So, You’re Considering a Paperless Office?

  • Written By: N’Gai Cobb
  • Published On: November 12 2007



So, You're Considering a Paperless Office?
N'Gai Cobb

Many of us have heard the term before. The fact that you are reading this article shows that you are interested in it. The paperless office—is it a realistic goal? What are the benefits of a paperless office? Ironically, as you read this, you are probably surrounded by paper, as paper has blossomed into an integral part of our everyday business and personal lives. So, is it really possible to achieve a paperless office? And if so, why should companies want to?

The Advantages of Paper

Originally invented by the ancient Egyptians, paper has evolved and has successfully endured the test of time. It is nearly impossible to make it through the day without encountering this ancient invention. From books, to magazines, to newspapers, we are surrounded by paper. Paper is arguably one of the most used materials on Earth. But what is it that makes paper so popular, especially in the era of computers? According to Richard H. R. Harper's book, The Myth of the Paperless Office, there are four main reasons why paper is so desirable:

  1. Paper documents are easy to navigate through.
  2. Paper facilitates the cross-referencing of multiple documents.
  3. Writing down notes is exceptionally easy to do on paper.
  4. Switching between reading and writing is simple to do with paper.

Think about the last time you casually browsed through a magazine while at the grocery store or library. We take for granted the ability to pick up a magazine or book and quickly flip through the pages to see if the information inside is interesting. This ability to effortlessly move from page to page is ideal, and paper facilitates this action like no other material can. In fact, a study conducted by Richard H.R. Harper found that even employees at technologically advanced companies still use paper in their everyday functions because of the ability to quickly move through a document when browsing.

In addition to making it easy to move from page to page, paper makes it exceptionally easy for one to compare one document to another. Unlike a computer screen, where comparing two documents is somewhat of a challenge, comparing two paper documents is as simple as placing one next to the other and scanning each page. But after scanning the documents, making notes is even easier. With a cheap 25-cent pencil or pen, you can mark up a paper, with little to no training. However, this same action on a computer requires a bit more expertise to perform.

Ultimately, the main advantage of paper is the ease with which one can switch between reading and writing. This ability is so elementary and essential, that it is perhaps the single biggest reason why the amount of paper used has increased over the years despite the proliferation of computers.

So if paper is so great, why change a good thing?

The Disadvantages of Paper Environments

The very traits of paper that appeal to our sense of touch are the same traits that make paper a liability. Just think about that last time you misplaced an important document. Remember the amount of time you (not to mention others who assisted you) spent frantically trying to find it. Was the document thrown out? Accidentally shredded? Placed in the wrong spot?

The physical properties of paper make it very vulnerable in the fast-moving environments we work in. Paper is thin, lightweight, and flexible by nature, which are all highly desirable traits. Yet these are the same qualities that make paper very easy to lose, misplace, or destroy. Once a paper document has been destroyed, it can never be recovered. Of course, one can re-create a paper document, or one can use backup paper copies, if such copies were ever made. But is having duplicates of documents necessarily a good thing? Sure, they provide you with a backup “just in case,” but there are several hazards associated with having more than one copy of certain documents.

A major problem with duplicate documents is in maintaining accountability as well as strict confidentiality of the information they contain, particularly such sensitive data as client or employee records. Compliance with government laws, which protect and limit the distribution of and access to such information, may be impossible if multiple copies are kept and if employees fail to adhere to these regulations. Just think about the last time someone has left an open file on a desk or in a conference room, unattended.

Paper is very thin and occupies very little space when kept within moderation. However, over time, a modest accumulation quickly turns into excess, requiring massive amounts of storage space. To accommodate this need for storage space, we tend to pack paper into file cabinets, desk drawers, and any other crevice we find to get it out of our way until we need it again. Since paper cannot automatically delete itself in time, these piles grow quickly. Remember when you had just one file cabinet? Has that one cabinet now morphed into a dedicated file room, or worse, an off-site storage facility? What about your own personal workspace—has your work area transformed into a paper monster?

In addition to the physical properties mentioned above, paper also requires person-to-person interaction when transferring it. Have you ever needed a file from a coworker who was out of the office that day? What did you do? Like many, you probably raided his or her cubicle or office, hoping to locate the necessary file. Or have you ever worked outside the office and realized that you forgot an important file? Sure, you can have the information faxed to you, but is that really an optimal solution? In most cases, the answer is no.

To determine if the paperless office is right for your organization, you need to understand the benefits and the risks.

The Disadvantages of a Paperless Office

We have all heard of the paperless office, so why hasn't it caught on? Well, there are several reasons for businesses to not adopt it so quickly:

  1. The technology can be costly.
  2. Users may find reading from computer screens on a constant basis difficult.
  3. Formal training is required.
  4. Change, in general, can be difficult to initiate in an organization.

Like any new technology, there is usually an inherent cost of ownership, and depending upon several factors, this cost may be prohibitive. Unfortunately, many paperless office systems fall into this area. Getting a paperless system up and running, with servers, scanners, and software, may run in the thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even after making this financial sacrifice, reading off a computer screen versus off a paper document is generally harder to do. Think about it: isn't it much easier to flip through paper documents than to read off a bright computer screen?

But even if you manage to keep your hardware and software cost to a minimum, and even if reading from a computer screen is no big deal, you may still be faced with the difficulty of learning how a paperless system works. Unfortunately, many of the paperless systems on the market today are complicated and exceptionally difficult to learn, which almost eliminates their potential benefits; people will resist learning a new system that they may view as a waste of time because it is too complex.

This brings us to the last point, and that is getting your employees to change. Face it, people are creatures of habit, and getting acceptance from the masses for a new process or procedure may prove fatal to your goal.

Yet, despite these inherent disadvantages, the paperless office has considerable benefits.

The Benefits of a Paperless Office

While it is relatively easy to calculate the long-term savings of going paperless given your current off-site storage costs, employee time spent transferring and locating files, and the amount of office space being used for storage, the real benefits of moving away from a paper-based operation can surpass these savings.

Perhaps the chief benefit that can be seen is in the paperless office's main objective: the ability to protect, locate, and access data at all times.

But again, is having a truly paperless office realistic? To answer this question, it is important to understand what paperless really means.

This is part one of the two-part series So, You're Considering a Paperless Office? In part two, find out what is really meant by the term paperless office and, if it is right for your organization, what are the steps to take to implement one.

About the Author

N'Gai Cobb has served as a senior operations analyst for a Fortune 500 Company, a network and data analysis manager for a large disease management company, and a senior consultant for a health care consulting company. Cobb holds a master's degree in public health administration and in microbiology and immunology. He is currently the corporate director for Future Filing, LLC (http://www.FutureFiling.com), a paperless office system designed to give small to medium sized companies a competitive edge by leveraging affordable technology. Cobb can be reached via e-mail at ncobb@futurefiling.com, or by calling 1-800-291-7129, ext. 701.

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