Entrepreneurs: Remember the Promise of the Paperless Office?

The When computers first started hitting every desktop, “experts” predicted we’d all be using paperless offices by the end of the 20th century. Welcome to the 21st century, with paper more ubiquitous than ever.

I wrote in my last column about the new Amazon Kindle eBook reader and said:

“We’ve all been anxiously waiting for the ‘paperless office’ prognostications to come true, yet this promise appears to be a delusion that’s more elusive than ever.”

But perhaps the paperless office is in sight. Yes, I’ve listened to those who continue to say that the paperless office is still a dream. But I think the key here is to aim for, and work towards, progress in ridding yourself of paper, not perfection in achieving that ultimate goal. The right data management system can combine the practicality of paper with the speed of new information and technology.

As entrepreneurs and small business owners, we want to eliminate the amount of paper we use because it simply requires too much time (and money) to produce, organize, and reclaim. Doing so could just save your company a lot of money, and help you make more money as well.

With the current proliferation of information, we need to make information available to ourselves and others at the speed of today’s world.

Take a look at the way paper and files are being handled at your business.

If you’re like me, I’d be so bold as to suggest that what you find won’t make you happy.

You may have the most organized office in the world, yet the time that it takes to systematize your record-keeping and sustain this method of organization translates in to real dollars – hours that could be spent on R & D and marketing.

Do you employ a ‘piles’ system of filing, keeping things in neat heaps so that you know exactly where everything is? Think of the physical clutter this causes, as well as the guilt that you feel because you’re always feeling the need to ‘go through’ these piles — to ensure, at the very least, that you haven’t forgotten something.

If paper files are burying your office, “going paperless” might be a good option. But what, exactly, does going paperless mean for your business? It involves making the decision to do it and not turning back. It means getting all those files scanned into the computer, and training staff to use the digital files.

Now those papers that used to have to be shipped from one associate to another or from your business to a client or perspective client can be viewed wherever they’re needed. Your company can save many hours and endless dollars in productivity and efficiency alone.

The reality is that your office will always use paper. The term ‘paperless’ is too high of a standard to reach. Some people need to print things out to read them. You’ll print things to carry with you and show to other people. Not every presentation can be tailored to PowerPoint. You won’t be getting rid of those printers.

But you’ll be getting rid of the filing cabinets, or at least some of them, as you scan files into your computer and create new files on the computer, and the need to constantly organize those files.

Here are 4 things to consider when going paperless:

1. When scanning files, a dedicated document scanner is vital.

2. When saving files, the best and most universally-accepted way is in PDF format, or portable document format. This is a stable format that keeps the file looking exactly as it looked on paper. It can be read online or printed, takes little space, and is easy to create with software available from Adobe.

3. If you’re digitizing your files, you’re going to need a hard drive dedicated to holding your new “file cabinet,” and a good data backup system. Technical professionals suggest having two portable hard drives. You back one up to the other each week, and take the backup to an offsite location such as a bank deposit box.

4. If you do not have your computers on a local area network (LAN), they will need to be hooked up so everyone can access the files. Setting up a wireless network costs about $25-50 per computer, plus $75-100 dollars for the “hub” or central router for four computers.

Most people have no trouble viewing digital files and maintaining them. What you and your employees may have trouble with is getting used to the new record-keeping and information management system. Get everyone on board in terms of the file protocols. How should the directories be labeled? How should files be named? It is essential that everyone use the same standards. Decide what those will be and print copies for everyone. Make a copy available on the company network.

Going paperless is a matter of choice: it’s a conscious lifestyle and a work style decision. It’s one that, when completely committed to, can increase your productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness, as well as reduce the amount of waste that each and every one of us produce.

Have you made the decision to go paperless?

* * * * *

David Bohl on Lifestyle for EntrepreneursAbout the Author: Husband, Father, Friend, Lifestyle Coach, Author, Educator, and Entrepreneur, David B. Bohl is the creator of Slow Down FAST. For more info go to Slow Down Fast and visit his blog at Slow Down Fast blog.


19 Reactions
  1. Thank you for offering some really helpful info. It sounds like it takes alot of effort to go paperless but I’m sure it’s worth it in the end.

  2. Amanda,

    I’ve found that I’m much happier and more efficient when I have less paper to organize and consume. Old habits die hard. Like anything else, it takes more and more practice until I get it right.


  3. I try to be as “paperless” as possible. I noticed years ago that most of the paper I accumulate either gets thrown away or is filed away to be thrown away at some later time.

