Q: Our company has finally decided to go paperless, but we are not exactly sure where to begin. Can you provide some guidance for getting started?
A: Most CPAs who go paperless later report they are glad they did. There are many ways to reduce the amount of paper your company consumes and stores, and the good news is this is not an “all or nothing” deal; if desired, you can implement measures gradually until you reach your goals. The checklist below, while certainly not a complete guide, provides tools, solutions, and measures that can help kick-start your move toward a paperless environment.
1. Scanners. Your first step should be to implement a document scanner policy, either a network-based scanner (such as a Fujitsu fi-6670 for $5,599.99) capable of scanning color and 14-column ledger paper for all to share, or personal scanners (such as the $304 Epson Workforce Pro GT-S50, which I use) for each employee’s desk. Some key features to look for are two-side, multipage scanning; a fast automatic sheet feeder (at least 12 pages per minute); scanning to the cloud; and automatic paper size detection, color detection, and cropping. You might also consider implementing a business card scanner (such as a Corex CardScan Executive for $225).
2. Centralized data storage. To share scanned documents throughout your organization, you should either implement file server data storage or a cloud-based data storage solution (such as Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Drive, Amazon EC2, Dropbox, or SugarSync—which all offer at least 1 GB of free data storage with additional storage available for a monthly fee). Set up all authorized personnel as users, grant them the proper share and security permissions, and set scanners to automatically save files to your shared data location. For added protection, files containing client data should be password-protected using 128-bit encryption prior to uploading to a cloud-based drive.
3. Indexed search tools. Implement an indexed searching tool (such as Fast Find included in Windows 8, 7, and Vista). Indexed tools index every word in each data file, including the file name and associated keywords, so users can locate files quickly. Indexed search tools use the same type of technology employed by Bing and Google to return nearly instant search results. Similar search tools include Copernic Desktop Search ($49.95), dtSearch Desktop ($199), Voidtools Everything (free), and X1 Professional Client ($49.95).
4. Shredders. It is also a good idea to have a few shredders so paper documents can be properly discarded after scanning, or establish a collection box for centralized or professional shredding.
5. Paperless fax. Implement an online fax solution that enables you to send and receive faxes via email. You can usually implement this type of faxing capability directly from your cloud storage solution for no additional charge (initially), or subscribe to specific online faxing solutions such as PATLive ($9.95 per month), MyFax ($10 per month), RapidFAX ($9.95 per month), or RingCentral ($19.99 per month).
6. Paperless bill management. New services such as Manilla (free) can automatically collect and organize all of your bills. Thereafter, log in to see your bills summarized in one location, and if desired, you can set the system to remind you as bills come due. You can also use Manilla to collect and organize frequent flyer and rewards program statements. Similar services include PayTrust ($9.95 per month), Billeo (free), and MyCheckFree (free).
7. Paperless expense reporting. Online expense reporting solutions such as Expensify (free) and Concur expense reporting ($8 per month) enable your employees to fill out expense reports online, including from their smartphones. Thereafter, electronic expense reports containing attached scanned or photographed images of supporting receipts can be submitted electronically. Expensify can even recognize and convert your scanned receipts and enter the data details for you. This approach eliminates paper and rekeying, improves accuracy, saves time, and enables faster work flow and reimbursement approvals.
8. Paperless travel management. Travel management services such as TripIt (free) enable you to plan and capture the specific details of business trips, which are then organized into chronological itineraries and synced to your smartphone for easy access. After the trip, you can save electronic copies of your itineraries, including notes, photos, and documented events, for archival and IRS reporting purposes.
9. eSignatures. Secure digital signature products such as HelloSign (free) enable you to sign electronic documents with legally binding signatures so you can execute paperless contracts without having to print and physically send paper documents back and forth. Similar products include DocuSign (starting at $15 per month) and YouSendIt (free).
10. Electronic notebooks. Encourage employees to use electronic notebooks such as Microsoft OneNote (free with Windows Live account) or Evernote (free) to capture their notes electronically instead of on paper. These tools enable users to capture text, notes, hyperlinks, and images from computers, tablets, or smartphones; thereafter, the information can be accessed from all of a user’s computers or devices. With proper permissions, colleagues can be granted access to selected notes, links, and images as well.
11. Electronic PIM. Use an electronic personal information manager (PIM) to manage your calendar, contacts, and to-do lists (such as those in Outlook) to electronically organize your information, both personally and professionally. Thereafter, your data can be synced to all of your computers or devices for easy access, and if desired, you can share portions of your calendar with colleagues or your administrative assistant.
12. Paperless financial statements and reports. No matter which accounting system you use, you can usually print the system’s financial statements and reports to Excel, PDF, or XPS file formats and send them electronically—and in most cases, you can apply password protection before sending. This method saves paper and toner, and recipients can easily maintain and archive the reports, copy and paste results into Excel without retyping (for what-if analysis purposes), and include portions of the electronic reports in Word documents and emails.
13. Digitize client/customer files. Hire a company specializing in paperless conversions to use high-powered scanning equipment to convert historical paper-based client files to electronic data files, then eliminate your filing cabinets and file rooms.
14. Access news online. Switch paper-based newspaper subscriptions and newsletters to electronic subscriptions, then read online using your computer, Kindle, tablet, or smartphone.
Going paperless has many benefits; not only can you help save trees, but you can also reduce clutter, paper and toner costs, and the need for filing cabinets and file room space. In addition, you can make things easier to find, make information instantly accessible to satellite offices and remote users, and enable multiple people access to the same document at the same time. However, you should also heed the cloud security warnings expressed in the April 2013 JofA article “Microsoft Office 2013” (page 32).