6 Tips for a ‘Paperless’ Office
by Joseph Anthony
reprinted with permission from the Microsoft Small Business Center
Many people who use computers — whether it’s for their home or business — are moving toward a “paperless” office. Simply, they are tired and overwhelmed by scraps of paper, clunky old file folders, envelopes — and they want to reduce the clutter.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at how many messages are stored in your e-mail’s in-basket. Now imagine how much paper would have been generated if they hadn’t come to you from cyberspace.
Many folks have made at least a partial move to a paperless office. They’re doing so this way: by using scanners instead of copying machines, sending electronic faxes instead of paper faxes, storing information electronically instead of in filing cabinets, giving friends, clients or vendors information on CDs or through Internet attachments instead of in bound folders. In short, they’re getting greater return on their hardware, software and technology investments.
Want to join the anti-paper campaign? Save a few trees along the way? Here are six things to keep in mind as you move toward a paperless home or business office.
Without paper, make sure you’re backing up files. In the traditional backup system, you would make a photocopy of a document and put it in a properly-labeled folder that can later be retrieved from a filing cabinet. Many people and businesses develop electronic filing systems that mimic the old paper systems, using Microsoft Word or customized programs for storing documents by type of document, client, project or other prioritization. But those files can’t just be created — they have to be backed up as well. Backup solutions can include backing up to second hard drives, to removable drives or to Internet and off-site locations to minimize the risk of loss of data from a computer failure. (See this article about backing up your data.) So, the message here is to have a system in place for regular and consistent backing up of your information.
Realize that a paperless office doesn’t happen overnight. Your home office or business won’t go from all-paper one day to paperless the next. It’s a progression. You might start out by scanning all incoming bills into your system, and then expand to include all general business correspondence. Initially, you might even find you’re creating more work instead of less — especially if you run a business. Dr. Boris Klopukh, a urologist with Urologists Specialists, LLC, in Miami, has embraced the paperless transition wherever possible but finds that he often stores medical records electronically and still prints out a copy for himself. “I’m not even sure why I do it; it’s just another way of backing up information that I’m still comfortable with,” he says.
You’ll need to rearrange your office — a good thing. There usually aren’t tremendous savings of office space when you first start focusing on using less paper. After all, you still have all those paper documents housed in your big, clunky file cabinets. At some point during your transition to a paperless office, however, the difference in your physical storage space will become apparent. “My eyes were opened when I had to move from one location to another and I realized I had many filing cabinets that I was holding on to for no reason,” says Ed Branson, a real estate broker and owner of Branson’s California Property in Carson, Calif. Branson estimates that he has fewer than half as many filing cabinets as he used before he started scanning documents into his computer.
“Paperless” often really means “less paper.” Yes, it’s possible to scan all received documents into your computer, and to store all in-house documents in your system as well. You can virtually eliminate paper faxes by generating faxes on your computer and having in-bound faxes delivered to your computer system. You can even electronically sign or signature-stamp outgoing documents. But you’re still likely to have some paper floating through your office. Not all of your clients or customers will want to be billed electronically. Some vendors will still want to communicate by snail mail. And tax and regulatory requirements could force you to either do some current business on paper or to keep hard copies of your past home or business records.
Everyone has to buy in. Merely saying as head of household, owner or manager of a business that you want those around you to embrace your paperless office doesn’t make it so. Your partner, spouse, family members or staff has to buy into the transition as a permanently-new way of doing business. Change can be difficult. People who have been making photocopies, sending paper faxes, putting documents into legal sized folders — or saving mounds of mail and catalogues that they just can’t part with — are going to have to change their perceptions. They will have to learn new routines that they already feel skilled at. “I think you really have to take them through the process a little at a time,” says Klopukh. There’s a learning curve which can be a significant learning curve — people have to understand how to use new software, some of which they haven’t seen before, and learn to deal with a new environment, he says.
Realize that less paper is just the beginning of the payoff. The most visible impact of a move to a paperless office is the reduction in the cost of printing, mailing, shipping and storing paper. Over time, lots of other benefits should become apparent: Less time spent looking for paper lost in the shuffle. Fewer hours looking for bills, documents and, if you’re in business, copies of client documents. The ability to access all sorts of information from computer files — in a matter of seconds without having to search your office. If you’ve got a home office that serves as a satellite office of a business, you can have access to all of your business files, using a product like Terminal Services or other software, even if you’re not at your business location. In short, change can be hard — but it can be profitable.