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The concept of the paperless office is daunting to a lot of businesses. They feel pressurised into banishing all paper from their premises, or they will have failed and forever remain digitally impure. But they should not feel intimidated. It’s fine to believe that paper still has an important role to play, even in a paperless world, meaning that organisations take as many of their operations as possible online. Businesses can go a long way towards becoming paper-free without having to abandon print altogether. Even without reaching perfection, they can save resources, speed up processes and make it easier to back-up data.
A better target for most businesses is to aim to use significantly “less paper” rather than to be entirely “paperless”. There are some sound business reasons to make the effort. The US Environment Agency says digital methods save US$80 a year per employee in paper, ink, toner, storage space and postage. Businesses save on the cost of shredding services for sensitive information and may be able to dispense with entire rooms and storage units. Gartner estimated that the cost of filing, storing and retrieving paper for US businesses was between US$25 billion and US$35 billion. Digital storage solutions are available at much lower cost. There is evidence, too, that customers respond more rapidly to digital surveys and invoices as opposed to paper ones.
Paper is not going to disappear completely from offices.
Technology is evolving and bringing new ways to optimise processes, largely through companies going paperless, but it does not have to spell the end of printing and the use of paper documents in office environments. Deciding which documents still need to be printed is a key part of the transformation to become paperless.
Smaller companies can store all their documents on their own servers, but large organisations will need the cloud, which is ideal for the paperless office. A cloud-based document management system (DMS) allows documents to be tagged digitally, meaning they can be retrieved in different locations without having to make copies. There only needs to be one master document. With a DMS, it’s also impossible to lose or misplace documents, a common occurrence with paper storage. With the cloud, every change is saved instantly and it’s straightforward to create multiple versions of documents. There’s no danger of them being destroyed in a fire, or flood. Of course, data security can be an issue and businesses must implement strict controls on access to sensitive information.
A paperless office is well-suited to flexible and modern working practices. Companies today like to stay agile, moving offices when a better option arises and it’s easier to transfer data digitally than lug around reams of paper. Digital storage makes it faster to retrieve documents and easier to back them up. Most office employees spend at least one day a week working remotely so being able to access documents in the cloud, or on the company server, makes their lives easier. For international teams in different time zones, working in collaboration would be practically impossible if they relied on paper documentation. It’s true that moving towards a paperless office means having to invest in more screens, and some businesses baulk at the cost, but numerous academic studies show a rapid return on investment.
Despite the arguments in favour of going paperless, there is social resistance to doing away with paper. A study of 500 British workers by the Toluna Group found that 84% retained information better after reading it on paper, 83% preferred it, and 79% found it more relaxing. Sales of e-books have dropped steeply in the past two years in both the US and UK as readers discover the charms of paper books, leading them to be labelled the “new vinyl”. At times, digital may be perceived as colder and more impersonal, lacking the tactile qualities of paper. The argument that using too much paper is damaging for the environment is also double-edged. Paper, it turns out, is the easiest material to recycle. The American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA) says that in 2015, 51 million tonnes of scrap paper was recycled. The AFPA says that in 2016 the US paper recovery rate reached a record high of 67.2%. Americans recycle an average of more than 330 pounds of paper a year and more trees are being planted than are being destroyed by paper use. Meanwhile, only 20% of electronic devices are recycled.
Companies will need to develop their own policies around paper use, but one idea is to allow workers to print out documents that require lengthy perusal and analysis. An example is a lawyer involved in complex litigation. If he, or she, has to read a lot of cross-referenced information, it’s much easier to work on paper than in a digital format. Or if the lawyer wishes to annotate sensitive legal documents by hand, then destroy the notes, paper works best. Conversely, anything that is read once doesn’t need to be seen on paper. Official documentation, such as invoices, should also be paperless. In some instances, companies will need a combination of paperless and paper solutions. The real dangers of hackers breaking into digital systems and stealing data means that sensitive information may be best stored on paper in a secure vault. For example, if a company wanted to keep a new formula for a bullet-proof vest a closely guarded secret, they could keep an electronic record that cross-references a paper record of the most sensitive details. Using old-fashioned paper may save them from losing their intellectual property.
Paper is not going to disappear completely from offices for a long time, if ever, which should not be a source of self-recrimination for businesses. No one should feel bullied into becoming entirely paperless. Companies can take big steps to reducing their paper consumption, but still leave some occasions when they prefer it to digital methods.
Moving towards a paperless office can be daunting, but it's a challenge that all firms should rise to.