How I do paperless

Summary:ZDNet columnist Denise Amrich shares a bit about how her paperless process works, in hopes that it may inspire you to find creative ways to reduce an overwhelming paper presence in your offices and lives.

It has been a privilege to take part in the most recent Great Debate, The paperless business: Is it already here? , not only because of my genuine excitement about the topic and the fun of debating my worthy opponent, Larry Seltzer, but also because of the fascinating discussion going on in the TalkBacks.

This is a level of connectivity to my data that is scifi movie level and represents a huge boost to productivity.

It was some consolation that, although I didn't win the popular vote, our wise moderator awarded me the win because he said I made better points proving that the building blocks for a paperless movement are in place today. I really do believe those building blocks are in place because I run a pretty paperless office myself, and I know many others who do, too.

Some of our readers were a little hard on me about my definition of "paperless" as meaning less paper, as opposed to paper-free (which would be no paper). However, I promise you this wasn't just a specious semantic manipulation on my part. It actually came from a non-paper reference. I Googled "define paperless" and the first thing that came up was the Wikipedia definition below.

"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. Proponents claim that "going paperless" can save money, boost productivity, save space, make documentation and information sharing easier, keep personal information more secure, and help the environment. The concept can also be extended to communications outside the office."

Rather than rehash my debate argument, I'd like to address each of the items in the above definition. I'll share a little bit about how my paperless process works, in hopes that it may inspire others to find creative ways to reduce an overwhelming paper presence in their offices and lives.

Also I want to say that I am not anti-paper. I actually love paper, but absence really does make the heart grow fonder, and I appreciate it more when I use it appropriately. To me, paperlessness isn't about cutting paper completely out of my life, it's about being in right relationship with paper.

Reducing paper

One great way to reduce paper is to use your bank's online billpay function. You don't have to write checks, buy stamps, lick envelopes, or find a mailbox. I do the bookkeeping for our company, and I have signed up for paperless billing with all my vendors.

I sit down and pay bills one day per month because I figured out the optimal payment day (the 28th of each month) for everything to be in on time. I keep a running list of the vendors, take a few minutes to download all the latest statements (if I didn't already download them when I received the email notification that they're ready, or if they're not already set up to auto-send to my bank's billpay system).

The whole process takes less than an hour, and that's for a small corporation. As a private citizen I'd probably be done in 20 minutes.

There's no need to put the statements in a file folder because I have them all in individual digital file folders in a larger folder called "Vendor Files" inside the main "Bookkeeping" file. I've basically replicated my old file cabinet system on my server.

Creating a well-organized tree structure for your folders is key to feeling comfortable with digital filing of documents. However, if you use good consistent naming conventions for your files, it's easy to find them wherever they may be just by searching. For example, a filename might be 2013_0812_Verizon_Bill-PAID.pdf.

Good PDF software like the gold standard, Adobe Acrobat, is really important to a paperless office. There are a bunch of less expensive (and even free) alternatives if that's a bit too pricey.

When I get the company's mail from the Post Office Box, I bring a large Kespon Guard Your ID stamp with me and quickly go through the mail. I use the stamp to obscure the address on all catalogs and junk mail, which are immediately recycled on the spot at the Post Office.

All that paper never enters my office at all.

Sometimes I make a note of who is sending us stuff we don't want and take the time to make a phone call to request that they remove us from their snail mail list and add us to their email list. One exception is that all credit offers are taken back to the office to shred for security reasons.

Converting documents

Larry Seltzer said in his rebuttal that "often what passes for an electronic legal document is a PDF of a scanned page." But a PDF of a scanned page is kind of the whole point.

A good scanner is a necessity. I love the Fujitsu ScanSnap, which integrates really well with Evernote. It's a lightning-fast duplex scanner. When I bring the pre-sorted mail back from the Post Office, envelopes are opened and recycled, the documents are scanned in, appropriately named, electronically filed, and then recycled. Anything that needs to be delegated or escalated to a colleague is immediately emailed to them as a PDF attachment.

On a personal note, I love that I can have my cake and eat it too. For example, I still have all those birthday cards and snapshots and concert tickets and family memorabilia. They've been scanned, and are in my computer now.

Also, I have a small industrial guillotine paper cutter and I've used it to cut the bindings off shelves-and-shelves worth of books, scanned them in, and recycled their remains. I can breathe freely, and I no longer have to live in a dusty tomb of paper. Plus, I can have my entire library in my pocket.

Next up: Productivity boost and ease of sharing...

Topics: SMBs, Security


Denise Amrich is a Registered Nurse who also has 20 years of operations, logistics, and editorial management experience. She is the health care advisor for the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute, and a mentor for the Virtual Campus at Florida's Brevard Community College.Denise co-founded ZATZ Publishing, and has been the managing editor... Full Bio

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