Why Most Paperless Offices Fail

Despite good intentions, most firms are still buried in hard copies. Here's what they're doing wrong

Written by Deborah Aarts

People have been talking up paperless offices ever since the dawn of the digital age.

It’s easy to see why: there are a lot of benefits to going paper-free. Doing so can seriously cut the costs of your firm’s consumables. It can also enable easier collaboration, especially if you maintain an easy-to-access repository for all digital files. As cloud-storage options become more sophisticated and secure, you’d think every firm would be keen to virtualize their paper trails.

Yet, paper consumption has increased more than 20% over the past two decades. Even as new and better tools become available to reduce the use of paper, it seems companies can’t get enough of the stuff. And all too many of these are firms that are trying to be paper-free.

Read: One firm’s quest to go paperless

Why the disconnect? Matt Peterson thinks it’s because most companies simply don’t think through how they’ll actually go paperless. The president and CEO of Lehi, Utah-based document-management software vendor eFileCabinet Inc. has helped a lot of companies successfully go paperless. But he’s also seen a lot of companies fail—and, as he tells PROFIT, it’s usually because they make one or more of the following missteps. Avoid them and you’ll have much better odds of finally quashing your firm’s paper addiction.

1. Waiting for the perfect moment

As with all changes that are difficult—think: quitting smoking, losing weight—people tend to put off doing it until conditions are just so. As a result, you find many entrepreneurs vowing to go paperless€¦just as soon as they have more time, maybe next fall, or when this major project is done. The trouble is, that time never comes. “Business never slows down; as entrepreneurs, you’re just always busy,” says Peterson.

That’s why he recommends you take the paperless plunge now, regardless of how chaotic things may be: “Don’t wait for the perfect time, because it’ll never come.”

2. Becoming overwhelmed by the backlog

When a firm decides to go paperless, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the endeavour. Does “paperless” mean no paper on hand at all? What does that mean for those cabinets full of old invoices and purchase orders? Do you have to scan them all?

It’s easy to get daunted by this proposition. But there’s no need to feel weighed down, says Peterson. In his experience, the best way to ease in a paperless mandate is to do it gradually, starting with the new: “Whenever a new document comes through your door, scan it,” he says. As for the old? Tackle it on an as-you-go basis. “Whenever you have to go to the file cabinet to pull something out, scan that file and don’t put it back.” Over time, you’ll find you’re slowly creating a virtual database of all the old files that really matter.

If you really do want all your archives digitized, there are some pretty cheap ways to do it, Peterson says. Desktop scanners are cheaper and faster than ever; some models can process up to 40 pages per minute. Armed with this equipment, an intern or part-timer can digitize the contents of a filing cabinet in a few hours. (Though you should factor in time to accurately classify and file those contents once virtualized.)

Still, Peterson is adamant that you don’t need to scan everything. Which leads to his next going-paperless mistake:

3. Failing to set document-management rules

If you’re going to go paperless, it’s in your best interest to set some rules about what your organization needs to keep—and for how long. A good document-management policy will define all these factors, and will factor in legal considerations (e.g., define how long you must hold on to receipts for tax purposes), as well as company preferences (e.g. determining whether certain types of files aren’t worth keeping), according to Peterson. Sound complicated? There’s lots of commercially available document-management software and/or templates to help.

“Some people will scan things and save it forever and ever and ever,” says Peterson. “You don’t need to do that. It’s a waste of time, money and storage costs.”

4. Clinging on to paper copies

Nothing quite defeats the purpose of virtualizing all documents like keeping hard copies around, too. And it’s very common, says Peterson. Blame discomfort with reading on a screen, blame pervasive “we’ve always done it this way” attitudes, but far too many paperless initiatives are sidelined when staffers insist on clinging on to paper copies.

“I see some people maintaining two systems: paper-based and paperless. They say €˜I’m busier than I ever was,’ and of course they are!” he says.

Read: 7 ways to cut IT costs

While he acknowledges that it is very hard for some to let go of paper, encouraging holdouts to stop printing unnecessarily is a crucial part of the paperless process. You can do so by pointing out the time they’ll save by sticking to just the paperless system. You could also implement a printer quota that no worker can exceed.

After all, in today’s world, there is very little need to keep hard copies of most documents, Peterson explains. “Depending where you live, there are certain things you do need to keep in paper format that could be admissible in a court of law, such as trusts,” he says. “But for the most part, everything can be printed and photocopied if need be.”

Have you experimented with a paperless office? How did it work? Share your strategies by commenting below.

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