The office desk of a professional, covered with documents, binders and folder files, is quickly becoming a historic relic as the contract cleaning industry is embracing the paperless office concept. Building service contractors are realizing the cost, space and resource-saving resulting from digitizing documents while coming to realize that going paperless is essential to efficiently compete in today’s business climate.   

“The reality is that everything is going digital. People do not want reams and reams of paper,” says Laurence Abrams, the president/CEO of GMI, a BSC based in San Diego, and Paperless Proposal, a technology company that provides proposal software. “That’s what it boils down to. Like it or not: lead, follow or get out of the way.”

Team MJV, a BSC based in Lafayette, Ind., has been able to save about five or six percent in expenditures annually as a result of its paperless initiative, which began about five years ago.  

“That can go toward adding an additional person or adding to the bottom line,” says Kris Robbins, the business manager at Team MJV. “Moving forward as we add additional paperless practices in place, that percent of savings will increase dramatically.”


Clouds and servers

One of the ways BSCs like Team MJV are going paperless is by employing clouds — secured space on the Internet — and servers, instead of filing cabinets and storage closets throughout the office. As these virtual spaces become home to the digital forms of documents, they lessen the need to have the physical originals stored in-house.  

“Our accounts payable and accounts receivable are still coming in on paper but we are not storing it on paper — we have electronic storage for all of that,” Robbins says. “In that way, we are eliminating all of those storage boxes that we have at the end of the year that you have to save.”

Cloud computing can be especially beneficial for a BSC that has a presence in multiple states. Files that live in the cloud can be accessed through a secured connection, ultimately bringing all of the enterprise’s documents instantaneously to the fingertips of staff, removing the need to mail hard copies or send digital copies through e-mail.

Another way to go paperless is by replacing hardcopy forms with forms on the web. For example, Team MJV has concentrated its paperless efforts in its human resources department. When the firm hires a new employee, they do not fill out hard copy forms, but on a computer terminal.     

To get documents in a digital form, BSCs are using stand-alone scanners and scanning functionality on copy machines. BSCs scan documents such as account receivable invoices, reports from the field, memos and receipts.

For instance, if a BSC receives a hardcopy report from the field, it can be scanned  in. The scanned copy, now in a digital form, is saved in a folder on a server. The document can be accessed then by those who have access to the folder.

“We scan everything. Scanning is huge,” says Gary Walker, president of Magic Touch Cleaning, Lee’s Summit, Mo. “When I need a report, all the office manager needs to do is go in and e-mail it to me. I look at the report and if I need to pass it on to somebody, I can e-mail it to them. As opposed to taking a piece of paper and walking it next door or mailing it to my accountant. All of that is eliminated.”


Create consistency

Before scanning in every document, a BSC needs to create a library system. Components of this system are made up of a naming convention for files and consistent ways in determining into which virtual folder they are put. In addition, the BSC needs to determine permissions to restrict access to certain files and folders.

“That’s probably the biggest challenge. I scanned this in, that’s fine and dandy, but how do I find it?” Robbins says. “There is a big thought process ahead of time as to how to organize yourself so you are not creating more of a monster by doing this electronically.”  

A company’s e-mail system is another popular tool for BSCs that are going paperless. Magic Touch Cleaning previously spent $3,000 to mail invoices to its clients, before a company official brought the cost to Walker’s attention. Instead of just analyzing the postage cost, Walker decided to examine the carbon footprint, the type of paper invoices were printed on, the use of envelopes and time it takes to accomplish the task.

“I know the Post Office does not want to hear this, but we started e-mailing our clients their invoicing,” Walker says. “Ninety percent of our clients were fine with us e-mailing invoices to them.”

One of the residual positive effects from sending invoices through e-mail rather than using traditional paper and postage is that Walker’s company gets paid about 11 days sooner than before the transition. This is because a paper invoice typically gets delivered to a mail room, eventually ending up on a desk, buried under other invoices and documents.  

 “So we are cutting our carbon footprint and our cash flow has improved,” Walker says, adding that some of the environmental benefit is derived from the reduction in energy expended on the part of the Post Office. “One you start to extrapolate everything that goes along with it, it’s amazing because it is not just paper.”  


A shift in culture

A hurdle BSCs should be ready for is the cultural shift that is needed when going to a paperless enterprise. Some of their older employees may not be as receptive — compared to the younger staff — to the broad use of technology that is required to go paperless.

One of the keys, according to Abrams, is for leadership within a company to embrace paperless. Instead of telling staff to use less paper, company leadership should lead by example by being seen with their laptop or tablet instead of a stack of paper.

“People don’t like change and they’re going to do the way they have always done it and they are going to feel comfortable until necessity requires them to change,” Abrams says. “Or somebody is a change agent within that company who is willing stand up and says this is the path we are on and there is no going back.”   

This cultural shift in the office may take time and flexibility. Success depends on setting realistic expectations before launching into a paperless initiative. Incremental change over a long period of time along with expectations that fit with a range of personalities and skills rather than a quick and rigid paperless plan may be better suited for some BSCs.  

“Going paperless can be overwhelming. This is the reason that KISS Janitorial is using a tiered implementation strategy,” says Roger Simpson, vice president of KISS Janitorial, Austin, Texas. “This method allows us to modify a few work routines at a time, instead of overhauling the entire workflow process at once that would cost thousands of dollars. We are at the halfway point of going paperless.”

Two of the important components that come into play in terms of the cultural shift are control and fear. Employees like to have their files and documents all to themselves while they fear destroying the hard copies after the hard copy has been digitized.

“Keeping their own records with themselves seems so easy that they argue against centralization. Organized central filing will obviously entail following rules and regulations. This will end modifying and deleting files. It amounts to giving up control of their own documents,” Simpson says. “Even when we had scanned documents and log them into the central repository management system, our employees were still reluctant to destroy their old physical records.”

BSCs attempting to move to a more paperless enterprise should be prepared for up-front capital costs. Hardware that may need to be purchased includes scanners, servers and communication devices such as smartphones and tablets for those in the field to keep in touch. Software that may be needed consists typically of integration solutions that help different systems speak to one another, document archiving and communication applications.

BSCs can make relatively extremely inexpensive incremental steps toward becoming a paperless office by relying less on paper. They can start by printing on both sides of a piece of paper and using an overhead projector rather than hand-outs during a meeting, according to Walker.

Going paperless is as much about reducing paper use as it is about making smarter choices about the type of paper used, such as that with recycled content. Beyond that, contractors have to make a commitment to utilizing technology in order to save even more paper. While that requires a bit of a learning curve, BSCs might find adopting paperless office practices is well worth their time.

Brendan O’Brien is a freelance writer based in Greenfield, Wis.