Is it possible to run a paperless business?

Ten years ago, going paperless would have been desirable but almost impossible. Now, the idea of running a paperless office is just about doable. I should know, I’ve been trying for long enough. Here’s my experiences and some handy tips to help you make your business paperless, too.

I hate filling out forms. I may have an allergy to paperwork. So much so, I often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paperwork myself.

I rarely work hard. I work smart instead. You may find me toiling over something for a while, only to discover that over time, I’ve made a saving in some way. So I’m always on the look-out for novel ways of doing boring things faster and more efficiently. Going paperless falls slap bang into this area, but it’s not been easy.

Why go paperless?

But that’s not the only reason I wish to go paperless; email is much quicker and simpler alternative to sending a letter. And then there’s the green argument, which is entirely justified, too. Even though I’ve been working towards going paperless for years, the reality is much different to the imagined.

While I very rarely send a letter to anyone these days, I still get lots of written correspondence, especially from government agencies, like Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, as well as Customs & Excise. Then there’s the junk mail, which is annoying to say the least.

3 reasons to go paperless in the office

To a greater and lesser extent, I have to make concessions, sacrifices and some extra effort to keep the paperwork to a minimum. And here’s three reasons why you should try running a paperless office:

  1. In your own small way, you’ll be helping the environment. So if you’re a big company and you manage to make the transition to electronic communications and document management, you’ll be making an even greater impact.
  2. Save valuable storage space. I have clients who dedicate entire rooms to filing cabinets and storage boxes. Imagine being able to recover all that space and use it for something more worthwhile.
  3. Going paperless also means going electronic, which means things should be much easier to store and find. I emphasize the word “should” because unless you have a good idea of how you want to store your company data, you’re just as likely to lose a file on your computer as you are a letter on your desk! So unless you have the right processes in place, you won’t feel the full force of the savings a paperless office can offer.

What kind of things can you do electronically?

There’s no point going paperless if you’re not aware of the very things where going paperless will have the greatest impact on your business. So here’s a few places where going electronic will pay dividends over time.

So here’s some ideas, with suggestions for alternative ways of doing things, depending on what the idea is and what it involves.

Internet banking

My internet banking offers a wealth of options for managing my business finances. I can view my account, see next day payments, settle invoices, transfer money between my various accounts, as well as view all of my previous bank statements and much more besides.

I’m in the process of adding my accountants to my internet banking account so they can handle all of my finances, keeping my involvement to a minimum. There are also other savings to be had here, such as less time spent traveling to and from their offices, as well is the calls between the two of us as we try to track down that one lost bank statement.

Submitting your VAT and filing your company accounts

You can now file your VAT on-line. I’ve now authorized my accountants so now I don’t even have to sign anything. And once they get access to my internet banking, I doubt I’ll have any involvement at all.

It’s been possible to file company accounts to Companies House for some years. Slowly but surely, the various government agencies are getting their act together and moving onto the internet.

Manage your projects and time sheets

I wrote my own software some time ago to help me manage my projects and to keep track of my work time. But in the end, I ran out of time to add the kind of features that I needed. In the end, it was cheaper to buy a 3rd party application than spend my time updating my own.

So I bought Daylite and Billings. I’m a Mac, not a PC. So unless you own a Mac, Daylite and Billings are no good for you. However, there are tons of alternatives out there.

Daylite is CRM (Customer Relationship Management) package with some solid project management tools thrown in. I use Daylite to manage all of my client projects, emails and events, and more. Billings in a time tracking and invoicing tool.

They’re both from the same company, which means they work quite closely together, so I can shunt tasks or entire projects into Billings from Daylite.

Here are alternatives to Daylite and Billings for PCs, and here’s some earlier thoughts of mine on project management.

Make notes of meetings and telephone conversations

When I make calls, I often make notes of what was discussed, especially if it’s a lengthy call to (or from) a client. Daylite is great here because it has a calendar built right in. So all I do is double-click on the approximate time in the day cell of the calendar and up pops an event window. All I need to do is add in what was said, by whom, when and for how long for. I bypass paper all together.

Send and receive emails with PDFs, not letters or faxes

So once I’ve completed a project and the client is happy, I send an email containing a copy of the invoice as a PDF file. Billings gives me the option to print the invoice, or save it as a PDF. As a backup, I save all of the PDFs to a special folder, so I have copies available.

This is applicable to anything, really. If you use a Mac, you can “print” any document as a PDF from the print window, which is a huge bonus. Again, make sure you have a good storage policy in place so you know precisely where your documents are.

You can even send and receive electronic faxes. I’ve been using You’re Always Connected for years. You get a number to use for either voicemail or faxes. Now, all of my faxes come through as emails with the fax attached as a PDF. So if the fax is from a client, I just move it to the client folder in my mail client. Simple.

