Going Paperless: Pros, Cons, and Digital Workarounds

Mark O'Neill 25-07-2016

The paperless office The Future Is Here - Your Guide to Having a Paperless Life Today Paperless – a term that is used quite often now days. But what does it mean? And to what extent does it apply? Certainly we all still use paper to some degree despite the advancements... Read More seems to finally be catching on. In part this may be due to the even more popular idea of minimalism How To Be An Effective Minimalist In Your Daily Life More and more people are choosing to embrace minimalism. In certain situations this can wreak frustrating havoc on your everyday life. With some minimal planning it doesn't have to come to that. Read More . But is it all a tree-saving nirvana or a nightmare of A4 proportions?


We investigate the pros and cons, along with actionable advice, so you can make your own mind up and get on with it right away.

The Pros of a Paperless Office

Let’s first take a look at the advantages of saying adios to paper.

Getting Rid of the Outdated Fax Machine

Despite the fax machine having been turned into an archaic device, there are still some who insist on hanging onto it by their fingernails. These are the people who have their fax machine number prominently displayed on their business card. These are the people who can’t accept that something called “email” was invented, and as a result, they are drowning under a sea of fax paper.


If someone like that absolutely insists that something MUST be faxed to you, then there are ways to accommodate them, without having to deal with paper jams, and fallen trees on your conscience. Numerous online services can assign you a “virtual fax number” and the other person can fax to that number. The fax is then converted into an email attachment and sent to you over the interwebs.


The downside is that the free plans for these sites are incredibly limiting. To get any decent service, you would need to pay for a monthly plan.

Some ones to look at include Maxemail, MyFax, RingCentral, Faxburner, eFax, and FreeFaxtoEmail.

Having More Space to Tango

Right now, I have several boxes full of documents going back 15 years. They are sitting in my office waiting to be scanned so I can finally shred the paper originals. Meanwhile, while my best friend Procrastinate is staying with me, I am constantly tripping over the boxes, hitting my hips against them, and generally swearing my head off at them.



When I finally get around to scanning the paper, I am going to have one huge shredding party and a drink each time a document goes through the shredder (by the end, I will be totally legless). But what I am really dreaming about is having a huge amount of space in my office. I can use that space to start dancing, or wrestle the dog. And remind myself what color my floor is.

If you are a company spending lots of money on storage space for your documents, just think of how much you will save, scanning those documents and burning the entire lot. Employee morale will go through the roof.

Saving the Environment From Ourselves

The most obvious advantage is of course the environment. Too many trees are being cut down and the Amazon Rainforest is disappearing in part to feed the pulp and paper industry. Anything we can do to slow that down is obviously good news for the planet we live on. We print too much and too much paper is being wasted. By moving to a paperless environment, you can do your bit for Mother Nature.



If you MUST print something Top Tips & Tools to Help With Printing Webpages No matter how hard you try to go paperless, sometimes you just need to print that webpage. It might be for directions, an article for class, a handout for a meeting at work, etc. As... Read More , then there are ways to minimize the amount of paper and ink you use. Services such as PrintWhatYouLike, PrintFriendly, Aardvark, and The Printliminator will help you remove any unnecessary elements from a page before you print it, such as adverts. But wherever possible, scan and email.

Paper Doesn’t Last Forever but Digital Files Will

It’s a fact of life that paper doesn’t last forever. The Magna Carta probably isn’t looking as fresh as it did when it was first written. Anne Frank’s diary is starting to brown and curl at the edges. Paper simply eventually starts to break down, given enough time has passed.


So in other words, it is a terrible way to store information long-term. You can never be sure when it will brown, rip, fade, curl, or simply have a cup of coffee thrown all over it. But a digital file? Provided you keep it in a popular format such as PDF or TXT and do regular backups 5 Basic Backup Facts Every Windows User Should Know We never tire to remind you to make backups and keep your data safe. If you're wondering what, how often, and where you should back up your files, we have straight forward answers. Read More , it will always be there when you need it. In twenty or thirty years, it will still look the same as when you first made it.


Employees Can Work Remotely

The problem with paper is that in an office environment, if you want colleagues in other geographical locations to have a copy, you need to mail it out by snail mail. That takes time (even more so if the post office loses it). Time in many instances means money lost, opportunities delayed, and mounting frustration.


