The paperless office

Whatever happened to the paperless office?

Image credit: Pixabay

The 20th-century predictions of paperless offices being right around the corner may have been a little premature. Could paper-light be the new paperless?

When Business Week published an ‘Office of the Future’ article back in 1975, it made some startlingly accurate predictions about what forthcoming workspaces might look like. George E Pake, former head of Xerox Corp’s Palo Alto Research Center, predicted a world in which TV-display terminals with keyboards would sit on workers’ desks in the place of typewriters, with collections of these electronic terminals linked to each other and to electronic filing cabinets to form an office – a vision not unlike the one we ‘enjoy’ today.

More than this, though, Pake envisioned office workers throwing off the pulpy yoke of hard copy documentation and embracing a world of digital documentation. “I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button,” he said. “I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world,” he added, dreamily looking forward to the distant, futuristic office of 1995.

For Business Week, the issue behind the office of the future lay mainly in the usability of desktop computers and questions surrounding worker willingness to adapt to the new technology. Fast-forward to today: offices filled with desktop PCs and laptops and early-morning commuter trains packed full of disgruntled travellers and their technicoloured tablets and smartphones certainly don’t suggest a resistance to new and upcoming technology.

Attachment to paper, however, is a slightly different thing, and we still seem to be a way off the pristine, decluttered paperless office predicted back in 1975. The average worker’s desk, for all its gadgetry, still plays host to piles of forms, instruction manuals, printed emails, business cards, marketing paraphernalia and meeting agendas.

Today’s office workers handle high amounts of digital content, on a far greater scale than paper documents, but, like the hoverboards famously promised by the ‘Back to the Future’ film in 1985, it seems that, for the most part, the paperless office still eludes us.

“The ‘paperless office’ has been a buzzword for decades but, in reality, paper usage is not reducing at any great rate,” says Andrew Morrison, managing director at Xerox UK and Ireland. “According to industry analysts, over 15 trillion pages are printed globally each year.”

All this paper doesn’t come without a pretty hefty price tag, which often goes unnoticed. Take, for example, the Bank of Montreal (BMO), which uses a metric to measure return on investment for the organisation’s paper consumption. BMO calculated that it uses approximately 1.6 billion sheets of paper annually, with each sheet assigned a value of 0.08 Canadian cents, based on costs for printing, scanning, transferring, storing and eventually destroying the paper. The final figures suggest that if all the bank’s products were to go paperless, the reduction in paper in its retail branches would save the bank CAN$132m (almost £80m) a year.

Benefits of reducing paper use stretch much further than eliminating waste and saving money. Decreasing paper usage in the office can also result in higher efficiency and increased productivity levels throughout an organisation. Yet businesses wanting to digitise such benefits can be overshadowed by the somewhat daunting task of converting years of paper files into accessible, digital documents.

“Scanning documents one-by-one is highly labour-intensive,” says Eva Weber, senior manager of technological solutions provider ABBYY, pointing out that scanned archives can also lead to documents that, despite taking up less space than their paper-based counterparts, are clunky and difficult to use.

In order to best use information in digitised documents, Weber says, the text within them must become ‘accessible’. “For staff, this means editable or searchable information and for machines this means information encoded in XML format,” she says, suggesting that organisations can do this by implementing optical character recognition (OCR) technology, which translates images and inaccessible PDF files into ‘machine-readable’ and ‘searchable’ information.

“This is hugely time-saving, enabling staff quick access to documents within an intelligent centralised system, which is crucial to improving efficiency, productivity and profitability for businesses.”

Of course, as Weber points out, transitioning to a paperless office requires both time and money, but there has never been a better time to make the change.

“As the amount of information companies hold grows exponentially, the savings in time and increase in productivity levels demonstrate that investing in automation quickly pays off,” she says. “For companies who want to stay ahead of the curve, digitising paperwork is an essential investment in the age of automation.”

From an organisational perspective, then, it seems that the drive for paperlessness is very much still at the forefront of many organisations’ business development plans, and a few enthusiastic individuals have managed to make a success of it so far. 

One rather special example of a paperless office success story is that of European start-up Decos, creator of Minute, an application designed to improve productivity in meetings by enabling teams to collaborate, share documents and manage their meetings in real time.

