Paper Stack

The paperless office concept has been around since the 1960s or ‘70s, much like the flying car. For many people, this has been little more then a myth. How can we get rid of the paper while our offices are filled with photocopiers and fax machines and the postal carriers and couriers keep bringing in reams of the stuff daily? What about the need to keep receipts for accounting and tax purposes? And what about the contracts and other legal documents? It is hard, but getting easier to do every day.

Well, the short answer is that in a normal office environment today, we can’t really do it 100%, certainly not in one simple step without burning down the building. But there are some simple steps that we can take toward the goal of not having to constantly manage piles of paper at home or the office. A few decisive steps applied over enough time can dramatically reduce if not eliminate the paper.

Before going through the specific steps, we need to consider there being two kinds of paper documents: those we need to retain for the longer term (let’s call them records) and those that are transient in nature (call them working files). Different approaches work for these two basic kinds of papers or documents. The nature of your office and work has a great deal to do with which type of paper you can reduce or eliminate the most easily. A legal, accounting or medical office will likely have a harder time making its records paperless than an ad agency or political campaign office would. Decide which of the paper reduction steps you take and in what order you take them based on what you do and the importance of the various records and working files.

Ten steps toward converting your office to a paperless one:

  1. Begin with the end in mind. Be clear on your objectives so that you can target your conversion most effectively. For example, if efficiency is a more important objective than environmental, don’t try cutting your paper volume in half by recycling paper through the copiers to print on the backside. Double-sided copying easily jams the machine and often confuses whoever gets handed stuff printed on both sides. We found increasing the efficiency of the records management system much more important than reducing the number of working papers. By targeting the records management, the working papers reductions naturally followed.
  2. Decide on a date for a switch from paper-based to paperless for everything going forward. Chose a date far enough ahead that everyone can work toward. Not everything needs to be switched at one time. Don’t worry about converting old records until you have time to get around to doing something about converting them. Many of them can probably be kept without any changes and discarded once they get to a certain age.
  3. Establish an electronic records retention system and get comfortable using it before becoming committed to it. We didn’t go out and get an expensive or complicated system installed then make a hard conversion. What we did early on was to create a filenaming system that automatically sorts itself chronologically in most file directories. Just like the filename for this article which begins 20071106_1600… This is simply the metric system of year, month, day and time to the nearest minute or hour based on a 24 hour clock. If we save a version of this file on one person’s laptop then email it to the office, it gets filed automatically by whomever receives it. Revisions are easily handled by simply superimposing a new date/time at the beginning of the filename. We started doing this long before the switch date.
  4. Place a filename on every document worth keeping. In our office, if a document does not have a filename, it gets named or tossed out. This is true whether it is a paper or electronic document.
  5. Retain a paper file as the primary record for anything before the switch and the electronic record as the primary record for anything after the switch date. This is not a complicated thing. In our office, like most offices, there is often more then one copy of the important things around. We got into the habit of knowing where the record was then tossing out or deleting duplicates once done with them, especially for the paper duplicates. We get comfortable knowing that anything prior to January 1, 2005 worth having a record of has a paper version someplace and everything afterward can be found on a server.
  6. Inform your clients and suppliers of your paperless orientation. Come out of the closet and let everyone know because most people find it great. This does not mean you should beat up a client who wants you to send hardcopy proofs or a signed original instead of an electronic version. We tend to give clients whatever they want. However, we do beat up our suppliers. Our lawyers were some of the toughest holdouts but they eventually learned how to send everything electronically and scan documents that had to have signatures on them.
  7. Keep your technology and systems simple and compatible with what most people use. The great news is that PCs and MACs use file systems that no longer conflict with each other. There are still problems with using different types of graphics and multi-media formats but these are diminishing. If we stick to the basic formats, most people can deal with them. Be careful about using fringy formats, especially for records that need to be retained long term.
  8. Check and upgrade your older files from time to time to make sure they remain usable. CDs or tapes are a problem. They deteriorate and some of the earlier formats are no longer supported. We keep our records in live formats. Maintaining a backup server is no harder or more expensive than keeping an inventory of off-line storage media. Paper records deteriorate too if printed on acid paper or stored in a bad environment.
  9. Adopt an “If in doubt, throw it out” policy. We tend to be a bit quicker than most to toss out stuff we are not sure of. The odds are that since we only tend to ever look at maybe 1% of the records we store, there is a high probability the stuff we are deciding whether or not to keep is not worth keeping.
  10. Recognize and reward those who help meet the objectives. Whether someone becomes able to electronically edit or deliver documents on the fly or is finally replacing an old Remington manual typewriter with a computer, take the effort to show how this produces positive impacts, whether on the bottom line or the environment.

These were some basic steps we used and recommend that can help you make the shift. We reduced our paper consumption about 95% over the past five years. If you have already made shifts toward a paperless office and have some other ideas, please let us know by posting a comment. Or let us know if you had any problems in trying to create a paperless office.

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