Paper gets bad press. You hear stories of how Americans use more paper than people in the rest of the world. Guilt nags you for the overflowing filing cabinet jammed in the corner. You watched that TED talk about drying your hands with a single paper towel and now you’re ashamed if you don’t leave the restroom with your palms still slightly damp.
Well, you shouldn’t be ashamed of using paper. Paper is great. Currently, Americans plant more trees than we harvest, thanks primarily to the efforts of lumber and paper companies, who have a strong economic incentive to grow healthy forests. Recycling paper is an excellent practice, but mostly because it saves landfill space – not trees. And it’s a myth that digital work is more environmentally friendly than paperwork. Digital work relies completely on electricity, more than a quarter of which is produced by coal in the United States. Coal-mining has come a long way in the past decades, but it is still far more risky, environmentally speaking, than harvesting trees.
That’s not to say that the paperless office is a misguided dream. There are some excellent arguments for going paperless—guilt just isn’t one of them. I’ll give you some of those arguments, then outline some strategies and services you can use if you decide to go paper-free.
From a business standpoint, the best reason for going paperless is to save money. The average office worker uses about $80 worth of paper every year, and the lifecycle cost of that paper (copying, delivery, handling, storage, retrieval) is far higher. Toner is another expensive budget item, costing hundreds of dollars per employee on average. The sad fact is that most of what you print at work – whether handouts, minutes, reports, or statements – goes straight into the trash anyway. Most printer paper is a one-use item, glanced at and instantly tossed.
Printing is only one of many costs associated with paper. If they are kept, all those documents have to be stored somewhere. Large filing cabinets can fill valuable floor space in an office and, unless you have a full-time librarian on staff, locating a single file from the archive can be arduous. Which brings us to the ways going paperless will save you...
Filing, sorting, and locating documents in a physical filing system can be a herculean task. Obviously, an activity that takes up so much time comes with significant costs. Time is money, as they say. You don’t want to waste precious minutes rifling through stacks of paper. According to Corp! Magazine, “It costs an organization an average of $20 to file a document, $120 to find a misplaced document, and $220 to reproduce a lost document.” Most digital filing systems have a built-in search function, which lets you find a file in seconds - even if it’s misplaced, usually. Though digital documents do get lost sometimes, the constant copying, emailing, and backing-up makes it far less likely.
In addition to decreasing man hours, going paperless is convenient. You can share files with your team with the click of a button, without having to print or scan. Plus, you can access files anywhere. This blogger (who went paperless at home, not just in her business) scanned all of her most important documents, which saved her visit to the doctor’s office from becoming a wasted trip. Many a meeting or sales lunch has been rescued by the adroit use of a digital file.
Cloud backups can be a lifesaver when you’ve misplaced a specific document. Or when your entire system goes up in flames (literal or metaphorical). OCR (Optical Character Recognition) scanning means that you can search your entire archive to find specific documents that you might have misplaced. It’s not perfect, but it’s fast, convenient, and mostly error-free.
We’ve already described some of the benefits of cloud computing. Let’s talk about potential downsides.
You may hesitate before storing all of your business’s secure information online. That’s totally understandable. High-profile security failures like the Sony hack or the JP Morgan data breach don’t fade easily from one’s memory. In a sense, your data is more vulnerable online because it is outside your reach. Someone else is managing your documents. Yes, physical storage can be vulnerable - a fire or flood could wipe away your backups - but at least you can find some measure of comfort in handling the visible ashes or hefting the shorted hard drives. On the cloud, your documents could be gone in an instant, without a trace, without your knowledge. And that’s a scary thought.
But realistically, there’s very little chance that would actually happen. Most internet software companies use backups upon backups to keep their customers’ files and data safe. And, as computer engineer and cryptography expert Whitfield Diffie has pointed out, whether you send a document using email or the postal service, you are always trusting strangers with private information. Online backups are no less secure than physical ones, though they can seem that way. There is something about digital files that can make them feel less substantial than paper, but it’s worth remembering that, legally speaking, they are the same. (Case in point: the 2000 ESIGN Act gave electronic signatures validity alongside their ink counterparts.)
Nonetheless, if you go full paperless, you might miss one or two things. The smell of paper. Scribbling a note to yourself in a corner and tearing it off later. Picking up a disheveled stack and straightening it by pounding the edge against your desk. You know, the little things. That’s fine. Going paperless is entirely a choice. You can keep a notebook and pencil around if that makes you happy. Start by getting rid of the paper that is inconvenient and costly and work from there.
Now that you’ve heard the arguments for and against going paperless, you’re ready to make an informed decision. In case you do decide to eliminate as much paper as you can, here are some strategies for how to make that work.
The main strategy for reducing paper is to use as many apps and services as you can to digitize your work or outsource it. A good place to start is with invoicing and bill pay. Most utilities companies offer electronic statements and, with the ubiquity of direct deposit, more and more companies are issuing pay stubs online instead of in envelopes. Services like Bill.com handle your billing, invoicing, and received payments all in one place. Deputy is an online service that handles time-tracking. You can use Gusto for payroll an to receive payments. Receipt Bank and Hubdoc are both good options for receipt and document storage. For managing inventory, try Trade Gecko or DEAR Inventory.
You can find an app or an internet service for almost everything under the sun. Replace pencil-and-sticky-note to-do lists with Todoist. Swap file folders for Evernote. Use a digital calendar to sync your team schedule. (Google, Outlook, and Apple all have serviceable versions.) For brainstorming and project development, Asana and Trello work well, and, once a project is underway, I highly recommend using Basecamp to see it through to completion.
A lot of companies still use fax machines. It sounds odd to some of you, but it’s the truth. Instead of cutting all ties with them and threatening them with extinction, you can control how faxes are sent and received on your end. Try using Ring Central or MyFax to send and receive faxes via your email inbox. Doc Scan and Scannable (owned by Evernote) are other services that do the same thing through an iOS app.
If you do receive paper, such as receipts, immediately scan them, ideally using a program with OCR capability, which will convert the static image into a text file that you can edit. (And, more importantly, that you can search.)
All of these scans will need to live somewhere. Dropbox, OneDrive (Microsoft), Google Drive, and Box are all fairly painless ways to store files online. If you’re backing up an enormous amount of paper, you may want to invest in a backup device like a Synology, which will both backup your data locally and keep it accessible in the cloud. In any case, I recommend using a local hard drive as an extra backup, if you can.
It takes time for a business to change its habits. Paperlessness cannot be achieved in a day. There may be hiccups along the way as you figure out a method that works for your business. As an added measure, make using paper inconvenient in your office. Designate one desktop a printing station or give employees a limited amount of “print tokens” per month. Encourage team members to share files online rather than printing handouts for presentations. But if a printout is what it takes for you get the job done, go for it. And don’t feel guilty.