What is the paperless office?

And is it ever possible to be one?

paperless office

Humanity has always been familiar with paper in one form or another for thousands of years, with this timeless medium offering a way to document significant moments of history, as well as artistic expression.

As time has passed, the demand for paper has risen significantly, and so too has its consumption. The last 40 years have seen demand rise by 400%, although it's become clear that humanity's paper-hungry habit is having a negative impact on the environment. Deforestation, in particular, is a major concern in some parts of the world, such as in the Amazon. There's been a recent clamour, therefore, to cut back on the mountains of paper that we distribute in the form of letters, documents, memos, and more.

Given the recent shift to remote working, businesses are beginning to realise they don't need to rely on paper as much as they once had, and its use is hopefully beginning to dwindle. We can chiefly thank modern technologies like cloud computing for proving that large bulks of work can be done online, in conjunction with time-old staples such as email.

Contracts are one area for which many might think paper is still essential, but even platforms such as DocuSign are putting an end to handwritten signatures. Other forms of paper that's in circulation, such as newspapers or banknotes, meanwhile, have been scaled back due to fears around the transmissibility of COVID-19.

While letting go of a classic game of battleship might be difficult, for many businesses it's time to leave paper in the past. Digital files are cleaner, more efficient, and allow multiple colleagues to collaborate with each other at once, in person or remotely. It could well be the best time to transform your workplace into a paperless office once and for all.

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.

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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.

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%.

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. 

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"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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