Yesterday was World Paper Free Day. A new European study published shows that managing paper remains a severe headache for businesses and one that not enough business leaders are prioritising.

One in three (32 per cent) UK businesses surveyed have problems managing the information they hold, and almost half (48 per cent) are concerned that storing paper documents takes up too much space. More than half (55 per cent) of UK businesses do not centralise the responsibility for document management with one person, spreading responsibility thinly across the organisation.

World Paper Free Day was created to urge businesses to go paperless. However, the paperless office remains a future ideal, with companies continuing to create, copy and store paper documents. According to AIIM, the Association of Information and Image Management, businesses hold ten times more information now compared to five years ago.

Many organisations struggle to keep track of the reams of billing documents, customer records, licences and invoices they hold. In large urban centres across Europe, an ever-growing number of company records and files occupy some of the most expensive real estate.

Before embarking on a paper reduction programme, companies need to understand what information they hold and separate out the high-risk, high-value information. Paper-efficient businesses are storing critical files securely off-site, digitising paper documents and, when appropriate, destroying and recycling.

In light of this, here are 5 practical steps to help businesses become paper efficient:

  1.  Concentrate on becoming ‘paper-efficient’ rather than ‘paper-less’

The truth is we will not go paper-free in the immediate or mid-term. The growth of paper archives is accompanied by the exponential growth of digital information – all set against a backdrop of increasingly stringent legal regulation and changing business needs. Dealing with this is often hampered by restricted budgets, out-of-date systems and processes, and a spread of responsibility across multiple departments. The most pragmatic way to move forward is to adopt a hybrid model, where both physical and digital information is recognised and managed as part of a coherent information strategy.

  1.  Organise and segment your information

Many organisations hold large archives of paper documents, and they simply don’t know how to start gaining better control over them. The secret lies in segmentation. Companies need to know what they have and where it is. They need to account for business-critical records, operational documents, active and inactive information, and data that is no longer required and due for destruction. This segmentation process will help companies to start to shrink their paper problem – and ensure company resources are focused on managing the most valuable documents.

  1.  Understand the external environment

The regulatory environment is becoming stricter and more complex. Companies that operate internationally face the additional headache of getting to grips with variable and occasionally inconsistent legislation across each of their markets. Businesses need to find their way through this bureaucratic minefield to ensure they operate within the law and know what to keep and how to keep it, and what they need to destroy by when. Businesses are advised to work with third-party experts, who can help store documents in accordance with relevant regulations and manage retention schedules so that documents are managed throughout their lifecycle, from creation to secure destruction.

  1.  Take it off-site

On top of the hidden costs of piling up information on site comes the costs in the time that staff must spend storing, managing and retrieving company files. A trusted third-party provider can act as a perimeter fence, taking charge of the majority of inbound paper before it ever reaches the office while keeping track of all compliance issues. Relevant documents can be digitised and plugged into relevant processes such as Accounts Payable, while less essential documents can be stored off-site for an agreed period of time, after which they can be destroyed securely.

  1.  Beware the one-size-fits-all approach

A digital one-size-fits-all solution just won’t work. Conventional wisdom says: “Make all documents available digitally, shred the paper and you’ll have a fully paperless office.” This approach invariably leads to over-investment in digitising documents that are unlikely to ever be accessed. Instead of making things better than before, you may have made them worse. So rather than a digitise-all approach, the focus should be on understanding how information should best be accessed and used and then first investing in digitising those documents you need to access frequently.