14 Tips for Creating a Paperless Office

Half a century after marketers coined the term 'paperless office,' the concept largely remains a myth. Today's businesses probably can't go completely paperless, but these 14 tips will at least help them stop wasting paper and start improving productivity.

The " paperless office," coined as a marketing slogan in the early days of the IBM computer, has not yet arrived, despite anecdotal evidence that the use of paper may finally be on the downtrend. For proof, just step into the office of any small business.

At a time when almost every employee has access to a computer terminal, and when mobile devices with pixel densities indistinguishable from that of print media are now commonplace, it's strange that more hasn't done to reduce the usage of paper.

Paperless Office Not Without Limitations

One big reason is that, when it comes to eradicating paper, organizations must be realistic. Completely eliminating paper may not be economical or even practical for everyone. The realities of paper in our society force even the most tech-savvy businesses, even start-ups with no legacy processes and habits, to contend with external forces such as client needs and regulatory or legal requirements. Moreover, industries such as law and auditing may not be good candidates to go paperless due to the historical prevalence of paper.

In addition, doodling or sketching represents a good way for some to flesh out their thoughts. While excellent alternatives such as the Jolt Script stylus have emerged to deliver an experience comparable to that of using a real pen, they can be pricey and may not convince a purist. The point is, there may be situations where it would be unfair and counterproductive to insist on change, especially if the resulting reduction in paper usage is minimal.

[ Analysis: Why the Paperless Office Continues to Elude Us ]

With this in mind, here are some practical strategies for significantly reducing your overall volume of paper usage. We also take a closer look at how you can better equip your employees to work more effectively in a paperless environment.

Reduce, Discourage Paper Usage

The first step toward reducing paper usage is simply emphasizing the move toward reducing paper usage. This can be done in a variety of no- or low-cost initiatives that underscore the seriousness of the paperless drive.

1. Track the number of pages printed per person, generate a monthly report and email it to everyone. Obviously, this works best if the capability to track printing is already supported by the existing multifunctional machine or printer server. Depending on how printers are set up, standalone print server software such as Print Inspector may work too, though cost may be prohibitive for small businesses. (Print Inspector costs $500 for 10 clients or $1,000 for a site license.)

2. Make it less convenient to print. Reduce the number of printers in your office by consolidating smaller, low-end machine with printers capable of higher print volumes at a central location. Without printers on their desks, employees are less likely to print frivolously; this has the added benefit of improving cost effectiveness.

3. Request paperless statements from banks and service providers such as the telecommunications company. Make a conscious effort to pay bills online, too, as this reduces not just the use of paper checks and envelopes needed to post them but also improves overall productivity.

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4. While it's decidedly low-tech, actively advocating a culture of reuse and recycling can modify prevailing attitudes toward paper usage. An empty box for collecting non-confidential documents for recycling can help, as do email signatures that discourage the unnecessary printing of emails messages.

Re-architect Key Business Processes

If you want to substantially reduce paper usage, there's no running away from re-architecting certain business process to identify procedures that make needless use of paper. One of the simplest remedies: Generate reports directly in PDF format, which can be reviewed on a laptop, tablet or even smartphone.

5. Do away with physical signing printed documents, particularly internal ones. Even for external contracts, the need for a signature has roots more in historical precedence than actual legal requirement. In the United States, for example, the ESIGN Act of 2000 gives validity to electronic signatures, making an electronic signature contract as legally valid as signed hard-copy contracts.

6. Reproduce internal documents on Wikis or online notebooks such as Google Docs or Evernote instead. The latter supports the sharing of entire notebooks or individual notes, which is handy for disseminating both static and dynamic materials such as an employee handbook or meeting notes.

7. Completely discard fax from the business process and replace paper forms with fillable PDF forms that are submitted via email or a Web browser. The free PDFescape online tool will create PDF files with the relevant form fields, while paid applications such as Nitro Pro 9 and Acrobat XI offer more sophisticated functionality.

Support Infrastructure to Enable Paperless Office

Getting the right infrastructure can go a long way going paperless office. Below are a number of software tools, services and pieces of hardware that can be put in place to support the paperless office.

8. Consider a dual or multi-monitor setup. One common reason that workers print documents is the need to cross-reference them with another document. You can reduce wasteful printing by setting up a multi-monitor workstation. Giving employees two (or three) screens provides more digital real estate and offers a productivity boost at the same time. LCD monitors typically outlast computer upgrades, too, so this is one cost you'll only need to pay once.

[ More: 6 Ways to Use Multiple Displays With Your Laptop ]

9. In order to work with vendors and clients that insist on using the fax machine, sign up for an online fax provider that will email an incoming fax direct to your inbox. This mature market includes various free and paid options that essentially eliminate the need for a physical fax machine. For example, the eFax paid option allows users to send up to 150 pages per month from an email message, through an online portal, or from a mobile app.

10. Digitizing paper notes and printed literature makes it easy to share documents electronically and lowers the temptation to make photocopies. Aside from network scanners, recent years have seen the rise of "personal" scanner meant for small group or even individual use. The portable flatbed Doxie Flip scanner, for example, can capture what's written in notebooks and other content that may not fit through the feeder of a conventional sheet-fed scanner.

11. Optical character recognition (OCR) software turns the static images or PDF files created by hardware scanners into editable files that are substantially more useful. For example, ABBYY FineReader turns PDF files and digital photographs into Microsoft Word, Excel or searchable PDF formats.

[ Case Study: Supermarket Gets Rid of Customer Receipts, Stores Them in Personal Cloud ]

12. For the inevitable paperwork that must be printed, using both sides can cut paper usage by half. Printers that support duplex printing today are highly reliable and available at just a slight premium over non-duplex capable models. In fact, many mid-end printers set this feature as default.

Up the Ante on Paperless Productivity

Of course, digitizing paper isn't just about reducing waste. In many cases, digitized notes offer the convenience of being searchable and occupy no physical space when stored as binary bits on a storage drive. Why not take it to the next level and attempt to increase personal productivity through the use of digitization technologies?

13. On this front, a variety of smartphone apps, including CamCard and WorldCard Mobile, will capture the content of business cards and generate a digital contact.

14. Meanwhile, for businesses that don't own a hardware scanner, apps such as TurboScan and Scanner Pro can capture documents with a smartphone's build-in camera. These files can be subsequently uploaded to a cloud storage service, where they can be shared and subsequently viewed from a smartphone or tablet.

Successfully reducing the use of paper isn't a one-time event. It's a series of continuous efforts to move away from paper and establish a culture that frowns on waste. Re-architecting business processes to reduce paper usage is an unavoidable activity, but adopting the right tools can go a long way toward creating an environment to support the paperless office.

Ultimately, businesses shouldn't stop at eliminating paper but should push for greater digitization in order to reap its full benefits.

Paul Mah is a freelance writer and blogger who lives in Singapore. He has worked in various capacities within the IT industry and enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones and networking devices. You can reach Paul at paul@mah.sg and follow him on Twitter at @paulmah.

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This story, "14 Tips for Creating a Paperless Office" was originally published by CIO.

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