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Tips on Taking Your Accounting (and Office) Paper-Free

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With business and virtually all other economic sectors now largely operating with the technological tools of the digital age, companies everywhere have gone, or are currently going paperless. The operational detriments of continuing to collect space-consuming crates of archived paper accounting records and to transmit paper documentation as a way of doing business is now too cumbersome to be economically practical for a modern business looking to work lean and increase efficiencies.

But, can every business operate paperlessly? Is going paperless really the best and most practical way for every business to operate, even yours? And, is the disruption to normal work routines really something any company can manage and remain efficient in production, services, and sales during the process?

Paperless Accounting

Attempting to manage and report even minimal accounting activity across departments for any number of internal management purposes is increasingly inefficient in the modern digitized accounting environment. Additional burdens on efficiency are added to the business with every instance of transmitting updated accounting information and routine reporting to outside investors, tax reporting agencies, lenders, etc., on paper media. Paper-heavy companies simply cannot fit their systems seamlessly with the very automated processes that should be exploitable to serve them more quickly and accurately.

Paper-Laden Business Operations

Unfortunately, in today's digitally-driven general business management environment, indexing, retrieval, electronic transmittal, and manual distribution and other sharing of sales, production, inventory, shipping, accounting and other information on paper presents serious challenges to effective management of time and many essential quality controls.

Why Should My Company Go Paperless?

New paperless technologies make it ever more inviting for companies to avoid many of the burdens of paper-heavy operations and to reduce their carbon footprint as well. Among the countless cost-saving functional benefits to operational efficiency, going paperless will help your business:

  • Operate clutter-free — Going paperless clears great volumes of clutter from your office environment.
  • Save money — There's no comparison between the cost of pages of information created and stored digitally, and the same number of pages created and stored on paper. The EPA estimates that a paperless office saves approximately $80 annually per employee in expenses associated with printing and copy paper, ink and toner, postage, and file storage facilities. Multiplied by all employees in the organization, the total annual savings for any company can make it clear that paperless operation is the most practical option.
  • Present an exemplary PR message — Operating paperlessly identifies your company to your prospective partners and customers as a modern, technologically evolved, ideally managed enterprise, with a highly skilled team that keeps pace with the demands of modern business technology and processes.
  • Save time — Paperless work saves a great amount of time. It eliminates time-wasting steps of printing, filing and manually searching for paper documents. Your record retrieval process is reduced to a few mouse clicks. For many companies, this simple change across the board cuts a very significant number of wasted hours regained for other tasks that increase employees' productivity.
  • Better Access — Digitally storing documents in the cloud instantly makes your organization more flexible. If you have a late meeting across the city, for example, what happens when you find you need to reference a file that's in your office? You're stuck waiting until another day to finish your meeting, or you must carry on without the information you need. Or, you must call an employee to fax paper documents to you. With paperless operations, you can just log in, and instantly pull up your file during your meeting, and show it to your client. Saving this kind of logistical trouble, and cost to a company's professional image are important benefits.
  • Saved Space — If you think in terms of a single piece of paper, it doesn't take much storage space. But, it doesn't' take long to accumulate many thousands of pages. Over years of operation, a business can accumulate stacks and stacks of boxes of files. These can crowd office spaces and ultimately require additional (expensive) storage space. Operating paperless frees up office closets,  meeting rooms, and even whole office suites. Alternatively, digital files occupy no physical space. They can be stored on remote servers and accessed from anywhere you need them on the spot.
  • Stronger Security — Cloud storage for documents is more secure than keeping sensitive information in paper files stored in an office. Digital documents are encrypted and protected by numerous layers of security. And, access can be restricted to only trusted file users. Also, digital files are not at risk of being lost due to fire or theft.
  • Environmentally Sound — The average company uses over 10,000 sheets of paper every year. That's about equal to a small tree. This means that if all businesses were paperless, a whole forest would be saved every year. The environmental benefits of going paperless are not as obvious as the time, paper and printing costs, and space savings, but they are certainly important for every business person, and his or her family, and the world in which he/she must live.

How Can We Become a Paperless Company?

