As the world goes increasingly digital, so too are consumers' interactions with businesses and service providers. From estimating and production software in the office, to email, cell phones, and even online client portals — predecessors to "cloud" technology — digital communication has become commonplace in remodeling businesses. As e-communications gain in ease and acceptance, paper documents fall by the wayside.

With that in mind, Minneapolis-area remodeler Shawn Nelson has taken another incremental step toward a paperless business. Nelson and his staff at New Spaces have gone all-digital in their initial client presentations, trading in paper checklists for emailed PDFs and photo-packed folders for iPad slide shows.

Smooth Transition

Nelson initially had some concerns about the paperless move, noting that many New Spaces clients are baby boomers. But "we haven't had any issues," he says. "Everyone's on email, and it's very easy to connect that way." The impetus for sending paper presentations to the recycling bin was twofold. "We've gone to putting our initial presentations on an iPad in part because iPads are great gadgets and useful for so many things, but there's also a cost factor," Nelson says. "We used to mail out meeting confirmation letters before initial meetings, as well as follow-up documents afterward. We know 44 cents for a stamp won't break the bank, but there is time and money saved by not doing hard-copy mailings."

Nelson adds that digital communications add a level of professionalism, illustrating to clients that the company understands how to use technology. "We can be cutting edge without scaring anyone," he says. "So far, we've gotten good feedback from people — they appreciate what we're doing."

Nelson says that he and one other staff member have been making iPad presentations since early 2011. Though some time was involved in researching different presentation apps — they decided on Apple's popular Keynote option — the transition from print to iPad was smooth. "Since we were moving to a different format, we also used the opportunity to change up our presentation a little, update the graphics, and add in newer project photos." All the other presentation-related documents were easily converted to PDFs and are ready to send to clients at the click of a mouse."

Digital Opportunities

Despite all-digital presentations, design software, and numerous other electronic platforms throughout the company, Nelson points out that New Spaces is anything but paperless. As expected, the company prints contracts for client signatures, as well as final design plans and state-mandated hard copies of lead disclosures, statutory warranties, and the like.  This is true for many companies and can be an obstacle to cutting out paper from day-to-day work. "We are deeply entrenched in the e-world with video presentations, computer pricing, digital photos, email, and many Web-based meetings," says Neil Parsons, owner of consulting firm Design Build Profit. "Even after all this, not only do we generate paperwork and custom design portfolios for the client, but I find myself printing stuff out to write or draw on for projects in development, reports, spreadsheets, etc. Many of these scribble notes get put in folders for ongoing reference and — voila! — back to piles of paper."

Professional organizer Monica Ricci, founder of Atlanta-based Catalyst Organizing Solutions, says that eliminating paper can be a challenge. "The confidence of knowing that information is still available is the reason people hold onto paper," Ricci says. "It's not the paper they want, it's the data and information that's contained on it. A scanning solution creates the best of both worlds."

Parsons says that all of his clients' original documents are scanned and saved to the company's server. According to Ricci, once an item is safely scanned and saved, the paper can be discarded — a great step toward clearing the clutter. "The physical appearance of paper is so huge for people," she says. "They see all these piles and feel overwhelmed by the backlog of paper. Reducing the amount of paper ultimately improves the physical environment and lightens the load."

Less Is More

Though Nelson says that New Spaces doesn't have a mission statement geared toward going paperless, he acknowledges a lot of benefits to working electronically, beyond cost and time savings. "Our philosophy is to do whatever works best for our clients and to continue to meet their needs in better ways," he says. "What we found is that in some ways paper just doesn't meet their needs anymore. Email is easier to access, file, and share." Indeed, Nelson says that, unlike paper copies that sit and stay, clients that receive project plans and company information by email are more likely to forward those items to share them with their family or neighbors. This can increasing New Spaces' impression in the community. "We're not a paperless office, but we're making steps toward digital communications that work for everyone," Nelson says. New Spaces is currently looking into ways to digitize its all-printed quote books, of which there is one heavy binder for each client. "Right now, that works really well. If a client calls, anyone in the office can go to that book and all of the info for the project is in there. But, next year's plan is to eliminate that. We're also testing ways to use our iPads to capture signatures on initial agreements and sync those back to our cloud server. We aren't fully there yet, but there's a lot of opportunity."

Ricci reminds that going paperless is just that. "Paperless doesn't mean paper-free," she says. "There will be things that you want to scan but also keep a hard copy of, such as legal documents. There are some things people feel more comfortable having printed out. Eliminating paper is really about hitting that balance of what's really truly worthy of keeping a hard copy, and what's OK to scan and shred." —Lauren Hunter, associate editor, REMODELING.