Business & Technology

Business & Technology
The Paperless Trail

The Paperless Trail

Article Highlights

  • Employees need training to be able to make the switch to digital records.
  • Converting to digital records instead of paper can also save money.

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Whether you’re looking to switch to an electronic bill pay system or trying to find some office solutions to help you convert to digital records and go paperless, becoming a green business can be good for the environment and for the bottom line.

Going green may be a popular PR move, but for many businesses, taking green initiatives to cut down on waste helps them run more smoothly, efficiently, and maybe most importantly, cost effectively.

“While some companies engage in ‘greenwashing’ [going green on the surface for PR reasons], many companies make concerted efforts to reduce their carbon footprints,” says Barbara Allison, program director of Business Administration at South University — Montgomery.

The Business of Green Business

Steve Rendell, owner of Paper Free Billing, says that when you start sending documents electronically, savings on paper accrues quickly. 

“We've sent well over 100,000 invoices through Paper Free Billing,” Rendell says. “Think of all the printed documents, envelops, and stamps that this has saved. It certainly adds up.”

“Hard to quantify, but every single invoice your business sends could be sent as an electronic invoice saving the paper,” Rendell adds. “The envelope, the stamp, and the actual delivery of that mail; if you send 10 invoices a day, that’s a lot of postage and ink you’ll save.” 

Working for Digital Office Solutions

But it’s not as easy as flicking a switch. Employees who are used to working with hard copies of documents, receipts, and invoices may have a hard time making the change.

While some companies engage in ‘greenwashing,’ many companies make concerted efforts to reduce their carbon footprints.

“One component of initiating the move from paper records to digital records is modifying the mindset of employees,” Allison says. “People spend the larger part of their formal educations writing on physical paper – they turn in homework, take tests, and turn in school projects of all types on physical paper.”

But the difficulty in going green by going digital goes deeper than simply convincing people to work in a different medium – employees need to be trained to be able to make the switch to digital records.

“Another component of initiating the move from paper records to digital records is training,” Allison says. “Even younger employees that grew up with computers can encounter difficulties in negotiating the software and hardware involved in creating and maintaining digital records. And, digital infrastructures and media are constantly changing. So continuing education is a must if a business is going to go digital.”

Rendell says that although there is an adjustment period, it doesn’t need to take long.

“It’s a really painless process, as we target small businesses there will usually only be one person dealing day to day with invoices, and payments – for them to switch to using paper-free billing, it will take no longer than an hour,” Rendell says. “Each time they send out an invoice, they can enter the customer’s details into the system, and every time they need to send that customer another invoice, their details are there ready and waiting.”

Fear of a Paperless Office

Some businesses are reticent to make the switch because of concern that the business’s most delicate information could be destroyed, tampered with, or fall into the wrong hands. But there are a lot of ways to keep digital records safe.

“Digital records can be protected from loss by utilizing backup mechanisms such as remote servers,” Allison says. “These services are oftentimes outsourced to companies that specialize in data archival preservation. Digital records can also be stored on hard disks and kept in secure locations such as bank vaults. Ways to protect digital records from tampering include the use of encryption and copy restriction hardware and software, as well as fundamental access restriction in the form of login/password, gateways, and biometric identification, including iris recognition and hand geometry.”

Although a business can take all of these precautions, sometimes the fear of lost data can be too great, and hard copies of really important data will be kept on file in case of a real emergency.

“Interestingly, even companies that are making concerted efforts to go green will keep physical copies of critical documents in case of system malfunctions,” Allison says.

Digital Records and the IRS

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is also making the move toward paperless, but like all industries, the transition will take time.

“Almost everything can be filed electronically,” says Megan Burns, tax accountant with Thimons, Lunardi, and Associates in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “The IRS – this coming tax season [2010 filing] – is making it mandatory that if a practice prepares over a certain number of tax returns that all must be e-filed [electronically filed]. The state [Pennsylvania] went all mandatory about two to three years ago when it comes to filing employer payroll taxes. They have yet to make it mandatory to file your state return electronically, but I am sure that is not far behind because they normally follow what the IRS states.”

Electronic filing cuts down on the paper used in tax offices, but that does not necessarily mean that they are saving money.

“I hope it is going to save money when it comes to ordering paper,” Burns says. “Unfortunately, when you are submitting highly sensitive information your computer network needs to have the latest updates to keep up with viruses and such, so that particular expense has increased.”

And even though there are some savings on paper, it can be tough to get the accountants to change a system that has worked for so many years.

“Over the years I suppose we have saved some paper, but not nearly as much as we could have,” Burns says. “It is hard to implement electronic change when you are so used to dealing with paper copies.”

As hard as it is on the tax accountants, older filers can have an even harder time assimilating to the modern way of preparing a tax return.

“Yes it is very hard to implement electronic changes when it comes to older clients because they don’t fully understand modern day technology,” Burns says. “Once you explain that they save a stamp and their refund will be mailed in two weeks they are quick to change their minds from paper to electronic filing.”

This eventual acceptance seems to be the standard in most industries. Eventually, no matter how some people may drag their feet, digital recordkeeping will be the way of the future, and in many cases, it’s the way of right now.

Author: Brendan Purves

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