If files are digitalized, however, they can be put online in a company intranet Quickly Set Up Your Own Home Intranet With ocPortal Have you ever thought about what it might be like to have a "portal page" for your family, just like many companies offer to employees? Wouldn't it be convenient to have a central web-based repository... Read More or wiki 4 of the Best Personal Wikis to Keep You Organized What if there was wiki software designed to help you out on a personal level? You could use it for anything, for example to outline your novel, keep track of home improvement projects, or plan... Read More . Or they can be emailed or put in a cloud storage folder. This enables the colleagues in the other office to get their copy immediately, no need for waiting. If the document is uploaded to a collaboration site 10+ No-Signup Collaboration Tools You Can Use in 10 Seconds Collaborating online can save you and your team both time and money. Collaborating quickly can save a bit more. These tools are ready to go when you are. No registration required. Read More  such as Google Docs or Dropbox, then everyone in all locations can start leaving feedback in real-time.

The Cons of a Paperless Office

But going without paper is not always the paradise it is made out to be. Technology to the rescue!

Scanning Every. Single. Piece. Of. Paper.

Right off the bat, this is the most annoying thing about the whole enterprise. Finding the energy and the inclination to sit and scan every single piece of paper. It’s tedious, time consuming, and quite frankly, you would much rather be watching reruns of Baywatch on TV.


But there are some things you can do to make the job a little bit easier. First, review each piece of paper, and put it into one of three piles – definitely scan, maybe scan, and shred. The shred stuff….well….shred it and get rid of it.

You can probably get rid of paid bills, receipts for things where the warranty has long expired, instruction manuals (chances are the manufacturer has uploaded a PDF version Can't Find a User Manual For Your Gear? Search These Specialist Websites The meticulous guy with foresight will either scan a user manual and keep a softcopy in his computer, or look for a softcopy that’s usually available as PDF on the manufacturer’s site. There’s a third... Read More onto their website), bank deposit slips (but NOT the statements), and so forth. Just cast a critical eye over it and decide “do I REALLY need to keep this?“.

Maybe Scan is for things you are not sure of yet and you don’t want to rush into a decision. Keep those to the side.

You will find then that the Definitely Scan pile is probably more manageable. Now create folders on your computer (Taxes, Insurance, Payslips, etc), and when you scan a document, immediately move it into the relevant folder and add a descriptive name.

There are apps which claim to speed the process up for you (results are mixed in my opinion). Evernote has Scannable, which detects the edges of the document when you point your smartphone camera at it. There is also Photomyne, if you are scanning photos. AlternativeTo has some good alternatives to Scannable if you are looking for something else. I particularly like ScanBot The Best Receipt Apps for Scanning, Tracking, and Managing Bills These receipt scanner apps will help you scan, save, and organize every bill for your personal or business needs. Read More .

Remembering to Back Everything Up

The more you scan, the more important it is that you back it all up The Windows Backup and Restore Guide Disasters happen. Unless you're willing to lose your data, you need a good Windows backup routine. We'll show you how to prepare backups and restore them. Read More . Because if your computer decides to commit suicide or self-destruct, having no backups means having absolutely no files. And in many cases, that can be an unmitigated disaster (especially if you have lost tax paperwork). Many companies in my experience offer replacement copies of documents for a price, and you may well decide to do that. But you can sleep easier at night if you have a backup solution nearby or remotely (or both).


At the very least, you should have a portable hard-drive (get at least 1 terabyte of space). If you have a Windows PC The Ultimate Windows 10 Data Backup Guide We've summarized every backup, restore, recovery, and repair option we could find on Windows 10. Use our simple tips and never despair over lost data again! Read More , download and use SyncToy, SyncToy: Microsoft's Simple Backup & Synchronization Solution [Windows] If you have files on your computer, you need to backup. Plain and simple. Many of us are familiar with backing up and there are lots of methods and programs to use. Another aspect that... Read More  an extremely easy backup tool. Mac users The Ultimate Triple Backup Solution For Your Mac [Mac OSX] As the developer here at MakeUseOf and as someone who earns their entire income from working online, it's fair to say my computer and data are quite important. They’re set up perfectly for productivity with... Read More will probably gravitate to Time Machine How to Partition Your External Time Machine Hard Drive Here's how to partition an external hard drive for Time Machine on your Mac so you can store other files too. Read More . Whatever you decide to use, you need to set up some sort of automated system for backing up your files at the same time each day, without fail.

Ideally, you should also have a remote backup, just in case your place gets flooded or catches fire. But before sending your valuable files off into the cloud, be sure to encrypt them in a special folder 5 Effective Tools to Encrypt Your Secret Files We need to pay closer attention than ever before towards encryption tools and anything designed to protect our privacy. With the right tools, keeping our data safe is easy. Read More first. WinRAR and WinZip can encrypt files, as can Veracrypt, and its outdated predecessor, TrueCrypt TrueCrypt Is Dead: 4 Disk Encryption Alternatives For Windows TrueCrypt is no more, but fortunately there are other useful encryption programs. While they may not be exact replacements, they should suit your needs. Read More . Cloud possibilities include Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, and SkyDrive.

