fill them out by hand and file them? If so, look into creating PDF forms that your employees can fill out and save without printing, or consider a CRM solution for storing documents and customer/order details.
While scanning and OCRing records makes them full-text searchable, it’s surprising how often a piece of paper doesn’t explicitly say what it is. For example, a mortgage payment may not say “mortgage” anywhere. Consider documents you receive regularly (i.e. bills) and whether or not they contain their associated keywords. If not, include the keywords in the filename and/or as a note attached to the file itself.
If you stick to a regular scanning schedule in the future, documents will have an accurate “Created On” date that you can use to sort by. However, older documents will need a dating convention. I suggest:
Why the year first? Consider what happens if you sort a computer folder by filename. If you list the month first, you’ll end up with multiple years grouped together. Putting the year first ensures accurate chronological sorting in one click.
A document filing system can mimic your existing filing cabinet methodology, with the added advantage of being able to copy a single file into multiple locations. (You can also put the file in one location and create shortcuts to that file from other locations.) Be sure to separate actively-used files (i.e. forms) from archived files. It’s also easier to define permission on a per-folder basis than a per-file basis, so aim to group confidential documents (like tax receipts or employment contracts) together.
Whatever you do, don’t designate a “Scanning Day” and have your employees feed file cabinet after file cabinet into the scanner. This method is guaranteed to make your entire team resent you and the entire scanning process, and resentment is the wrong way to start off a new policy.
Take stock of all the papers that need to be converted into electronic form, and how fast your scanner can scan. As long as all new documents are scanned immediately, there’s likely not a rush to get all of your old documents done as quickly. If the job seems overwhelming, aim for just one or two file folders a day, or ask each team member to be responsible for scanning one folder each day. Before you know it, your papers will be gone, and you can get rid of your now-empty filing cabinets.
For particularly high-volume scanning needs, consider hiring an outside service.
You must also plan for disposing of old documents. (Even though your backup plan should have been thoroughly tested by this point, it’s still a best practice to hold onto your paper records for at least one month before disposing of them, just in case.) Routine papers can be recycled, but confidential materials should be professionally shredded and disposed.
Converting a paperless office doesn’t have to literally involve eliminating every last sheet. Sometimes, a little paper can be a good thing.
Not every employee works best at a computer screen, especially when reading or copy-editing long documents. Make sure everyone understands it’s okay to occasionally print if it results in higher-quality work.
If certain documents need to be printed or copied on a regular basis (like a feedback form included with customer orders), it wastes a lot of time and energy if employees print them one at a time. If possible, run a large batch on a copy machine once and distribute a stack for each employee to keep at their desk.
(Photo by gregoryjameswalsh.)