Blog Post

Is a Paperless Office a Pipedream or Really Possible?

“Paperless Office.”

That has a nice ring to it. But is it really attainable for anyone other than those who can get obsessive about scanning and shredding?

I’ve been trying to reduce paper, but in the process, I’ve felt a mental backlash that is driving me back to paper. Hey, I was one of the first folks to get a Palm early on, convinced that I would be replacing my paper organizer. I had one of the first Kyocera smart phone prototypes in 2000, seeing the possibility of getting rid of my paper address book, too.

My Failed Attempts at Paperless

When I got my 3-in-1 printer, I was gungho about having a scanner. I set out to rid my garage of the most onerous paper pile ever – magazines. I have boxes and boxes of magazines either with articles I’ve written or articles about me and my work in them. I haven’t been able to throw them out. But scanning them, while it seemed promising, has left me with a slew of disorganized scanned articles and once organized magazine piles in disarray.

I just think I’m missing a critical part of my brain that can go from filing papers in manila folders and placing them into hanging folders and doing the virtual version of that. To this day, I’m lucky if I can find a digital document, even with the handy Finder search. But give me a few minutes, and I can almost always place my hands on a paper I need.

These days, I still cannot get rid of my paper calendar even with iCal on my laptop, iCal on my iPhone, 30Boxes on the Web and using Spanning Sync to sync it all up with Google Calendar. It may sound like overkill, but I still forget appointments and double book myself. I have managed to get rid of the paper address book which was perpetually caked with White-Out and eraser marks and am using my Mac address book synced with my iPhone.

But in general, I’m drowning in paper. Stacks of it, files of it, drawers full of it. I know there must be a better way.

Advice from Our Bloggers

I’ve turned to my fellow WWD bloggers to find out what they think of the Paperless Office concept, how they’ve gone about trying to attain it and to what degree of success.

Imran Ali pointed me toward his review of Shoeboxed, a way to organize receipts. That tip alone has set my mind whirring about possibilities because the only thing worse than piles of paper is a big, fat envelope full of completely disorganized receipts.

Imran does feel a paperless office is possible, “the only paper I use is a $2 notebook from Muji! I tend not to print unless I’m sending snail mail and I’ve gotten into the habit of reading & archiving almost everything I need to on-screen. Invoicing, billing etc. is all issued electronically.”

Adds Imran, “I guess with email and IM being my principal form of communication, it’s been easy to ‘force’ paper-based communication into a digital channel…now with a whole bunch of web-based applications, more and more activities can be taken into digital form. On the whole I’ve managed to stay paperless without contriving my workflow…though I’d really love some sorta ebook reader, tablet or supersize iPhone for reading.”

Mike Gunderloy believes a paperless office is possible. “Or at least, you can settle on an amount of paper you’re willing to live with and keep it down to that amount.”

Says Mike, “The key for me was to get a decent scanner – the ScanSnap s510M in my case – and start just running everything first through the scanner, and then through the shredder, as soon as it arrives. The other essential tool for me is EagleFiler, which lets me save everything as separate files and still find them quickly. And of course a decent backup plan.”

Judi Sohn feels that the problem isn’t the paper she generates. “It’s the paper that’s thrust upon me. I have been working towards a paperless office for a while now, some days more successful than others.  But no matter how hard I try, people still assume I want paper. I actually had someone FAX me a print out from their email. How insane is that? I get my faxes as emailed PDFs, so I received an email which had an attachment that was a picture of an email. Nuts. Those are the people that make this impossible.”

To try to go paperless, Judi first got an eFax account and a scanner. “That has gone a long way. While I’d say my professional life is 100% digital these days, the paper in my office right now is all related to my kids. School reports, flyers and the like. I also think something like PDFPen or Acrobat Pro is essential for getting paper into PDF without a lot of hassle.”

Scott Blitstein says that he guesses going paperless “is theoretically possible with the right equipment, process and effort – basically time and money.”

Scott also says he generates very little printed copy in his work. “I do all of my invoicing and messaging electronically, and receive as many of my bills as possible that way as well. I do need to have printed copies of some work orders and other documents for signature purposes but those are kept to a minimum.”

Adds Scott, “While I do my best to minimize my printing, if I do have to print something, or if it comes to me on paper, it will probably stay in that format. I do very little digitizing of pre-existing paper items and still maintain a healthy paper based filing system.”

What are benefits of being paperless as a Web worker?

Imran Ali says…

“For me it’s really just two things…

  1. Mobility – most of the documentation I need can be accessed from a computer or a phone.
  2. Serendipity – ensuring things are in digital form means that they can be searchable, I can do analysis, reporting etc. which can give me valuable and surprising insights. If things are on paper, it’s sorta dead information – in digital form, they’re alive and can be more readily remixed.”

Mike Gunderloy says…

“Less clutter! And it’s faster to find things by search on the computer than to remember where I filed them by hand.”

Judi Sohn says…

“1. I can access my data from anywhere.
2. Searchable archives.”

