Doing business without paper can offer a number of appealing benefits to many companies. But there are some significant obstacles that, so far, have made it difficult to become a completely paperless office. That's why businesses may want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of a paperless office before they go in one direction or the other.
Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, an online incorporation service based in Calabasas, California, sees easier collaboration and sharing as a major advantage of digital documents over paper ones.
"One of the pros of paperless is that it is all in an electronic form and easily accessible by multiple people," Sweeney says. "The documents are easier to manage and do not get lost."
Facilitated teamwork is also a plus of having a paperless office, says Walter Thinfen, president and CEO of Visioneer, a Pleasanton, California-based imaging solutions provider.
"Whether it's email, file sharing or cloud storage, a digital office makes it much easier to share documents, especially in today's workplace where everything is highly distributed," Thinfen says.
In addition to easing collaboration for employees of a business, many clients find going paperless to be more efficient too, according to Lawrence Miles, principal at Los Angeles wealth management firm AdvicePeriod.
"They love not getting the stacks of statements," Miles says.
Improved audit trails constitute another benefit of digital documents, Thinfen adds. "You can enable track changes, track edits and compare documents," he says. "In a paper format that's very difficult."
Saving Pennies From Going Paperless
Cost savings may be among the most significant benefits of having a paperless office.
"Going paperless significantly cuts costs in paper, toner, maintenance and, most importantly, time," Thinfen says.
Employees may be able to find, access and share digital documents more readily compared to paper forms. And electronic file processing can also be automated, potentially producing greater savings.
—Walter Thinfen, president/CEO, Visioneer
Digital documents are also generally regarded as preferable for the environment because they don't require cutting down trees or physical transport.
"More and more companies are looking to be known as socially responsible companies," Thinfen notes. And one way businesses can demonstrate commitment to sustainable business practices is by using little or no paper.
Some consider electronic information easier to store than paper files. Digital records consume a fraction of the space of comparable paper documents. Making backup copies, as well as storing and accessing backups in safe off-site locations, can be simpler, quicker and more secure with digital documents.
"The recent hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, were perfect examples of why digital is better than paper," says John Waldmann, founder and CEO of Homebase, a San Francisco-based provider of electronic solutions for managing hourly employees. "So many businesses lost the paper records they had due to storm damage and flooding."
Waldmann says his customers affected by the disasters were able to quickly restore critical records from cloud-based storage and get back into operation.
Potential Paperless Office Problems
While eliminating paper has its advantages, there are reasons why the paperless office has yet to become ubiquitous. Among the potential problems holding paperless offices back are worries about the effects of power outages hampering access to crucial records. There is also the risk of malware infecting digital documents.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle is that some customers, vendors and employees simply prefer paper. For example, many of the financial services companies Miles does business with require pen-and-ink signatures on paper.
"One company might accept an electronic signature, another might not," he says.
Security-related concerns about data breaches could also keep some businesses from completely embracing the paperless vision. Thinfen says that companies need to be particularly attentive to security procedures exercised by third-party services that digitize paper-based information.
A Paperless Program
Businesses that are attempting to reduce or eliminate paper can perhaps best approach it as a change management program. Ideally, all parties that will be affected will participate in planning, specifying and implementing it.
"It needs to extend outward to incorporate conversations with supplies and customers," Thinfen says. "Everybody needs to be on the same wavelength."
Waldmann advises seeking technology providers that work well with other technology solutions.
"Also look for tech tools that are easy to use for you, your managers and your employees," he says. "Good digital solutions shouldn't require much training."
Although obstacles to a fully paperless office remain, before long these may be overcome by the pressures of competition. As business becomes steadily more tech-centric, companies may simply be unable to afford to keep using non-digital information in almost any form.
"You have to have a strategy around going paperless in order to fully embrace artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and big data," Thinfen says. He anticipates that those holding out on shedding their paper past will give in, and within a few years the truly paperless office will be not just a reality, but a requirement.
Miles agrees, and says that because of the competitive advantages of being all-digital, he regards achieving paper-free operations as essential.
"In our opinion, it's not only feasible to go completely paperless, but you have to," he says. "It's not really a nice-to-have, so much as it's a must-have."
Read more articles on industry trends.