What Ever Happened to the Paperless Office?

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Back in the impossibly distant past of 1975, people had optimistic ideas about what business offices would look like in the future. In a BusinessWeek article published in 1975 titled “The Office of the Future,” it was proposed that the 80s and 90s would usher in an era where record handling would be purely electronic, eliminating the need for paper. Fast forward to today, where despite a wealth of paperless office solutions and electronic devices, we’re still struggling to realize that dream. So what went wrong?

One of the fundamental roadblocks in the way of achieving the goal of the paperless office is cost. Going green, whether as a means of scaling back overhead or as an altruistic gesture to the environment, requires an investment in technology that many businesses still just can’t afford.

The fully paperless business office environment can also present a host of logistical technical issues. The elimination of printers and paper means that every single employee would have to be given a computer, or a mobile device compatible with the company’s digital filing system. Considering the affordability of paper, this is sometimes seen as a bridge too far, especially for businesses struggling to cut cost at every corner.

Additionally, paperless offices require software to power the processing of digital documentation and hardware to securely store it all. In a day and age where many businesses still aren’t on board with secure document retention practices like cloud storage or even tape backup, paper remains the easiest and most cost-effective solution.

Then there is the issue of legal requirements. Even with the advent of electronic signature services like DocuSign, Adobe Sign, and HelloSign, it’s still a standard practice among the vast majority of institutions to require physical signatures for everything from contracts to bank loans. Given that a lack of alignment in acceptable technologies still exists has made the paperless office a cumbersome and legally entangling proposition.

All that said, there are still plenty of reasons to go paperless — or semi-paperless. Just because the archaic practice of retaining physical documents is still widely required doesn’t mean that offices today have to throw in the towel when it comes to dramatically limiting the use of paper. Paperless scanners can be used to electronically store documents until such time as a physical copy may be required; adjusting margins and font sizes on official documents, as well as printing on both sides of a sheet of paper, can serve to halve the consumption of paper; instituting limitations on the use of workplace printers can save a lot of wasteful printing; and installing recycle bins throughout the office encourages staff to conserve what they do not use. These steps not only help save on natural resources, but they can also have beneficial effects for the company taking them, including:

  • Saved overhead cost – Electronic storage requires less physical space. Considering how much data even the average computer hard drive is capable of holding, business offices that opt to replace filing cabinets with hard drive arrays can flourish in significantly smaller spaces. This can have an enormous impact on property rental or ownership expenses, and can be the difference between a company folding early or lasting long enough to find its footing.
  • Efficiency and convenience – Paperless documents are easily searchable. By keeping an entire database of information in digital format, documents can be pulled up in a matter of seconds. Even in the most well-organized office on the planet, accessing physical documents takes much longer, and can often become permanently lost.
  • Internal document and information security – Because password encryption is far more efficient at securing sensitive information than locked filing cabinets, paperless offices are far less susceptible to breach of proprietary information.

More than forty years after the publication of “The Office of the Future,” most are now in agreement that we may never see a truly paperless office. The digitization of data has certainly made paper a lot less necessary, but the reality is we may never be able to purge ourselves of it fully. For better or for worse, it’s here to stay. The aim now is to employ smart practices that limit its use and make each last sheet count.



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