How Paperless Home Offices Work

Paper can pile up quickly in a home office. There are many ways to lessen the paper piles. See more home office decor pictures.
Photographer: Hans Joachim Roy | Agency: Dreamstime

Start working in a home office, and before you know it, paper stacks are building in every corner -- unless you're committed to having a paperless office from the beginning. Unfortunately for most of us, a paperless home office is more an idea than a reality.­

Once an unbalanced pile of paper topples or client notes take too long to find during a phone meeting, the concept of going paperless becomes more than a passing thought. Face it. Paper has crept into your office, made a home and plans to stay -- until you develop the paperless systems to chase it out.

That means you'll need to take control, look into electronic systems like data management, document management and paperless software -- and in general, figure out how paperless home offices work, and how you can make one work for you. Take it one step at a time, and that process is easier than you might think. This article will show you steps to get started, technology that can help and ideas for managing paperless documents.

You'll never have a completely paperless office, because some papers -- like deeds, notarized documents or receipts -- need to be saved for legal, financial or tax reasons. But you can clear out just about everything else. Beyond freeing space and clearing clutter, you'll find plenty of other benefits to making your office more paperless:

  • More efficient -- Save those 10 minutes you spent fumbling through paper while on the phone by clicking on a computer file.
  • More economical -- Save money on files, file cabinets, printer ink and paper itself.
  • More accessible information -- Don't worry about taking 10 pounds of reports and notes on an out-of-town trip or across town to a client meeting. You can pull up the information you need from your computer and share materials with collaborators or clients via e-mail or electronic fax.
  • More secure information -- Keep confidential material securely locked away in electronic files that only you can access. You also won't have to worry about paper becoming damaged.
  • More environmentally friendly -- Help reduce the amount of paper generated every year. The American Forest and Paper Association estimates that the typical business generates 1.7 pounds of material per person per day, most of it high-grade recyclable paper.

If you're ready, let's look at how you can start on the road to paperless. Go to the next page to find out.

Going Paperless

If you're making the move to a paperless home office, experts recommend taking the process one step at a time. If you try to make too many changes at once, you're likely to feel overwhelmed and stall on going paperless. Recognize that it's an ongoing process that'll require paperless solutions and a document management system. But it won't happen all at once. Consider these questions as you plan to go paperless:

  1. What paper can you recycle because you just don't need it any more? Old magazines, outdated marketing materials, extensive notes for completed projects, files from former clients and work samples from 15 years ago probably can leave your home office forever. Once they're gone, review the paper that's left to make sure you still need it. If not, send it to the recycling bin or shredder. Move temporary paper, like the notes you took while on the phone, out the door as quickly as possible, too. Photographer: Dusko Miljanic | Agency: Dreamstime To eliminate paper pile-ups, sign up for online banking.
  2. What paper can you shift to paperless with the click of a button via the Internet? You can eliminate checks, utility and credit bills, and bank and investment statements by using your computer to get statements and pay bills electronically. Move as many of these functions as you can to electronic. Be careful, however, to continue to monitor accounts as often as you did on paper to avoid surprises.
  3. What paper can you handle electronically? Prepare and file invoices on your computer and send them via e-mail or electronic fax. Use personal finance or accounting software to handle your business's finances electronically. Make meeting arrangements and confirmations online. And think how badly you need materials on paper before you print them out.
  4. How can you convert incoming paper to digital? Scan and store business cards, client information, diagrams and proposals as electronic files, such as PDFs. If your client agrees, sign paper contracts, scan them and send them back via electronic fax. You'll need to decide what to do with paper records that already exist. How far back do you want to go in scanning these documents?
  5. How will you handle data management? You can eliminate paper, but you can't eliminate information. Without paper, you'll still need to store and find files, send out information, keep some information confidential and make sure you have more than one copy of important files. To accomplish this, you'll need a secure electronic file system, an easy filing procedure, a regular back-up process, and the software and hardware to make all of this happen.

Next, let's look at technology that can make your home office more paperless.

Paperless Technology

Back up electronic records by using CDs.
Back up electronic records by using CDs.
Photographer: Yevgen Timaskov | Agency: Dreamstime

Many companies offer paperless technology that can help you tame the paper monster for your soon-to-be paperless home office. While many data management, document management and other paperless systems are geared to larger companies with bigger budgets, you can find paperless systems for your home office that work on a smaller scale. We'll look more at document management on the next page, but let's consider other technology here.

