Can you really make an office paperless?

Wednesday 24th October 2018

A few years ago, the phrase “paperless office” emerged as the next big thing in managing a workspace. The question is, can such a thing ever be achieved? And is it even desirable?

Going green
There are a couple of reasons that the concept of the paperless office gained favour. The most obvious one is the impact on the environment, no one wants to cut down trees unnecessarily.

“Whoops, I accidentally dropped it in the shredder”
A second reason was that paperwork comes with a range of problems. It takes up a lot of space, it can easily be lost, and transferring it from one place to another by snail mail can be a slow process.

In addition, documents can easily be accidentally lost, or even destroyed maliciously, unless a load more paper storage space is created somewhere under lock and key to securely store back-up details. It can also take longer to find items, especially if they are misfiled.

The term ‘paperless office’ does not get used as much now, but that may be for a good reason; in many ways, the amount of paper has indeed been greatly reduced, which may be enough for most.

How paperwork has been reduced – but not eliminated
All this has been made possible by digitisation and the internet, with cloud computing adding a further range of possibilities. This means a lot of documentation can simply be stored online and need not be kept in paper form. Government moves towards ‘making tax digital’ are aimed at expanding the opportunities to do this, while the instant movement of data by email can make communication much faster.

However, this is not quite the same thing as making the office paperless. It may well be that the office printer spends more time idle, but any utopian ideal of having not one scrap of paper in the office is still some way off.

Among the reasons for this are that there are many documents that will still require a legal signature, such as contracts – including for your own employment – and financial instruments such as loan agreements.

It may also be highly impractical to ban all paper items. A pad on which notes may be jotted down might seem ‘old school’, but it could also be more immediately practical than an electronic device.

After all, notepads never stop working because of a flat battery or because the wi-fi is on the blink.

Recycling works
The environmental angle is also not as simple an issue as might be imagined. The emergence of sustainable forestry has provided reasons to be confident that all the trees chopped down to make the paper your office uses are being replenished. In addition, paper recycling offers a means of ensuring there is little real waste at all. Indeed, you might even use paper that has been recycled to begin with.

In conclusion, the absolutist approach to ‘going paperless’ is likely to be counter-productive and isn’t necessary. Accept an office with less paper, not no paper. You won’t usually need huge filing cabinets, as you can store the majority of data online. But don’t imagine that you can do away with the stationery drawer just yet.



Image courtesy of iStock/YakobchukOlena

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