Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Paperless Offices Work

        Money | Work Life

Managing Digital Documents
To create a paperless office, documents can be scanned into digital format using a scanner.
To create a paperless office, documents can be scanned into digital format using a scanner.
Photographer: Scrambled | Agency: Dreamstime

Digital documents, like paper, need to be stored so they can be retrieved and used as needed. For a paperless office -- or more likely, a near paperless one -- you'll need a way to turn paper documents into digital, or electronic documents.

That type of communication transformation is handled by a document imaging system. Since not having paper is unlikely, you'll probably find an ongoing need to turn paper into electronic files. A document management system usually goes beyond that transformation to deal with all documents -- computer generated, as well as those that are faxed, scanned or e-mailed.

The basic document imaging system consists of a scanner and software that allows paper documents to be scanned, converted to electronic images and saved in PDF, TIFF or other formats for storage on CDs, DVDs, a computer hard disk or a network server.

Most document imaging systems include optical character recognition (OCR). This allows the images to be recognized as text when saved as searchable PDFs or copied into programs like Microsoft Word or Excel. With OCR, you also can search for specific words or phrases within a scanned document.

Document management systems provide the electronic file cabinets and filing system tools. They combine data storage space with software that goes beyond document imaging to include functions such as audit trail and reporting tools, document expiration controls to delete documents at specified dates and Web-based document viewing.

More advanced document management systems offer extras such as:

  • User authentication for increased security
  • Automatic e-mail notification
  • Digital signatures
  • Data encryption for secure sending
  • Custom keys that provide prompts for correct indexing
  • Targeted solutions for industries such as health care, financial or manufacturing
  • Multimedia filing, bringing together various types of files such as visual images, video, text and spreadsheets

If you have large quantities of paper documents to turn into electronic files or need help getting the job done quickly, you may want to outsource document imaging to a company like microMEDIA. One of the company's current on-site conversion projects includes OCR and fully searchable PDF files with more than 25 million images.

And if you don't have a robust enough server or want to store electronic files off site, many document imaging companies offer a hosted server solution. Web-based document hosting allows you to store or back up your files on their server and then access them securely anywhere, any time. The advantage is that valuable files are off site in case your company's server goes down or cannot be used on site, like during a hurricane.

Beyond your company's paperless needs, employees may have a home office. On the next page, we'll look at how to bring a paperless look to your home office.