  • The Basics -- You no doubt already have a computer with an Internet connection, which you'll need for electronic banking, e-mail and other functions. You probably also have a printer, which you can use to create PDF documents to store on your hard drive -- and occasionally to print on paper. You'll be able to save on paper with a printer that prints on both sides of a sheet.
  • Scanner -- With a scanner, you can create digital images from paper documents, save them as PDFs and then store them electronically on your computer or share them with others via e-mail or on disk. If you don't already have a scanner, you may want to buy one to help reduce paper.
  • Smart Phone -- A smart phone like a BlackBerry or iPhone combines cell phone and personal digital assistant (PDA) capabilities. You can use it to take and store notes, read and send e-mails and plenty more. You'll be able to eliminate bits of paper, use an electronic address book and stay in touch wherever you are.
  • Data Back-Up -- With important information now stored on your computer, you can't afford to lose data if your computer crashes. Unless you've a lot to store, a CD or USB flash drive may be enough to back up data from your computer on a regular basis. A CDR (recordable once) holds about 700 megabytes of data, while some flash drives can store as much as 2 gigabytes. You'll want to set a regular back-up schedule, possibly once a week, so that you don't forget to do it.
  • Security Solutions -- Don't overlook the need to protect your information from cyber-thieves with virus protection software and possibly a firewall, a program or hardware device that filters the information coming through the Internet connection into your private network.
  • Electronic Faxing -- Electronic faxing takes paper out of the faxing process and eliminates the need for a conventional fax machine. By signing on with a company that provides this service, you can send and receive faxes directly from your computer via e-mail or the Web. Incoming faxes from conventional machines are converted to digital images and sent to the recipient's e-mail box.
  • Other Options -- Technology is always advancing to make the paperless home office easier. One such option to consider is technology like NeatShoeBox, which scans documents like receipts and business cards, pulls key information off them and then exports the data to applications like Quicken and Microsoft Excel and Outlook.

Let's look next at paperless document management and handling the paper that you can't eliminate from your home office.

Paperless Document Management

Creating a home office with less paper is easier than it seems.
Creating a home office with less paper is easier than it seems.
Photographer: Dreamstime | Agency: Dreamstime

A document management system is an important part of a paperless home office. Like paper, digital or electronic documents need to be stored so they can be retrieved and used as needed. To have an effective paperless office, you need a system to manage these necessary documents.

However, no office can be completely paperless. Some documents must remain on paper meaning that your home office can only be paper-less. And many of us simply remain more comfortable using paper to do some of our work. So any document management system you put together has to manage the mix of electronic and paper for a "paper less" office.­

As designed for large companies, document management systems turn paper into digital images as PDFs that can be stored electronically and, with some software, searched or edited. These systems also can improve electronic filing, retrieving and secure access to information -- and they can be very costly.

However, at its simplest, a document management system consists of a scanner and software that convert paper documents to electronic PDFs. And you can get less expensive software to make PDFs searchable and editable. Here are several options:

  • PDF Transformer Pro from ABBYY (for PC only; under $100) will allow you to create PDFs and convert the images to searchable files.
  • Acrobat Professional 8.0 from Adobe (for PC or Mac; about $400) creates PDF files, automatically recognizes text with optical character recognition (OCR) and can save the editable PDF files into programs like Microsoft Word.
  • NeatShoeBox (for PC only; about $200) scans documents like receipts and business cards, pulls off key information and then exports the data to applications like Quicken and Microsoft Excel and Outlook.

You'll need to develop your own system for managing electronic files. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Create an online filing system as you would for paper in a filing cabinet. Use file and document names that will be easy to find and remember.
  2. Use the "print to file" option to save electronic documents from outside, like e-mails or online statements, to their correct electronic files.
  3. Back up your files regularly, probably at least weekly, to a CD or USB flash drive.
  4. Make a master list of file folders that you can refer to.
  5. End the year by reviewing your files. Trash any that you no longer need, move files that are going to storage (like the year's invoices) to a CD and set up new files for the new year.

Keep in mind that you'll also have to maintain paper files and weed through them at the end of each year, although these files should be much smaller than before. These documents include notarized documents and materials you need to prepare your taxes.

While you may be tempted to scan your receipts and toss the paper originals, don't do it, says Barry Steiner, a Chicago CPA and former IRS agent. You may need them as proof for a tax audit. Steiner recommends keeping all bills, invoices, receipts and canceled checks related to deductible expenses for three years after filing tax forms. At that point, he says, shred them to prevent identify theft [source: e-mail interview with Barry Steiner].

As Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, the authors of The Myth of the Paperless Office point out, no office can be completely paperless. "Rather than pursuing the ideal of the paperless office, [people] should work toward a future in which paper and electronic document tools work in concert," they write in the book [source: The Myth of the Paperless Office by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, MIT Press, 2001, page 21].

For more information on paperless offices and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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