The ABCs (and PDFs) of moving to a paperless office


We’ve been talking about it for decades, but the idea of the paperless office still finds some resistance.

However, with the dramatic increase of the use of mobile devices and virtual teams, eliminating as much paper pushing as possible is absolutely necessary to maintain a level of productivity that assures you are competitive in today’s marketplace. Central to accomplishing this is understanding your ABCs and PDFs:

  • Apps
  • Backups
  • Contracts
  • PDFs (Portable document format)

Before we hit each of those topics, let me stress the importance of planning and establishing a system for file naming and folder creation. This is one weakness of a paperless office. You’re more likely to lose and forget about a computer file and therefore leave it “unfiled” than lose a piece of paper. Eventually you’ll uncover a piece of paper on your real world desktop, but files on your computer desktop are a different story; they are easily lost or deleted. (I really appreciate the auto-save feature that is available on a lot of our software today, but it’s not foolproof.)

Let me add one thing to this discussion. I love the way you can use tags within many apps today, and you should take advantage of this feature. However, this advice comes with a big warning: Don’t overuse tags. If you go overboard with tags it will render your tag searches useless because you’ll get too many search results for the same tag. Use tags wisely and sparingly.

Apps for the paperless office

Evernote. This app is at the top of virtually everyone’s list for going paperless or merely improving productivity. This is due to its ability to organize and disseminate both digital and paper assets.

Using the Evernote scanning app, Scannable (5-star rating on Apple’s App Store), you can bring paper documents into Evernote’s notebook-based system of organization. Once you bring your scans into Evernote, words within the scans become searchable. Below is a scan of small type for a wine offer associated with an airline loyalty program. I searched for the term “rapid rewards points” and you can see all the hits. Further, scanned business cards can be directly added to your contacts.

If you’re a devoted Microsoft user, you probably know that OneNote is that company’s version of Evernote.

Along with something like Evernote, you need a file-sharing app. The two best are Google Drive and DropBox. Microsoft has OneDrive and Apple has iCloud Drive, but Apple’s product isn’t really designed for business sharing. These services generally offer a free level and various paid tiers.

Backing up the paperless office

In the paper office you have file cabinets full of documents that later get moved to boxes and put in storage somewhere. You need to establish a backup system for your paperless office to take the place of those file cabinets and boxes.

Above, I mentioned the importance of developing a folder and file naming scheme that will bring order to your paperless system. This is especially critical when you consider backups and archiving your files. If you change file or folder naming schemes and experience employee turnover, someday it might become next to impossible to find some old records you need to retrieve.

You should be backing up to an off-campus location. Today there are many affordable services that will do this for you. But in addition to these “live” services, you’ll probably need to archive some records on a yearly basis. You could use your regular backup service for this, but you have other options depending on the nature and size of your business.

You might want to save compressed and archived files to whatever cloud drive you use. Another option would be to transfer the archives to two sets of recordable DVDs or CDs, one that’s kept at your office and another stored in a separate location.

Contracts in the paperless office

If you’ve done any real estate deals in the last several years, you’ve certainly been introduced to the process of online document signing. I don’t think they have perfected these systems yet; it usually takes a little mouse clicking and head scratching to master them, but once you get the idea, they flow pretty well.

When your business relies on a lot of papers being signed or initialed, it is probably worthwhile to subscribe to a service, and there are several available. Tabby McFarland has a good rundown on eleven electronic signature options in this article. You can also get some PC magazine editor ratings here.

PDFs – Portable document format

PDFs have become a mainstay of the paperless office because they can be read on virtually any device today. Electronic signature services also rely heavily on PDFs.

You should know how to save or export a word-processed document or spreadsheet as a PDF. This knowledge is fundamental to running the paperless office. However, often you’ll have to go beyond what you can do from your word processing software and you’ll want to edit the actual PDF. For example, you’ll need to create a form that has blanks or check boxes the user can fill in. This is a bit more difficult.

There are several PDF editing programs available, but the ones with the features you’ll need aren’t free and they a not as easy to use as the word processing software you’re accustomed to using. Rick Stella has taken the time to review nine of the best premium PDF editors over on the Digital Trends website.

PDFs are, as you probably know, a file format created by Adobe and the professional version of Adobe Acrobat has been the main PDF editor at many companies for a long time. Today it is part of the Adobe Acrobat DC, which stands for “document cloud.” Adobe Pro DC is a subscription service that runs about $15 a month.

Although we have resisted moving to the paperless office, I believe that the growth of virtual teams and greater reliance on mobile devices is going to push us into going full digital. And, if this is the case, doing some planning and putting the right software in place before you get pushed too far, are the prudent steps to take today.