Making the paperless office practical

There are plenty of reasons to reduce your reliance on paper. But if you’re going to break the habit, it’s best to start as soon as you can

Making the paperless office practical

There’s no doubting that moving away from paper is a good call and not just for the sake of the environment. Saving the planet is an admirable goal but whilst reducing paper consumption can remove a significant proportion of CO2 from the atmosphere there are benefits closer to home that might form a more significant business case for SMEs. “People think about paperless as being more about efficiency than saving the planet,” says Jerry Brand, founder of Caternet, the online IT solutions provider. “It is efficiency that actually makes the case for technology.”

There are plenty of reasons to reduce your reliance on paper but inevitably the first one will come down to the fact that office space comes at a premium in the modern world. “You can walk into some organisations and see they’ve got level arch files all over the place,” says Tony Reissner, owner of Whitegate, the business solutions provider. Given leases in London have never been higher, it’s becoming increasingly hard to justify paying for the extra square footage just to house all your documents in triplicate.

Moreover, with increasing numbers of professionals working on the go or eschewing the office entirely, technology is allowing people to have access to key files in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible with paper. “Having access to that information if it’s all in lever arch files in an office somewhere isn’t possible,” Reissner says. “Whereas if it’s electronic, it’s almost like you’ve got your virtual office and wherever you are you’ve got access to those documents.”

But it’s not just a matter of access. Even the most diligent filing system cannot tell you where key information is at any given moment – knowing an invoice is somewhere in the accounts payable department isn’t much comfort when the final demand arrives. Brand explains that for a huge number of meetings in the past he’d log key info under a date in his notebook; with a study of his diary he could usually locate the details he required but it wasn’t the most efficient system. “That used to take ten or 20 minutes,” he says. “Whereas with cloud systems you just fire up the computer, there it is: job done.”

Cloud storage has had something of a bad rap recently. But whilst Apple’s iCloud hacks are something to be concerned about it’s fair to say that your docs are more secure on cloud servers than being lugged around in a lever-arch file in the back of an employee’s Ford Escort. “If you’re having to pull out the files and travel with the files on the Tube, then there’s the risk of course of losing or leaving them somewhere in a public place,” Reissner says. Additionally, if there’s a fire in the office and a company doesn’t have offsite archiving untold damage can be caused. “If it was in the cloud then they would be able to access it from the cloud or from their backup devices,” he continues.

There are clearly myriad benefits to cutting down on your paper and putting paperless solutions in place. But is a truly paperless office really achievable?

Probably not, at least in the short term. “When we talk about a paperless office, we’re not talking about going completely paperless; I don’t think that is a reality,” Reissner says. Trying to boost productivity by utterly expunging paper from your processes could backfire, particularly with employees who aren’t digital natives. “It’s not removing paper entirely; it’s still going to meetings with some paper and a pen but it’s about how easily can you access that information afterwards,” he continues. 

There are a couple of things that stand in the way of this. “One is technology; it’s getting there, no doubt about it, but it’s not there yet,” says Brand. “The other one is human beings because breaking those habits is very difficult.”

Whilst technology advances at a rate of knots, people tend to be considerably less quick to change their ways. “In accountancy, what you’ll see is the older practitioners like myself accept that paperless for the majority of things will work but don’t like to let go of old habits,” says Paul Miller, managing director of Cornish Accounting Solutions. He explains that paper has been such a fundamental part of his working processes that it is hard to completely abandon it. But he accepts that the younger generation’s relationship with paper has been fleeting. “If you look at some of the younger practices and practitioners, they’re more readily able to accept that paperless is the right way.”

And it’s not only people that get set in their ways as they age. “The problem with the established organisations is that they already have their processes in place and it’s going through that change which is the challenge,” says Reissner. But new businesses can get these habits right from the off and instil effective processes that grow as they do. “For a new business you can just start off in the right way and you’re going to save yourself a lot of hassle later on,” he concludes.


Paperless in practice

Cornish Accounting Solutions

Running an effective business often means recognising hitches in your processes. “We seemed to be shuffling endless reams of paper around the office,” says Paul Miller, managing director of Cornish Accounting Solutions. Inevitably, given the huge investment of time that accompanied this, it became clear his firm had to kick its paper habit. “Given the fact that as an accountant we are driven by timelines, by statutory deadlines and compliance deadlines, you’ve actually got to look at what you’re doing and actually have a more effective way to do it.”

Finding the right solution might be tricky but Miller stumbled across the perfect solution while researching other accountancy firms. One firm had adopted the solution Virtual Cabinet and a quick ring later Cornish Accounting System had a solution that would help them kick the paper habit. “The guys came down, they migrated the data,” he explains. “It was quick, it was easy, it was hassle free and we then went through a training system of how we could actually use Virtual Cabinet.”

And it’s had a significant impact on the way the company communicates. “Clients actually see it as a progressive step forward,” says Miller. “If you’re advising people on technology, whether it’s accounting software or whatever, then you’ve got to be seen to be embracing new technology.” 

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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