Free From Paper

Clearly there are business benefits to going paperless. I dream of a totally paper-free office. But getting the right equipment to make it happen is key. Then making the time to migrate from paper to digital takes time. The biggest obstacle, however, is mindset. You have to make a commitment to freedom from paper and be consistent in your efforts.

Have you gone paperless? If so, how did you do it? If not, what have been the barriers?

13 Responses to “Is a Paperless Office a Pipedream or Really Possible?”

  1. Nice article, hard copies are almost impossible to avoid in a small business but consider these tips from Earthtone to reduce printing:
    1. Print only what you need – Sounds obvious right?
    2. Measure twice, cut once – reduce the need for wasteful re-printing by detecting errors before the print job is executed.
    3. Get your printing done on the go – Let your fingers do the walking, and use the internet to find the print shop that is closest to where your documents need to be.
    4. Store and share your documents online – you can reach out to your road warriors to review a PowerPoint, or collaborate with your home office on a proposal without having to print and ship hard copies of the drafts.

  2. Another vote for the ScanSnap. I use the S300M which is the smaller, portable version. Almost every piece of mail that I need to keep goes into it and then the shredder.

    I also did a massive scan-and-shred-athon on my filing cabinet. I wished I had the S510M for that.

    I personally scan it to PDF, then Acrobat OCRs it, then I back it up both to an external HD and to an online backup service. If you go paperless, backups are key.

    I alternate between using Spotlight to find files (since the PDFs are searchable) and I am currently playing around with Yep. Great program.

  3. Tom Daly

    Let’s say you’ve scanned all your magazine articles into individual files. What you need to do then is maintain a database about those files.

    Enter OpenOffice Writer.

    On the Menu Bar click Tools/Bibliography Database. OpenOffice comes with an example database, we’ll just add a few records to it to illustrate some possibilities.

    Click on the yellow star to add a record. Fill in the Short Name, Title, and User-Defined-1 fields putting the full path/name of one of your scanned files in User-Defined-1. Leave the Type field as “Article”.

    Do this for a few more of your scanned files.

    You now have a small database of your articles. Let’s put that database to use.

    Back in the main Writer window, navigate to Insert/Indexes and Tables. On the Index/Table tab select Bibliography from the Type dropdown. On the Entries tab leave the Type as Article, just to the right of that select the User-Defined-1 field from the dropdown, change the Character Style to Default, and press OK. This defines the format of this document’s Bibliography.

    Now let’s add some entries from the database into this document’s Bibliography.

    On the Menu Bar navigate to Insert/Indexes and Tables/Bibliography Entry. Using the Short Name field, select one of the records you added to the database. Click Insert. Select a few more of your database entries and then click Close.

    Now the Bibliography Entry fields are in your document and they point to entries in the database, but they need to have the current data brought in. To do this navigate to Tools/Update/Update All. You should now see info from your database in the document.

    This hardly scratches the surface of what you can do with the Bibliography Database and this is just a “down and dirty” illustration. But it should give you some ideas and help get you going.

    The more I learn about OpenOffice the more I like it. It’s powerfull, flexible, and an open xml based spec. And oh yeah, it costs nothing.


  4. I’ve been using for about six months now and I really like it. Just put my receipts in an envelope, and they automatically go online and are automatically sortable and categorized for me. Receipts are one of those things that you always get… there’s no avoiding them. At least with Shoeboxed you can get them digitized without doing any of the scanning yourself.

  5. At home I have a printer connected to my iBook, but it’s about 4 or 5 years old and I’ve never replaced the ink cartridges and I’m assuming they’re drier than the Sahara by now.

    I only print to PDF. If I need to take something with me I load the PDF file onto my Nokia N810. I’ve been able to rent cars just by reading off my confirmation number, or simply giving them my name. Other stuff I simply never have to produce it. Sure, it’s a good idea to print (to PDF) a confirmation you bought those N*Sync Reunion Tour tickets, but odds are you’ll never have to prove it to anyone because your tickets will in fact arrive. Why waste the paper, ink, and filing cabinet space?

    If I find myself with a critical PDF file or other information I’ll email it to my GMail account where I know it’s safe and sound.

  6. I also use a Fujitsu ScanSnap that sits on my desk.

    I’ve got about 39,000 pages of scanned images, most with quick and dirty OCR by Abbyy to let me find which filename to look in.

    I’d say about 95% of my paper is now inside the network.

  7. I run an Enterprise Content Management consulting firm based in Fair Oaks, California.
    The only way to achieve the paperless office is to stop paper from happening in the first place.

    – Don’t own a printer
    – Don’t own a fax machine
    – Increase screen real estate
    – Sign up for electronic bills
    – Purchase everything with American Express
    – Keep electronic copies of everything in a searchable archive

    Prevention is the art of causing something not to happen. Good luck.

  8. I am, of course, using DEVONthink Pro Office and the Fujitsu ScanSnap S500M. DEVONthink comes with a dedicated plugin for the ScanSnap so configuration is a no-brainer and the integrated OCR makes all scans searchable. I build archive databases for each year that I save to the JungleDisk.

    Disclaimer: I am the president of DEVONtechnologies, makers of DEVONthink Pro Office.