What is the paperless office?

And is it ever possible to be one?

paperless office

Paper has brought the world more than just means of delivering communication - paper aeroplanes have brought us hours of fun, the humble papercut has sliced many a finger worldwide and who hasn't tried at least once to pull off the age-old 'my dog ate my homework' excuse?

All of these could be a thing of the past - something you allude to in your old age as your children gawk with the same confusion as millennials when thinking about pre-internet life. Paper use is on the decline while cloud computing adoption accelerates every year which is presenting the threat to paper as we know it.

Once office staples, the paperclip, Pritt Stick and hole punch are scarcely seen in the modern workplace neither is an employee in the same seat every day. The internet and cloud computing has brought about the rise in hotdesking and working from home trends. Important documents can be signed electronically and sent securely through the ether - so why are we still cutting down trees?

Businesses have headed towards a cloud computing approach to work using comprehensive services such as Google's G Suite and Microsoft's Office 365. Virtual documents can be created and shared quickly, easily, and with less of a carbon footprint.

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This enterprise nirvana was dubbed the paperless, or digital, office. But is it still very much business fiction rather than fact?

From a corporate social responsibility point of view, going paperless makes absolute sense. Globally, it's believed our paper consumption has more than doubled in the last 40 years, while ORS Group figures suggest that the average UK worker goes through 10,000 sheets of paper annually the equivalent of four boxes, which cost 40 in total.

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 ultimately 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.

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 go 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."

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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 percent.

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"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." 

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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