There are a number of reasons why businesses should go paperless. It saves time, money, manpower and space. It keeps files more secure, yet makes them easier to access when they’re needed. And the clincher? We could save entire forests. With more than 60 percent of timber harvested worldwide going into making paper — and the United States consuming more than 80 million tons of paper annually, you’d think the positive impact it would have on the planet would be enough.
But it’s not. Many business owners complain that going paperless just isn’t feasible, and that there are too many hurdles to overcome.
Look, we know it isn’t easy. The majority of U.S.-based offices use paper in almost every aspect of their day-to-day operations. But just because it’s the way things have always been done doesn’t mean it’s the way things should always be done. It’s time for a change, and change often involves certain aches and pains. Let’s take a look at some of the barriers that keep companies from going paperless, and how to break them down.
Paper Is Convenient
It’s fairly easy to make paper less convenient for your employees. Start by buying fewer reams and stop buying notebooks and pads at all. Store what little paper you have in locked cabinets, with keys given to a few primary staff members. Then, require employees wanting access to have a valid excuse as to why they cannot use digital means. Remove printing options from employee computers, instead offering dual-monitor setups so they have more screen space to load documents. If you can, get rid of printers and fax machines entirely. If you have vendors and clients who insist on using a fax machine, you can easily use an online fax provider — they email incoming faxes directly to your inbox.
Some Processes Need Paper
It may seem as if certain business processes absolutely depend on paper, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to reinvent the wheel. Start simply by generating all documents as PDFs. This allows them to be filed, signed and reviewed on desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. And if the need for a signature worries you, don’t let it. Documents signed digitally are completely acceptable, as the ESIGN Act of 2000 made electronically signed contracts as legally valid as their hard-copy counterparts.
Internal documents are another stumbling block to going paperless. Fortunately, online notebooks such as Google Docs or Evernote will allow you to store static and dynamic documents, as well as share them easily with employees. Gone are the days of hard-copy employee handbooks — the cloud has you covered.
Manual payroll is a beast — it’s time-consuming, complicated and prone to errors. Luckily, modern technology has made it easier than ever to take your payroll and accounting online. There’s no longer a need to print out and maintain a mass quantity of paperwork!
Online payroll programs allow you to track expenses, create invoices, record hours worked, generate payroll reports and pay employees — all without a scrap of paper involved. Not only does this save a remarkable amount of time, it also saves money. Businesses can save between $2.87 and $3.15 per pay cycle by paying employees electronically instead of by paper check. They can save another $1.20 by providing pay stubs online.
One thing to be aware of is that certain states require employers to offer paper checks as a payment option, while others dictate that employees be able to opt out of online pay stubs. The Internal Revenue Service has requirements as well — employees have to consent to receiving their W2 forms online; if they do not, they must receive a paper copy. Be sure to research these laws before committing to going completely paperless.
Although greater security is actually one of the benefits of going paperless, many business owners cite safety concerns as a reason for not doing so. Now, the digitization of information doesn’t come completely free of security issues, as data can be more more easily copied and shared. However, proper access controls and tracking processes considerably reduce this risk.
Your client portal — where customers receive, supply or access electronic information — should have a secure file transfer system with encrypted protocols and require strong passwords. When sensitive information is encrypted, there is no risk of it being used if stolen. On the other hand, were this information kept on paper, it would be immediately readable to anyone who gained access to it.
Government or Industry Regulations
In some cases, going entirely paperless isn’t possible because government or industry regulations simply don’t allow it. Luckily, that doesn’t happen often these days, as most government departments and industries fully understand that digital documents are just as valid as their paper cousins. In fact, many businesses in strictly controlled industries have successfully instituted paperless processes.
Our Clients/Customers/Business Partners Send Us Paper
Make an announcement to your clients, illustrating the reasons behind your move to paperless. Point out the numerous benefits of the new system and answer any questions they may have. Once you’ve communicated the change with customers, ask them to help you out by sending electronic documents instead of paper whenever possible. Explain that your success is largely dependent on their support.
Next, determine if the companies you pay on a monthly basis offer paperless billing options. This will reduce your paper load, and in some cases, save you even more money by earning discounts from companies that prefer you turn off paper mail.
The Conversion to Going Paperless
When contemplating the extent of converting to a digital-based system, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and completely shut down. In all actuality, transforming a large backlog of physical documents into digital ones requires a substantial amount of time and energy. There are a whole host of decisions to make, from how and when to make the change to how to get employees onboard. To help answer at least a few of these questions — and hopefully save you from decision paralysis — consider this approach to the conversion:
- Determine what you want to accomplish. Anticipate your future needs, from six months down to the road to six years. Consider which documents will be accessed most often and which will need extra security.
- Ensure your current computer hardware is capable of handling further applications and file storage.
- Read up on what tools are required to make the switch to paperless. At the very least, you’ll need a document management system, scanners and a data backup system. Select the tools that work best for your current system and arrange to buy them.
- Sort through existing file cabinets and shred/recycle outdated material that you no longer need — there’s no sense in converting documents that aren’t necessary in the first place. Consult your attorney and accountant to ascertain how many years of receipts and records you should hold onto.
- You’ll want to discover what issues (if any) will come up in the process so you can solve them before broadening your scope. Start with one department, make any necessary changes, and then proceed to the next section of your organization. By transitioning in stages, you can avoid interrupting day-to-day business.
- Establish a plan for company-wide use, including a document storage plan with specific guidelines for employees to adhere to.
- Scan each document, mark it as scanned, and catalog it within the system. All paper documents that have been converted should be stored offsite for 30 to 90 days. This will allow you to make any adjustments in the event an error is made during the process. After the appropriate amount of time has passed, shred or recycle the paper document.
This approach will give you plenty of time to work out the kinks in the transition, discover any additional steps you may need to take, and correct any mistakes made during the process.
Going paperless isn’t easy, nor will it happen overnight. Though a full transition may take months or even years to complete, the benefits you see as a result will make your hard work and planning well worth it. Think of all the trees you’ll save!