Buy ebooks rather than a printed books

Thinking of buying a book to learn something new? Many publishers are now offering electronic alternatives which you can buy on-line and download right there. In many cases, not only are they cheaper, they often include bonus tools and other extras. If you really, really must, you can make a hard copy — and if you really, really, really must print a copy:

  1. make the type size as small as possible, without it being unreadable;
  2. make the margins as wide as possible, without loosing anything;
  3. if your printer supports it, do a duplex and print both sides, and if not, do it by hand.

Use your iPhone as an ad hoc route planner / alternative to maps

Going to a meeting for the first time? Planning on using Google Maps to plot your route and then print it out? If you have an iPhone, use the Maps app’ and then use it just like a GPS for your car.

You get all of the benefits of Google Maps, such as a turn-by-turn route planning, and it even shows you when you’re in motion, moving along the road.

A better workflow

Sadly, there isn’t one application that will scoop everything up and make all of your paperwork suddenly vanish. You need to commit to a slightly different way of doing things. I’m not going to fool you into thinking this is simple because it isn’t. You need to sit down and workout your workflow and make it more efficient. If you have a team, then it’s a team effort.

As an example, I wrote a web application for a client, which took their system of pen, paper and Excel and transformed it into an app’ called To Book which automates and manages almost all of the hotel room booking process, from initial request to confirmation of reservation. Here’s some ideas for making your company workflow paperless:

  • There’s no getting away from the fact that at some point, you’ll still be using paper. So when you do (be it a print out, or a doodle), use the clean side for making quick notes, and then when you’re done, recycle it.
  • Having the right software is paramount, especially when it comes to notation. You need to be able to launch that app’ fast and make notes quickly, especially when someone calls you on the phone. So make shortcuts to those applications and ensure you can export your notes into something else, like your CRM software.
  • When it comes to software designed to deal with customer data, for example, try to standardize across the business, so everyone is using the same tools for things like notation, calendars, office productivity etc. This way, it’s much easier to synchronize and share your data.

Here’s an article of mine (as a PDF, funnily enough) discussing ways of making your workflow more efficient.

Use web-based office productivity software

Here I’m thinking of Google Docs, but now Microsoft are getting in on the act with Microsoft Docs. You can create and share spreadsheets, presentations and text documents with clients and colleagues wherever and whenever. Also, you can sort and store your documents in colour-coded, named folders, which will help make managing you digital assets that bit easier.

And then there’s Google Wave, too. Wave is a word processor with some added smarts. Several people can type into the same document at the same time, which has some truly amazing side benefits, especially for brainstorming. Also, there’s a visual revision history tool, so you can skip backwards and forwards through the different changes that everyone has made, should you (or anyone else) make a mistake or wish to go off in a different direction.

Here’s some ideas of mine on how to make the most of Google Wave.

Use document management software

Chances are, you’ve got thousands of documents that you can’t just send of to be recycled. Besides, you may still need them. So what do you do? You need a document management system. Essentially, a document management system contains the scanned versions of all your printed materials.

This does depend on the kind of document management software you’d be using, but the process typically involves some kind of OCR, which stands for Optical Character Recognition. Which means? Once scanned, you can search your documents as if they were word processed files. In fact, that’s exactly what they become.

So that room filled with shoulder-high filing cabinets can be squeezed into a modestly sized external hard drive, with room left to spare.

Thoughts from the community

Fujitsu Scansnap scanner, industrial shredder, eFax, Instapaper on iPhone. Paperless office sorted.” — Sally Church of Icarus Consultants.

“I find using Evernote removes the hassle of paper notes. Plus, it also allows you to keep notes sync’d across devices.” — Simon Barker, owner of Zath, the tech & games blog.

“A good place to start going paperless is invoicing — much easier and cheaper to produce and send out PDFs instead of printed forms.” — Brian Heys, freelance software tester.

“Scan your signature, paste it into your documents and email back contracts. Sign up for electronic billing wherever possible. Tick the ‘don’t pass on my details to third parties’ box at all times. Always choose email / text / phone as preferred contact method and not postal mail. Sign up for something like EchoSign so that you can get e-signatures. think before you print, usually you just don’t need to. Cancel newspaper subscriptions, and read news on-line, or get a subscription to Factiva / Lexis Nexis for comprehensive electronic access to the news.” — Emily Cagle, communications consultant.

“Forget business cards connect using LinkedIn (simply typing in a public URL).” — Joe Edwards, designer and marketer for Hurricane Marketing.

“Make a list of all the crap publications you get and wipe them out [unsubscribe], all of them!” — Jon-Marc Creaney, architect and designer.

Conclusion

Hopefully, we’ve managed to fill your head with no end of new ideas. But if you’re already running a paperless office, we want to hear your ideas!

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