Finding a Database With OCR-Type Technology

Once you have scanned everything, you can go the route of having folders and sub-folders sorted in date and month category (and even day folders as well, if you really want to get precise). Or door number two is finding some sort of database with OCR-type technology 4 Free Online OCR Tools Put to the Ultimate Test With advances in OCR technology, converting text and Images from your scanned PDF document into the editable text formats is easier. We tested a few free online OCR tools so you won't have to. Read More .


OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition, and it is technology which reads the printed text on a page and is able to either convert that text into copy-able text, or it can return results to you, based on keywords you give it. This is the technology which drives Evernote How to Use Evernote: The Unofficial Manual Learning how to use Evernote on your own takes a long time. This is why we've put together this guide to show you how to take full advantage of the most important Evernote features. Read More , and it is what Project Gutenberg uses Project Gutenberg: More Than Just Free Books Sites like Project Gutenberg, which has over 45,000 books on offer (at the time of writing), will ensure that no book will ever truly disappear. Discovering obscure works of literature is now easier than ever. Read More to scan all of the public domain texts into eBooks. Text in both documents and images The 5 Best OCR Tools for Extracting Text from Images When you have reams of paper, how do you get all that printed text converted into something that a digital program will be able to recognize and index? Keep a good OCR software close by. Read More can be found, recognized, and brought to you in search results when you enter that word.

For the purposes of searching your scanned documents, you clearly need to find a way of easily being able to pull up what you need right away. So if you go the OCR route, you need to decide. Are you going to pay Evernote a yearly fee and trust them with your sensitive documents? Or are you going to download something instead and keep it all on your computer.

Are You a Paper Connoisseur or a Digital Deviant?

There are always pros and cons to everything, but some people may tolerate a con more than others. So it all comes down to what you are prepared to accept.

Now, is scanning everything pointless and a waste of time? Or is digitalization the way of the future? What say you, readers?

Image Credits: Sinking Businessman via, all other attribution-free images from PixaBay

Related topics: Data Backup, Digital Document, Evernote, OCR, Printing.

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  1. Anonymous
    July 25, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Thanks, Mark!

    I use the free WPS (aka Kingsoft Office) in lieu of MS Office. As for organization, while Evernote and Onenote are easy and versatile, I am leery of devoting time/energy organizing in accordance and then becoming "hostage" to this or that specific app. Instead, I simply entrust 'everything' onto a .xlsx file which can be used with any number of free and paid apps on any OS.

    My .xlsx workbook has 150+ pages (tabs)! It's got all my financial info, my net worth is always up to date; it's got my taxes, household inventory, family genealogy, travel journals, etc., etc.

    The first couple of pages are the 'table of contents' -- by category and with each line item a HTML link that gets me to the right tab or file. This is essentially using a spreadsheet to mimic the functions of Evernote or Onenote -- but without any worries of forced payment or obsolescence. As mentioned, my life is simple (by design) so the workbook isn't difficult to build or maintain. Of course, it's not everyone's cup of tea either.

  2. Anonymous
    July 25, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    I am a retiree who went full digital two years ago and I couldn't be happier! Just about the only paper documents I still have are my passport and the title certificate to my car!

    My files (as an individual) are a lot less complicated than businesses -- and having named my scanned document files rationally, I haven't needed OCR software at all.

    But I highly recommend a software that can reorder, add and delete PDF pages within a PDF file. For example, for scanning tax receipts, it's just easier to house them all in one file per year ("Tax-2016.pdf") than to have a separate file for each and every scrap of receipts. This is where the software comes in handy. Mine is PDF24, but there are many other free/paid options.

    Do you use a worksheet to compute your taxes? Then it is an easy thing to add a link in that worksheet, so clicking the link will get you over to the PDF file showing your tax returns, followed by pages of scanned receipts/backup's -- all in one place -- all just a couple of keystrokes away!

    By digitizing 'everything', you can have everything accessible by desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, etc. anywhere, anytime.

    Finally, I highly recommend encrypting all private/sensitive files (Office, PDF all come with built-in encryption/password protection). Then be sure to back up those files to (1) an external hard drive and (2) the cloud.

    • Anonymous
      July 25, 2016 at 4:30 pm

      Oops, the final blip should say I heartily agree with the author about encrypting and backing up.

    • Mark O'Neill
      July 25, 2016 at 6:16 pm

      This is a great comment! I envy your organisational skills.

      Do you use Excel for your worksheet? If so, did you design your own template?

      I'll check out PDF24. It sounds like just what I need :-)