  4. One of the problems we old diehards have with electronic storage of files of former job sheets, process sheets,and cost sheets for jobs which may or may not repeat in the future, is that it is difficult to trust electronic media storage and be sure that past info is readily available if we do need it. To do this,existing paper has to be scanned so that all relevant notes are stored. To scan thousands of documents, and maintain the files on a daily or weekly basis, looks like a monumental task,but would get rid of a lot of file cabinets. Any comments? John

  5. Interesting, I am going to take into account.

  6. John,

    I was speaking yesterday with someone whose company is making the switch to electronic files. It’s a very old-school company that is accustomed to physically documenting every order on paper, including making copies of all the emails shared between the sales staff and customer and stapling them to the order. Often times, there are 8 or more pieces of paper attached to a single line-item order.

    The company has now put digital systems in place to handle all of these functions – order taking, communication, and documentation. First, they acquired the system to handle all new orders in this fashion. Now they’re organizing all historical information in the new way.

    The key was to commit to the new system/ procedures from a date certain going forward and then bring past information into the new system.

    They’ve found efficiencies that they didn’t know existed before, not the least of which is eliminated redundancy.


  7. Less paper sounds good to me. More trees saved.

  8. Less paper saves a lot in terms of cost.

    But it is most important to consider when to use hard copy and when to go digital. A good case is contracts, where it is always better to go hard copy for this office stuffs.

  9. Eric,

    I’d be interested to hear more of your experience with contracts. It seems that they’d be very easy to alter and customize digitally. I’ve also executed several of them digitally where the agreement specified that electronic signature is acceptable and binding.


  10. One problem for the regular home or small office user is the lack of a simple, small application that does the job without all the bells and rings – and is affordable!

    Usually those application cost a lot and are difficult to understand and maintain.

    I would be happy if you take a look on an application I have developed when user uses tags (instead of folders) in order to digitize his paper collection. Backup is easy since all files are originally saved under one folder.

    See the video demonstration here : http://www.42tags.com/video.htm

  11. David,

    Nice article.

    I think you are on the right track when you say “The term ‘paperless’ is too high of a standard to reach.” But that should not stop companies from trying. Because with each “system” that is converted over to a digital, or paperless format, the office will become more productive.

    An often overlooked aspect of the improved productivity of going paperless is that with any simple network an employee can access a digital file right from their desk. And I think that most employers would agree that when employees are kept at their desk to help clients, or to get their own work done, they can do it more effectively.

    Depending on the nature of the business going paperless can also be a big benefit for those who travel. If I am out of town, with my laptop of course, and have some need to look up say…my last invoice from Anthem, I can easily do so remotely using nothing more complex than a Windows Remote Desktop connection back to my office PC, and once connected I can find any such invoice because all company payables are scanned and filed when they are received.

    One bit of advice for those moving in this direction would be to buy as many scanners as you have employees who handle your paper documents. The best way to be paperless is one piece of paper at a time and to scan and then digitally file that paper the moment the employ receives the document. If the pace of incoming paper is not too great almost any scanner would do. But again consider having several employees with this capability.

    Sorry to ramble, but this can be a complex subject, and my last comment would be that if you have a large volume of documents that need scanned, such as might be found at a well established medical practice, then expect to spend anywhere from $2,000 and up on a respectable scanner with an automatic document feeder. Then I would contact a Temp Staffing Agency (so your own emploees dont end up hating you) and get that project knocked out.

  12. Andy,

    Thanks for taking the time to weigh in. Excellent suggestions!


  13. Thank you for sharing this information.

  14. I work in the Pentagon and I can tell you one thing – when you have the projection of an endless well of money and no profit driven motitivationl; waste will run wild forever. I’ve tried so many times to introduce cost saving ideas and solutions only to be told, “Why do we need to save time and money?”

    Alas, I’m at the end of my rope and have decided I’ll search for a more common sense world in the private sector. A place where profit fuels the efficiency.

  15. It looks like some of the issues you are encountering when you file could be solved by using software to keep track of your files. You can try The Paper Tiger Filling system to help you better keep track of your files. Give it a try! We are BBB A-Rated business and are always looking for ways to help people file!

  16. I totally agree, to create an effective paperless office you have to make a commitment. It will never be 100% paperless, because there are some original documents that you have to keep, but I think it is possible to eliminate 80-95% of all your paper.

    There are also a lot of online services that can reduce your paper intake. Things like online fax services and Evernote have make it easier than ever.