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The iconic image of a corporate office desk cluttered with stacks of a paper is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
With an eye on becoming more efficient and socially conscious, many small businesses are adopting a paperless office environment, trading in traditional paper forms and documents for their digital counterparts.
Assisting entrepreneurs in this challenge are document management software solutions. Document management software gives businesses the tools needed to convert paper documents into electronic versions that can easily be sorted through, edited and distributed to others.
"It is software that is designed to capture, organize, find and share documents," said Jeff Segarra, senior director of imaging product management for Nuance, a provider of document management software.
Many of the software options available give employees the opportunity to capture documents from a variety of sources, including a scanner, email, faxes and text messages, and store them on a computer in one centralized location that can be easily accessed and searched.
With research showing the average U.S. worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year, the environmental benefits of converting to a paperless office are obvious. However, Cathy Sexton, a St. Louis-based productivity strategist and coach, believes paperless offices also have a host of other advantages, including saving time, space and money.
"A great benefit for paperless offices is that electronic documents can be found virtually from anywhere," Sexton said. "So if you have a VPN (Virtual Private Network) or somebody who works from home, they can access documents too."
Paperless offices also provide easy ways to share documents, often with cloud computing, with others in the organization, Sexton said.
"With a paper system, they are right there in a drawer or cabinet and unless the person is right there in the office, you can't share it very easily without going through scanning or faxing and all that stuff," she said.
Jon Russell, director of sales for document management software provider Lucion Technologies, said paperless offices are also an excellent way for businesses to protect themselves from a natural disaster that might wipe out their paper files.
"Recent disasters have highlighted the need to keep business files securely backed up off-site," Russell said. "While paper is easily destroyed and expensive to store, files digitized with paperless office software can be backed up daily."
Segarra said a major misconception is that paper documents are more secure because they are tangible. He said the same security risks exist with paper documents as with electronic ones.
"With paper, you tend to leave it out longer, and that is definitely less secure," Segarra said. "If you don't have the right safeguards, everything is a problem."
Russell said the key to making a paperless office environment work is to have a system that makes it easy to capture all the documents.
"One of the biggest deterrents for offices going paperless is the amount of time it takes to scan each document one at a time, save and name those documents, and keep them organized and be able to retrieve them when necessary," Russell said. "If you don’t have a system that makes it easy and automatic to scan, likely you won’t stick with it for long."
Sexton said having an easy-to-use filing system is critical to the success of a paperless office. Going digital is a waste of resources if there isn't a system in place that makes it easy to find documents when you need them, she said.
"If you can't find it when you need it, it doesn't have any value," Sexton said. "Without setting up a system of protocols on how do we store this information and how do we access this information, then you are really just asking for chaos."
In an interview with CNN, InfoTrends analyst John Shane said in order for offices to truly become paperless, there needs to be a shift in thinking by U.S. workers.
"Most of what people print now is for temporary read-and-discard purposes and for transactions," Shane told CNN. "People like to read paper. Then they throw it away. Then they may want to read it and throw it away again. That behavior needs to change if we're really going to see a paperless office."
Segarra said if his personal experiences are any indication, a paperless office is absolutely achievable and an environment that will become more popular as more millennials enter the workforce.
He said a true indication of this is asking any 18- or 20-year-old when they last printed something. Segarra said most will say they don't even have a printer because they do everything on their mobile phone or iPad.
"That is the paperless office," he said. "They tend not (to print) if they don't have to."
For businesses considering moving to a paperless environment, Sexton recommends sitting down and examining exactly what documents exist, which ones would be best off in a digital format and which ones have to stay in paper form, such as contacts that have signatures on them. Additionally, she said there should be protocols in place to determine when documents can be deleted from the system.
"Eighty percent of the stuff we save we never look at a second time," Sexton said. "If you are going to do it and want to keep it effective, you need to have built into that when do we purge, how do we purge."