Going paperless means using paper wisely and sparingly, and finding effective alternatives.

Going Paperless Saves Time and Hassle

  • 12/1/2010

When people hear the phrase “going paperless,” they often assume they’ll no longer be using paper in daily tasks or even have access to it in their office. This obviously isn’t true or practical. Going paperless means using paper wisely and sparingly, and finding effective alternatives.

For many, switching from a paper-based work environment to electronic sounds like a headache. Maybe they’re comfortable with their processes as is or aren’t convinced of the benefits. But consider these statistics:

  • Organizations spend in labor costs (on average): $20 to file a document, $120 to find a misfiled document, and $220 to reproduce a lost document. (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
  • Of all documents, 7.5 percent get lost; 3 percent of the remainder get misfiled. (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
  • Professionals spend 5–15 percent of their time reading information, but up to 50 percent looking for it. (PricewaterhouseCoopers)
  • The average cost to process a single invoice manually is $24. (IOMA)
  • Of 1,200 organizations surveyed, 40 percent indicated disaster recovery planning is not a priority. (Captaris)
  • Two out of five companies that experience a disaster are out of business in five years. (Gartner)

Applications vary greatly

Across all industries and professions, organizations are moving toward paperless practices. Consider the following examples I’ve run into.

Tax preparation — Our tax department uses software to automate the workflow of producing the tax return. The software tracks everything from due dates to documents received to sign-offs to ensure the appropriate staff have reviewed the returns.

Accounting department — When it comes to accounting, going paperless can significantly improve efficiency and enhance your internal controls. I work with clients that have implemented a cloud-based accounting system, which gives them the ability to attach supporting documents to various transactions. For example, in the accounts payable process, they can scan invoices, attach them to check requests, and then route those check requests for approval electronically. The accounting system retains the documentation around the approvals, thereby giving management (and the auditors) peace of mind.

Regulatory compliance — Recently I worked with a large organization that sends all its contracts to be approved by a federal regulatory agency—a very time consuming and paper intensive process. We recommended a secure, web-based system where approvals can be done online and notifications are sent by email or to a user’s dashboard. It allows the regulatory agency to approve and sign-off on the contract online, thereby reducing the need for paper to be sent back and forth. This document management program also integrates with their accounting system, so users can locate documents and contracts easily.

Health care — New laws have been passed requiring health care organizations to move to electronic health records (EHR), and many incentives are available. My cousin, an oncologist in Florida, explained how their system allows him to check on patients even while at home. With computer-based records, a doctor can to read a patient’s chart before rounds each morning, so he doesn’t have to be studying the chart at the same time he’s talking to the patient.

Writing, editing, and office work — By leveraging Adobe and Microsoft software, users can mark-up documents and add notes just like you would on paper. Using multiple computer monitors (which I am as I write this article) makes research, drafting, and reviewing much more efficient.

Common concerns: security and cost

When it comes to accounting, going paperless can significantly improve efficiency and enhance your internal controls.Security and costs are common concerns when converting to paperless communication and storage. Typically, web-based systems are hosted at top tier data warehouses with IT infrastructure comparable to Fortune 100 companies. Many of these companies provide everything from onsite back-ups to disaster recovery plans. This is a much more effective storage facility than rooms full of filing cabinets with no back up. Of course each vendor has different procedures, so it would be wise to vet this information if you choose this route.

The costs of going paperless vary widely. Implementing EHR technology throughout a system of hospitals will be pricey, but the federal government has already created tax incentives through the health reform legislation. A lot of the web-based software companies spread out the cost among many clients, offering pricing and features that small to midsize business normally couldn’t afford. And learning how to mark up and share a Word document costs nothing but a few minutes of time through a self-directed tutorial.

Do what makes sense for your organization

It’s probably obvious that I’m a huge fan of technology alternatives to paper and files. Even here at our Washington, DC, office, I lead the migration of our technology to a paperless environment.

If you're ready to start transitioning your office, take small steps. It can be as simple as taking the paperless concepts you already embrace in your personal life (e.g., online bank statements) and employing that same mindset to your office. Maybe you like the idea of adding a second monitor to help cut down the number of documents you print. Another simple step is automating your accounts payable process by scanning your bills into a system, having the appropriate approvers sign-off on the transaction, and then paying the bills online.

We’re all creatures of habit and this can seem like an overwhelming process. Just remember, going paperless doesn’t have to mean a complete overhaul of your world.