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12 Steps to a Paperless Office in 2021

by Arvo Partanen

You can also read this article in German, French, Indonesian, Italian and Portuguese.

What does a paperless office stand for in 2021? Is it costly and how does one execute it? Check out these 12 simple steps for going paperless.

The paperless office – a buzzword that has been around since electronic document formats, or PDFs, to be more exact – emerged on the market in the early 1990s. Adobe had the ultimate goal of creating a document format that could be viewed on any operating system, and any selected document could always be printed locally.

Now, 30 years later, the Portable Document Format has been the industry technical standard for well over a decade. We view, print and use PDFs on our laptops, tablets and mobile phones on a daily basis. But the paperless office is still more a myth than a reality. If the uprising of digital documents achieved anything, it was the increase of global paper consumption, as it made documents easily widespread and printable.

Yet, believe it or not, going paperless is easier than you think. What used to be a more expensive and time-consuming option has now, thanks to hundreds of companies who have rethought old ways of working, become a valid option to actually start saving time, money and the environment. Sounds tempting, right?

It all starts from a learned affinity for using paper. Old habits die hard and change has to come from within. Thus, we put together this step-by-step guide on where and how to start to automate those old-fashioned processes. We also calculated the cost of going paperless. Keep on reading to see the results!

1. Company culture - establish a plan

Change comes from within, period. Every attempt to change “the way we work” has to be implemented from within and from top to bottom. There are many great examples of failed attempts in new business process implementation or even implementing a simple break culture.

Going paperless might sound like a small effort, but, as with any task, it is not as easy as one two three, and requires carefully thought-out planning and implementation.

2. Create an enablement team

Depending on the size of your organization, you might need an enablement team or simply an enablement person who will drive the change and is responsible for internal trainings. Going paperless means you need to digitize and semi-automate multiple company processes. And doing this means you will need people who lead by example and are there to train the employees who might not be so technically savvy.

A paperless office means each and every employee is committed to making the change. Before you can start saving time, you most probably need to invest some hours in internal training.

3. Legislative obstacles - compliant or not?

Before rushing into digitizing documents, it is vital to check first whether some compliance regulations require you to retain actual copies of documents with an “inked signature” for a certain period of time.

Depending on the country, electronic signatures have become as compliant as original ones in past years, but it is always important to double check this first.

4. Document Management Software or an Enterprise Content Management

One of the most essential factors in moving towards a paperless office is putting all existing documentation into a digital form and storing it in a system which is accessible to all necessary personnel. There are plenty of different options to go for, but one of the first questions one should ask is: do I need a DMS or an ECM?

Document Management Software is the lighter version, which handles only file creation, sharing, manipulation and storage.

Enterprise Content Management, on the other hand, is a heavier solution, which covers all company content, including files, images, web pages, records and so forth.

Once a suitable option is found, the next essential question is: should we go into cloud or get a local server.

The popular and more agile option for SMEs is to move into the cloud with a DMS, due to its cost-effectiveness and lack of maintenance. The cloud service provider will take care of upgrades and troubleshooting. See here a comparison table of the best document management software.

Often the part of researching and fully implementing a DMS or an ECM is seen as more of a costly task, which takes not only monetary, but also a significant time investment. Moreover, this investment is often misunderstood if it does not come back with manifold results in efficiency and even savings in costs until everything is up and running. See our cost calculations at the bottom of this article.

For more information about useful software, check out the following article:

5. Switch to Paperless Billing

Switching to paperless billing doesn’t only make your life easier, it literally saves you money. See below a few tangible benefits that digitizing your invoices has:

  • Avoid late fees from misplaced, forgotten or lost bills
  • Improve security: believe it or not, paper bills leave you vulnerable in many ways to theft
  • Save money: post is expensive
  • Save time in finding each invoice in its correct place in a matter of seconds

Much accounting software has the option to generate bills and even do so directly via your CRM system. See here some examples of options you can have with Salesforce, one of the most popular CRM systems out there.

