The Way We Work
April 22, 2011 by Julia Camenisch

Ever feel like your desk (and your life) is buried in mounds of paper? Not only are those piles of documents organizational nightmares, they’re also potential money pits. The effort expended in trying to keep papers organized is zapping time that you could instead be using to get productive work done. Maybe it’s time to think about going paperless.

Establishing an (almost) paperless office is good for you. It’s also good for our planet. Save money AND become a green crusader by implementing the following 5 tips and their accompanying tools into your existing workflow. Green Nirvana awaits!

  1. Create a Paperless Organizational Scheme:
    You can’t just start scanning documents willy nilly. You’ve got to first decide on a plan for keeping your digital files organized, searchable and properly archived. Otherwise, the paper headache on your desk will simply become the paperless headache on your desktop. Remember these rules:

    1. Choose clear & understandable file names
    2. Make ample use of folders and subfolders
    3. Keep folder size limited. 20 files per folder is a good size.
    4. Use software that allows you to search not only file titles, but file content as well.

    Paperless Toolkit: Once you’ve decided on a organizing scheme, then use a PDF scanner (like Scansnap) and a document storage tool (such as Evernote) to implement it. For more information on this particular software/hardware combo, check out John Chow’s blog post, How to Create a Paperless Office.

  2. Use Digital Contracts:
    Contracts are a vital necessity for every small business and freelancer. (For more info on contracts, check out this past oDesk post.) But trees no longer have to be chopped down to ensure you get paid. Thanks to the E-Sign Act (put in place by Congress in 2000), digital signatures are now considered just as binding as their ink and paper cousins. Paperless Toolkit: For an e-signature to be worth its legal weight in kilobytes, there are certain requirements that must be met. Make use of Echosign or DocuSign to help ensure that your digital contracts meet those mandates. (And be sure to read up on the law! I’m not an attorney and this is not legal advice, so check out Nolo.com and/or talk to a competent attorney to make sure you’re truly covered.)
  3. Send Faxes to E-mail:
    The fax machine can generate lots of unwanted, unnecessary paper. But you aren’t tied to this office relic. Instead, use a fax-to-email services to wipe out all this paper waste. These services will provide a phone number for incoming faxes, and will then send those documents straight to your e-mail inbox. And when you need to send faxes out, you simply send them by e-mail and they’ll arrive in the receiving company’s fax machine. Paperless Toolkit: Both MaxEmail and eFax are established fax to e-mail providers, though as far as I can tell, only eFax has the option of obtaining a local fax number in 46 different countries.
  4. Invoice Digitally: Don’t send out client invoices using the antiquated paper/snail mail combination. Instead, make use of email and digital invoices to keep those payments coming in. With today’s internet invoicing systems, clients can pay you using credit card, echecks and PayPal, allowing you to receive the money owed that much faster.
    Paperless Toolkit:
    Outright and Freshbooks provide customizable invoicing systems that can make even the smallest company feel big.
  5. Make Use of Your Smartphone: Finally, don’t overlook the power of your smartphone in the quest to go paperless. There’s an array of apps available that allow you to take pictures of documents, such as receipts or business cards or even whiteboard presentations. You can then upload them to whatever cloud based storage system you’ve chosen, as well as e-mail them as pdfs.
    Paperless Toolkit:
    ScannerPro, Genius Scan and DocScanner are just some of what’s available for various flavors of smartphones. Many of these offer integration with Dropbox and/or Evernote. Of the three scanning apps listed here, Genius Scan is free.

This post only scratches the surface of what is available to take your office paperless. Some other important considerations include: creating a system that’s easy to use (otherwise you won’t be consistent and the paper will begin piling up again); choosing what format to store documents in (ie, as images or editable files); and what kind of backup system you have in place to ensure file safety (having everything in only one place is a big no-no!).

Have you eliminated paper, at least in part, from your work environment? If so, comment below to let me know what tools you use and what insights you’ve gained in effective digital organization.


Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.

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  • Julia

    I really like the file tagging idea, Cathy. That's a great way to find files that are, as you said, in different locations but about similar subjects. Brilliant! I'm going to try implement that for myself.

  • Cathy

    File naming conventions are important, especially if you are collaborating with a team. I am not sure if an upper limit of 20 files per folder is a good idea - that would depend on the volume of documents that need to be stored in that particular folder.

    There are solutions which allow tagging of files (like labels in blog posts) and also assigning document types; e.g. invoices, agreements, checks etc. This allows you to group together similar documents even if they are stored in different folders. http://www.sohodox.com/

    For small businesses that are growing steadily, it might be better to invest in a Multi-function Device (MFD) that prints, scans, copies as well as faxes. But if most of it is going to be scanning, then smartphone apps should be fine, like you said.

    All in all, quite an informative post.

  • Victoria

    Great tips!!! There are so many wonderful fax solutions out there, personally, I like hellofax.com. Can't wait to share your tips with others in my network!

    • Julia

      Thanks, Victoria. Hellofax.com looks like a useful site. Appreciate you pointing it out.

  • Oceane

    I like this post! Today, internet fax is very used and it's a good way to reduce costs and paper. I use Popfax.com (http://www.popfax.com), and it's very convenient, especially as I can fax through my mobile.

    • Julia

      Thanks for pointing that one out! I hadn't heard of it before, but sounds very useful.

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    This is really nice posting to help us. thanks

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