Are We Ready for the Paperless Office?

Ever since I can remember, all descriptions I have heard or read about an “office of the future” included a common attribute. The future office is always, without fail, paperless.

No paper is needed in the mythical office of the future because all information there is managed and stored in digital format. That sounds completely plausible to us because the technology to do that exists right now.

Unfortunately instead of using less paper, today’s offices use a lot more paper than offices did when people first started talking about a “paperless office”.

Why quit paper?

We can think of a million reasons why every organization should ditch paper and go totally digital with their information. Among the most obvious:

  • Digital is more secure than paper
  • It’s simpler to back up
  • It’s more convenient to store
  • It’s infinitely easier to share with collaborators
  • It can be updated pretty much in real time
  • It’s much more environmentally friendly.

All those and more are good reasons for organizations to be totally digital. But let’s face it. There are also specific circumstances when digital is NOT better than a paper document. I’m specifically thinking of me (located in the U.S.) trying to calculate and file my income taxes every January/February.

In that instance, paper is definitely preferable because, for me, the good old “paper trail” has no easily accessed digital equivalent.

While we’re not perceptively closer to achieving the paperless office, there is some good news. According to Aeon, we hit Peak Paper in 2013 and worldwide usage has been slowly trending down ever since.

But even so, Wired magazine said of global paper usage a couple years ago:

  • Each day, one billion photocopies are made.
  • The annual growth rate for the amount of paper produced by the average company is 25 percent.
  • There are over four trillion paper documents in the US alone, and this number is growing at a rate of 22%, or roughly 880 billion paper documents a year. 

Why can’t we quit paper?

So why is it so hard for individuals and organizations to give up using paper, even when we know with certainty that doing so makes complete sense?

Surprisingly, there are a lot of reasons. They may not all apply to every person or  business, but they have enough collective appeal to us that humans are unable to let paper go.

  • Paper is versatile. There are few restrictions on how we can put it to use.
  • It’s universally accessible.
  • It’s inexpensive.
  • Under all but extreme conditions, it’s easy for most humans to consume paper-based communications.
  • Paper is extremely easy to use. No training needed.
  • It’s mobile.
  • It’s easily held and manipulated.
  • It does not cause eye fatigue like digital device screens can.
  • Unlike with digital devices, paper’s creative space is also the storage location for that which is created.
  • It’s tactile, has texture and a dimensionality not available from the glass screen of an electronic device.
  • It’s made from renewable resources.
  • There’s never a need to find a power source to recharge a battery. 

And finally, if humans become frustrated we can get temporary emotional release by tearing paper to shreds, or crumpling it and throwing the wad across the room. Try that with your computing device.

It’s fair to say that digital devices share some of the above attributes, but certainly not all.

There’s more to the dump-paper story

Another, less discussed topic related to giving up paper usage is this: Simply going digital doesn’t solve an organization’s information management issues. Which issues am I talking about? Here are just a few:

  • securely storing documents and files
  • tagging, organizing and indexing stored documents in a strategic way
  • searching archives of stored documents and producing accurate search results
  • retrieving only those files that are needed and . . . 
  • . . . only WHEN they are needed.

Moving an organization’s paper-based information management bad habits to the cloud just makes it easier to continue engaging in those bad habits. It also will continue producing the poor outcomes that those bad habits produce.

It’s been rightly pointed out by many others that rising generations are more digitally oriented and comfortable with less paper use. It’s probably up to them to solve our paper-usage conundrum. 

The paperless office? It’s not arriving any time soon. A more realistic goal for individuals and organizations is reducing our paper use. Minimizing paper consumption by better storing and managing information is not just realistic, it’s absolutely doable. And that’s something we can all get behind.