6. Paperless meetings

Paperless meetings, meaning using a digital platform to digitize meetings, might sound tricky to get going with, especially since you most probably have spent the past decades doing it the old-fashioned way. But digital meetings actually have numerous benefits for both the organizer and the participant.

Benefits for the organizer:

  • Set up complex agendas in minutes
  • All participants are up to date with all changes to the current agenda
  • Prepare and update the material in an interactive environment

Benefits for the attendee:

  • Obtain all meeting information and material earlier
  • Be up to date with any changes in real time
  • Have all meeting notes easily accessible in digital form

Check out Minutepad for digitizing meetings.

7. Paperless faxing

Still tied to using the old fax machine? Say no more: faxes – although last millennium – are still in use for various reasons. But even though that’s the case, you don’t need to hold onto that old fax machine anymore.

You can start sending and receiving faxes in a completely electronic form. Check out this comparison table of the top online fax services to decide on the best solution for your needs.

Alternatively, if you just want to share documents with colleagues, partners, clients, and others, check out Smallpdf's Share Document tool:

8. Paperless tasks and memos

Switching to paperless task lists, memos and notes can appear easy, especially with your document management software now supporting many kinds of options for sharing information.

Truth be told, this is an excellent opportunity to take on an external solution (even a free one: check out Evernote) specialized in taking notes and creating tasks, all with the option of collaborating on them with your team members.

Not only will your and your team’s tasks and notes always be synchronized across all your devices, you can also collaborate with your team members in real time.

9. Mobile first work environment

Even in a fully paperless office environment, you are going to be exposed to paper consumption. Why? Because you are in constant communication with external vendors, partners and clients who haven’t yet gone paperless.

The best way is to provide your employees with a mobile way to digitize documents suitable for your office environment, and encourage them to use it. Smallpdf's Scanner App is a good option for an app to scan documents using a good OCR function making scanned documents searchable.

10. Paperless payments & receipts

By switching to a paperless online payment provider, you don’t only save time and trouble yourself, but it is also often more convenient for all of your customers. A few of the popular options that accept credit cards and other payment methods are Stripe, Paypal & Cardinity.

Service fees commonly vary from 1.7% - 3% per transaction.

Also check out services like Expensify and Shoeboxed for getting started with digitizing receipts, expense reports and much more.

11. Paperless signatures

Printing, signing, scanning, sending and storing contracts might be one of the most time-consuming and useless loops ever to take place in the office, especially since the whole process has become very convenient to do automated online. There are various solutions to choose from: enterprise level to much lighter solutions.

Revert to point number 3: check what kind of legislative obligations you need to take into account when choosing an eSignature solution.

12. Choose a PDF software

Once all documentation is digitized, it is fundamental to know how to edit, convert and manipulate different file types in order to maintain the new paperless ecosystem. While the old-fashioned approach is to go for a (pricier) licensed offline desktop software, there are multiple interesting, more agile, cloud-based PDF types of software out there, from free to slightly more expensive options.

Smallpdf is currently offering the world’s most popular freemium web-based PDF software including tools to convert, edit, sign, compress, merge, split, and much more—trusted by 35+ million monthly users.

Calculating the costs for going paperless

The calculations are based on an example company of 20 employees working in an office environment.

Note that these are only educated guesses with regards to how many employees of a company need access to certain tools. The real costs and needs vary from company to company. Each company has individual needs and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Document Managent Software - Google suite: - 5$ x 20 = 100$ per month

Minutepad - Ask for a personal quote

Switching to e-invoicing (incoming) - Free

Salesforce CRM (with e-invoicing) - 8x 25$ = 200$ per month

Evernote - Free

eSignLive (online signatures) - 3x 20$ = 60$ per month

PDF Software - Smallpdf Teams - 8$ x 10 = 80$ per month

Shoeboxed - 39$ per month

Cardinity - No start or monthly fee, only a transactional fee of 1.7%

Onlinefaxes.com - 7.99$ per month (500 pages)

Total cost:

487$ per month

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Arvo Partanen