What is the paperless office?

And is it ever possible to be one?

paperless office

Paper, in its most basic form, has been around since the dawn of humanity, providing a surface for documenting anything from major historical events to a game of noughts and crosses.

Nevertheless, as the population grew, along with businesses and technologies, so did its demand for paper goods. In the past 40 years alone, the consumption of paper has risen by a staggering 400% globally, and it has become increasingly clear that this doesn’t have the best effect on the planet. In fact, the process of manufacturing paper has a huge impact on the environment: from mass deforestations to acid rain and greenhouse gases.

Moreover, with last year’s mass shift to remote working, the relevance of paper became largely diminished. Businesses have become increasingly dependent on cloud computing, while employees and their customers turned to communicating through email instead of post.

Even signing paper documents became a thing of the past, with companies opting for electronic agreements such as DocuSign in order to diminish the risk of COVID infection. On top of that, with a heightened awareness of potential viral contamination, not everyone felt comfortable with distributing or sharing information on anything which cannot be sanitised with an anti-bacterial spray, including banknotes, newspapers, and books.

Although it might be hard to let go of a classic game of battleship, it might be for the best to leave paper in the past – at least when it comes to business. Nowadays, digital files are cleaner, faster, more collaborative as well as environmentally-friendly. So why not turn your workplace into a paperless office?

Stacks of paper on a desk in an office

Why go paperless?

From a corporate social responsibility point of view, going paperless makes absolute sense, with ORS Group figures suggesting that the average UK worker goes through 10,000 sheets of paper – annually the equivalent of four boxes.

While that may not seem quite a lot, the number becomes much more serious when you factor in how many employees there are in total in the UK and the estimate that some 6,800 of those 10,000 sheets per person are simply wasteful rather than necessity.

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From a financial perspective, better use of resources and reducing waste can only do good things for your overheads. Whether that translates to pure savings or just enables an organisation to divert extra resources to add value elsewhere, it can offer real benefits.

There are risks, though. Digital data always raises security concerns, and whether information exists physically or digitally, the advent of GDPR will mean that businesses must keep much tighter control on all assets that contain identifiable data.

Paper carries risks of its own, however. Documents can easily be passed into the wrong hands when left lying around or disposed of carelessly. Paper also cannot be backed up in the event of accidental disposal. On the other hand, digital documents can be protected by authorisation protocols and can be backed up either on servers or up in the cloud.

How to go paperless

There are smart things companies can do in their quest to become paperless. These include common sense tactics like better educating employees or using smart printers that are overt to employees in terms of cost every time they print something or can only be accessed with an ID card, for example.

Encouraging employees to only print when necessary and to do so on both sides of the page also goes some way to reducing waste.

Ultimately, it's about buy-in though. If employees think it's purely a cost-cutting measure they may not pull in the same direction. However, if they understand that those costs can help ensure the health of the business or the environment and/or be re-invested elsewhere in the firm, it may suddenly make much more sense.

"Instead of setting goals based on reducing costs or increasing profits, find out why employees would want to reduce paper in the office and set actionable initiatives around these reasons. Is it to reduce clutter, create more efficient processes, reduce monotonous data entry, or simply to reduce waste and be a greener company? Based on the benefits that would be realised by employees, set goals that revolve around what employees find valuable," states Nektar in its guidance on reducing paper consumption in the office.  

"If objectives and goals are clearly defined and engage employees, then once these goals have been achieved, measures such as reducing costs should follow."

Nektar goes one step further in its advice, suggesting employees shouldn't just be consulted but asked to lead the change, adding: "This is one step that we cannot stress enough. When management attempts to change the workplace without any input from employees, the results are often not what are expected. Letting employees have a say will make them much more likely to not only adopt, but to lead the change.

"Employees that deal daily with paper will likely already have an idea of where redundancies lie or where the use of paper can be reduced or eliminated, so tapping into this knowledge is crucial."

The WWF also offers five key tips for reducing paper consumption in the workplace: 

  1. Think before you print
  2. Use both sides of the sheet
  3. Avoid printing emails or too many copies
  4. Use technology to help, such as scanners or email
  5. Recycle what you use and ask to use recycled paper 

If these tips are followed, the WWF believes most businesses can reduce their paper consumption by at least 20%.

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Is it possible to be paperless?

A graphic representing the evolution of documents from papers to digitised documents displayed on a tablet screen

Presently, announcing paperless initiatives is becoming a hot trend particularly within governmental offices. Often, however, these declarations are only partially true.

"A paperless office is a smart and prudent goal for businesses to have, but it's a lofty one," wrote Heinan Landa in an article published in Biz Journals on the topic. 

"We have a ways to go before we get anywhere close to going truly paperless'," he added. "In the same way that older generations aren't ready to give up their BlackBerry or their Rolodex, those in the workforce today just aren't ready to give up paper." 

In reality, despite going paperless being an ambition spanning decades, it may be destined to remain a pipedream. Sometimes editors just prefer working from physical paper, occasionally ‘wet signatures’ are required to sign legal documentation, and teams may print fliers to hand-out at trade-shows or advertise the next yoga session held in the basement.  

It may be more realistic to instead adopt a ‘paper-light’ approach, one which focused on reducing reliance on paper while accepting that at times digitising is not a suitable substitute. Given this more achievable aim, employees should support the process more fully, and quickly see their efforts bear fruit. 

So, it's clear that while it is possible to reduce paper consumption significantly, the dream of a completely paperless office may have to remain just that. At least for the time being. 

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