“Working digitally enables us to work better together,” says Marcia van Kampen, head of corporate communication at Decos. “It enables us to share all information with everybody, open and transparent, via the internet. Everybody always has access to all the data, and everybody has the same information.

“At Decos, we work with our own document-management system, which we developed over 15 years ago, and also provide to our customers to enable them to work better together,” she says, pointing out that the company was relatively “paper light” for years before making the decision to go entirely paper-free.

“When our CEO gave the architects the assignment to build our new office, he asked them to design a fully paperless building,” says van Kampen. “So when we moved to this new office, in the spring of 2011, we changed to being 100 per cent paperless. This meant the last pieces of paper had to be deleted as well: no more invoices via paper, no more post-it notes, no more notepads, no flip-overs and no postal mail.”

At Decos, it’s not just desk-bound paper that’s been forbidden.

“Our paperless toilet sets an example of the fact that for all paper, you now have good alternatives,” says van Kampen, alluding to the firm’s top of the range bidet-style Gerberit Aqua Clean toilets. “European people may not be used to this kind of toilet, but in Asia people often don’t use any toilet paper at all, instead relying on showers or water for cleansing.

“At first, some colleagues did have to get used to this,” she says, referring to paperless in general, as well as the bathroom situation. To aid in this transition, she says, the company took steps to ensure that employees were given the right tools to continue their jobs, so that a lack of paper was not a concern.

“All our employees have iPads, a really nice device to bring to meetings for note-taking, which have added value compared to laptops, which you can use to ‘hide’ behind, or smartphones, which are too small for note-taking and can distract via messaging and phone calls.”

From the onset, the firm also had one or two disincentives up its sleeves to deter people from using paper – by removing the places where paper congregates. This meant the removal of all bins and a ‘return to sender’ approach to all incoming paper-based mail. Most surprising of all, though, is the location of the firm’s one remaining printer.

“Our last remaining printer is located in a ball pit,” laughs van Kampen. “It’s stowed away in the furthest corner of the office so, if you really need a paper document, you have to struggle through the balls to collect your print out.”

The firm has a light-hearted approach to paperlessness. “We try to achieve a change in behaviour by approaching it in a rather funny way, with a joke,” says van Kampen. “We hope that this better stimulates the desired behaviour rather than punishing the bad behaviour.”

Decos is certainly a special case, but there is no denying that its approach has worked, being one of the few successful paperless offices. The reality is that, for every paper-free bathroom break that takes place, there are a whole host of offices clinging on to hard-copy briefs and meeting agendas, so what’s getting in the way of further adoption?

“In the UK, the move from paper to a digital environment is a top priority for businesses and public sector,” says Xerox’s Morrison. “The NHS has stated its ambitions to be paperless by 2020, and more recently the UK Transport Secretary outlined plans to implement smart ticketing across most of the rail network by the end of 2018. But this is only half the story.”

At a consumer level, Morrison says, human behaviours are much harder to change – and a deep-rooted trust of paper is one of these. “While information – such as emails and web pages – is growing at more than 600 per cent per year, people fundamentally trust paper,” he says. “A classic human behaviour is the decision to purchase a ticket digitally and then print a physical copy to take with you just in case.”

The reality, it seems, is that paper remains a seemingly immovable part of most business operations. However, that’s not to say that people don’t like, and trust, using digital products. A recent poll by eSignlive, producer of one of the world’s top e-signature softwares, revealed that 84 per cent of the respondents prefer digital to paper.

“From e-books to email, preference for digital products over paper is about convenience,” says Rahim Kaba, director of product marketing at eSignLive. “Over 70 per cent of survey participants told us it was easier to use digital resources to read, communicate, or complete other tasks. The number one digital activity is banking, with 89 per cent of the survey respondents performing their banking activities in a digital way.”

The need to reduce or eliminate paper, then, is still a real focus for organisations, because it improves customer experience by making it easy to do business. The same is true when applied to any office environment – if digitalisation makes processes quicker and easier, it is more likely that workers, and customers, will get on board.

“When offering a paperless alternative, people need to feel comfortable with the new process and know what the options are if the technology fails,” says Morrison. “The acceleration of new technologies across artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cloud-based services enable businesses and organisations to digitise many processes, and many go on to adopt a hybrid approach to manage physical and digital documents.

