A paperless office is a work environment in which the use of paper is eliminated or greatly reduced. This is done by converting documents and other papers into digital form.
For practical purposes in a small business, the term "paperless" is a bit of a misnomer; it's difficult and almost impossible to totally eliminate paper from a workflow. Contracts, government documents and employment forms are examples of business materials that often need printing on paper even if you scan and store the final documents electronically. Some of your customers may not be set up for electronic billing or may prefer paper bills. Even if your goal is a paperless office, acknowledge the fact that there still will be some paper documents to deal with.
A paperless office uses less physical space when bulky filing cabinets are eliminated or reduced. Relocating to a smaller office or building may be possible, saving money on a lease. In a paperless office, electronic faxes and email replace the need to print, mail and ship documents to clients, which reduces expenses, as does lowering your investment in reams of paper. The chances of losing important documents are lower when scanned and filed electronically, and the documents are often easier to find in an electronic system. The potential for misfiled paper documents is high. Processing documents electronically opens up the opportunity for employees to work remotely and for you to offer flexible work schedules, particularly if you employ remote access to the company system. This can improve efficiency and employee morale. Aside from purely practical considerations, your clients may view a paperless office favorably, approving of an environmentally friendly approach or admiring an efficient, cutting-edge company.
Up-to-date computer hardware and software is essential for a paperless office, so you may have to upgrade your systems initially and keep them upgraded, which comes at a cost. If you don't have an IT person in your company, you may need to hire one to monitor your system, train new users and perform regular backups of your information. Maintaining tight security for your documents and business information is vital, and the more people you have using a system, the closer it must be monitored for privacy issues and computer viruses. It takes time and expense to train employees to function in a paperless office, and some people are reluctant to radically change their ways. A paperless office is also vulnerable to human error. Improperly scanned documents can result in incomplete records, and files that are incorrectly named or stored electronically are often difficult to retrieve.
Consult with an attorney as you weigh the pros and cons of going paperless. State or federal regulations may apply to the storage and archiving or certain types of documents, such as tax forms. Ensure that your business insurance covers the loss of electronic documents, including any damage that could arise and the cost of replacing them. If you decide on a paperless office, start slow, integrating one system at a time, such as switching to electronic faxes before implementing an electronic billing system. If you decide against a paperless office, you still can reduce the amount of paper you use by more heavily utilizing electronic faxes and email.