Naturally, the above listed advantages are appealing to all companies. Every business owner wants to save money and operating space, and to improve security and increase sustainability. So, the value to a business in going paperless typically is not the issue that causes business owners to hesitate in making the transition to paperless operations. The usual concern is about how to become a paperless organization. The best advice is to plan your strategy thoroughly, starting with areas of simple, high volume usage, which can yield the greatest amount of reduction with a relatively low amount of confusion or disruption to daily routines. Some examples include:

Make a plan for document disposal. — There is no avoiding he effort that will necessarily be spent scanning existing paper documents and converting physical files to digital ones. There are various good options for disposing of loads of paper documents, including the following 3-step sample process:

  1. Document collection — Mark each document after scanning, and organize scanned documents according to any criteria you determine is most appropriate, perhaps based on the date that the file or document was copied to digital format.
  2. Offsite storage — Move all scanned documents that have been copied to digital files to a storage unit off-site for a period of months. This permits you to remove the files, while allowing abundant time for correction of an error that may have occurred during the process.
  3. Destroy and dispose — After this file holding period has elapsed, have all of the documents shredded and dispose of the loads in a secure manner. Then you can eliminate the storage and move forward as a paperless company.

You could elect to skip step 2, however, at least through the first several rounds of bulk file conversions, it may be advisable to give your team this safety net.

Explain "Why" the change is being made. — To help employees stay engaged, help them clearly understand the reasoning behind the undertaking.

  • Don't just announce that the company is going paperless. That is unlikely to bring the entire team fully on board with the project.
  • Do explain "Why" the change is being made. This will increase your liklihood of overall success in a smooth and efficient transition.

Implement new protocols — In reducing or eliminatIng the use of paper in your operations, there's no avoiding re-creating some of your business processes to incorporate procedures that make paper unnecessary.

  • Start generating reports in PDF format. This allows reviewers to view and comment on files on laptop, or even by smartphone.
  • Train smartphone users to utilize Apps that capture paper file contents, and convert them to digital files.
  • Eliminate requirements for printed documents to be signed on paper. Use online signature resources instead.

Make paper inconvenient — Finally, start making it inconvenient for internal participants and external supply chain members to use paper to interface with your business systems. Among other methods:

  • Provide for dual-monitor use on desktops, to give employees abundant screen space for loading documents.
  • Disable printing functions on computers.
  • Register to receive paperless billing statements from vendors and services providers.
  • Eliminate fax printers, copiers, and fax machines from offices.

Over time, paperless operation will become a habit for employees, and it will come to make outdated paper-laden operating modes seem, by contrast, very burdensome, excessively time consuming, error-prone, and less efficient overall.

Which Paper Can We Eliminate?

Internal documents — Share files without printing them. Access files stored on a shared drive, and/or use Google Docs file sharing features, Microsoft Office 365 interactive document editing features, Basecamp, or one of a number of other systems for sharing and/or collaborating on documents.

Billing statements — Save postage, paper, envelopes, and man hours coordinating invoices and checks, mailing bills and payments, and issuing receipts. And, track  your payments much more quickly and easily. Many companies these days even offer incentives for you to manage your company's accounts online.

Large files — For frequent sharing of large files, a file transfer system may be useful, in addition to limited access to shared folders on shared internal drives. Dropbox is a popular option for creating group folders and quickly distributing reports, and Office 365 provides a variety of similar reporting alternatives as well as report modification features and quick view functions, with varying degrees of user access for viewing, vs. modifying reports.  YouSendIt also provides for sharing and storage of large files.

Meetings documents — For handouts during meetings and presentations, TeamViewer provides users remote access to project display onto the screens of networked computers around the clock, via any other computer, or smartphone.

Faxed and scanned documents — Many companies still depend on scanning and/or faxing, even while surrounded by online and other digital solutions. TurboScan is a user-friendly App that lets you use your cell phone's camera as a scanner, and converts images captured to PDFs for emailing. And, eFax.com transmits the emailed PDFs directly into your email inbox.

Internal servers — Eliminate practices of paper letter writing, contracts, sales documents, interoffice memos, company newsletters, training materials, operating procedures, safety procedures, process documentation, payroll records, receivables, warehouse and shipping records, inventory charts, bookkeeping ledgers, accounting reports, and any other paper files that could be shared and stored digitally. Maintain as much as possible on cloud servers, and treat in-house network servers as what they are, premium digital operating space to be rationed as storage, if possible, for use as necessary for certain unique purposes.

Remember, going paperless doesn't happen in a single day or week. To reduce your firm's dependence on paper documentation, and move toward a fully digital mode of operation requires strategy and patience. A complete transition can take years for some companies. But, by incorporating  the comparatively simple strategy outlined above, you can simplify the process, reduce risk of errors, and optimize efficiency of the conversion. 

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