“We need to move beyond aiming for one extreme or the other and, instead, focus on ensuring that people can move between their physical and digital worlds with ease,” he says.

Perhaps a hybrid approach, a ‘paper-light’ rather than ‘paperless’ office, where workers, and customers, are able to use paper for the tasks they know and trust, is where we should be headed, for the medium-term at least.

Such an approach has been adopted by McGowan Associates, a financial services company that has limited it paper usage by scanning and storing electronic copies of documents using Nuance PaperPort. Though not entirely paperless, the firm holds only a tiny proportion of paper documents produced over 30 years of trading. “A paper file only exists because it has been created for a purpose,” says David McGowan, partner at the company. “Once the matter is dealt with the paper is gone, it’s scanned and the database updated.”

For McGowan, it’s not currently possible to be entirely paperless. “We need to keep providing clients with things to sign and some people will not accept documents in an electronic format,” says McGowan. “Financial services companies, the Financial Regulators and others demand a ‘wet signature on a form’ for a financial transaction and to hold as evidence.

“I don’t think it’s currently possible to have no paper in my business type,” he says. “However, if you think back to the year 2000 – when we had no iPhones, no desktop scanners and limited email use – and consider the changes. It could be a reality five or ten years from now when regulation comes into the Apple Pay and similar era.”

For paperless office advocates such as Brooks Duncan, founder of DocumentSnap, a website which helps organisations and individuals to go paperless, any step within an office to limit paper use is a step in the right direction. According to Duncan, the main issue with paper use is that most of us, most of the time, give little thought to how much we depend on paper products.

Duncan suggests that a paperless office doesn’t have to be one where paper is shunned or banned, but rather a place in which people are more intentional and mindful about what they are using and keeping, and make sure that any paper used is actually doing a job.

Imagine having to wade through Decos’ ball pit each time you need to print out a document. Nine times out of ten a digital version would suffice, and if you really couldn’t do without that hard copy, the ball pit wouldn’t stand in your way.

The most important thing, says Duncan, is to “make sure that you are in control of your paper, your paper is not in control of you”.

St John’s Buildings, Sheffield

Case study

In March 2017, Sheffield-based St Johns Buildings (SJB) became the UK’s first barrister’s chambers to adopt a paperless model, in a move that could not only dramatically reduce the firm’s carbon footprint, but also create savings of up to £350,000 per year.  

SJB partnered with British-based software and services provider Advanced to develop MLC Case Collaboration, an integrated software tool which enables the secure production, distribution and storage of legal documents. The solution works alongside the chambers management software, to allow the business to deliver access to legal documents 24 hours a day from any location.

“A move to electronic document management was unavoidable,” says Chris Ronan, Chief Executive at St John’s Buildings. “The Ministry of Justice had indicated its desire to move to paperless courts by 2018 and our clients – particularly the Crown Prosecution Service and Local Authorities, driven by budget cuts – had already started passing on print costs.”

By trade, barristers are traditionally mobile workers, often meeting with clients and performing tasks on the go. The introduction of paperless working at SJB has given the barristers the ability to service clients in a secure and flexible environment, while enhancing the speed and reliability of that service.  

“Since the day it was launched the solution has run without significant interruption. Electronic cases started being created immediately and we have now trained barristers and members of staff and everyone has access to the software and a suitable device upon which to use it,” says Ronan.

To date, there are more than 10,000 electronic cases on file, with more than 40,000 electronic documents attached to the cases.

The solution has been deployed for both Windows and iOS for use on desktop computers and on laptops at court. The court user’s PCU wi-fi, the professional wi-fi network in criminal courts in England and Wales, has enabled barristers to work efficiently and without paper, allowing cases to be successfully presented in court in every area of law.

Outside of court, the system allows for case documents can be moved from one barrister to another at the touch of a button avoiding the costs and time involved with traditional courier services. The firm experienced a reduction in printing costs of more than 33 per cent in the first six months and is anticipating the same reductions in courier, storage, postage and document destruction costs over the same period. The current aim is to reduce this by 50 per cent by the end of 2017.

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