For those who missed his free September Meet 19 talk here is Efficiency Consultant Tilo Flache 's comprehensive talk as blogpost: inspired by when he discovered that the 40-year-old eco-friendly concept of a paper-free workflow had seemed to disappear
We’ve all heard the term ‘paperless office’, but what does it actually mean? An office without any paper at all? An office with less paper? An office that communicates in a paperless manner? Add to this all that talk about the ‘clean desk policy’ that many companies are trying to implement these days: how do the two ideas link together, if at all?
The ‘clean desk policy’ is really just a policy within an office.
Usually, it is the result of three distinct requirements: information security, shared desk use and the boss’ idea of an ‘orderly workspace’. While information security might be a valid reason to tuck things away after use, it could be argued that locking the door when leaving is a much more valid option as it removes the need to constantly clearing stuff away and retrieving it after short periods of time. The desk sharing reason makes much more sense: if two (or more) office workers share a desk, they will wish to start from a clean slate when they arrive, and put their own work away when they leave. As far as ‘order’ for the sake of order is concerned, it could be argued that a certain amount of disorder might be acceptable if it speeds up work processes and does not harm anyone else.
Now for a bit of history
The idea of a paperless office has first been used in a Business Week article in June 1975[i], more than 40 years ago! The actual term dates back to 1978 in by Micronet, Inc., a distributor of automated office equipment.[ii] Those were the days when PCs were starting to become affordable and appeared in increasing numbers on office desks. Things were getting more virtual at the time and it seemed a logical conclusion to assume that with computer monitors and easy storage solutions things would no longer require actual paper very soon.
Clearly there was something to the idea that with electronic communications becoming ever simpler over the years, it would be reasonable to limit printing to the strictly necessary and stick to electronic transmission wherever possible. Growing concerns about the ecological impact of paper and inks, as well as the production and disposal of printers, were certainly playing an important role in some of the decisions taken in that respect. On top of that, it appears to make sense financially, as well, since printing documents has a price tag to it and businesses want to save money wherever possible.
What are the advantages of the paperless office?
Apart from the obviously lower cost on printing, several other factors that play into the expense side. With less paper around there is less need for storage of paper files, resulting in savings on e.g., archiving spaces, filing cabinets, shelves, etc, that might eventually even lead to adopting smaller office premises. The space issue even comes in on several other levels: work spaces could get smaller as there is not as much need to store documents near the work stations, work spaces could get more flexible as individual workers no longer need dedicated spaces and can more easily move around shared spaces, which in term favours part-time employment as well. Remote working options become more feasible as well, as physical presence in an office to deal with dossiers is no longer a prerequisite for many administrative functions.
Another practical effect of electronic files is their ease of transmission. Passing a paper file to a co-worker in the same building is tricky enough, especially if a lot of files are being passed around, but sending files (think communication, documentation, quotes, descriptions, legal paperwork, invoices, etc) to customers or authorities not only is time-consuming (printing the file, signing, potentially scanning a signed letter for filing, preparing an envelope, posting) but also cost-intensive in terms of labour time AND postage. Plus, there is a chance the documents get lost before reaching their destination!
Sharing files with other users of the same system is quick and easy. Reproduction or modification of documents is much less time-consuming than having to recreate each document from scratch. Searching for specific files is also a lot easier with modern search systems in place in every device, and on any platform. Just think about finding a dossier in an archive room and having to figure out where it might be. A quick search on the computer will solve the problem easy-peasy.
All of this sounds like a no-brainer, so why are we still using paper files?
While all the reasons mentioned above clearly are valid ones, especially from a superficial business cost and efficiency point of view, they do not show a complete picture of what we do with documents. Creating, locating and reading files may appear cheaper and easier with electronic means, using those documents isn’t necessarily easier with a purely electronic approach.
Considering the cost factor, those early ideas have neglected to take into account a couple of big elements: for one thing we humans are collectors, and every single file we ever create is being stored in several places, just in case. Storage has turned into a huge issue over the years – especially with the explosive increase of email communications and exchange - and these days we not only need extensive electronic storage solutions, but also ways to manage our files more efficiently and personnel to make sure our networks, storage, hardware and software are running efficiently and consistently.
Furthermore, continuous training has become necessary to make sure all users of one particular system use it in exactly the same way, following the rules needed to ensure consistency. Just imagine what happens if everyone in an office names their files as they please? Or uses different templates? Or saves files in the wrong place? And not to forget human error – how often do we think we are doing the right thing, but don’t? All these issues lead to hidden costs and are potentially harmful to a proper and consistent workflow.
People like the idea of an office without paper, but when it comes down to it we all prefer a piece of paper to a tablet.
Considering the human factor, we are not quite as flexible as predicted: as much as we might like IDEA of flexible work hours, remote working, and less paperwork, it turns out that there are downsides to all of these elements. Working more on a computer screen can have serious effects on our health: we move less, sit in uncomfortable positions for extended periods of time, strain our eyesight, and have less personal contact with co-workers. All of this can lead to chronic diseases like deformed backs, carpal tunnel syndrome, decreasing eyesight, even depression stemming from a feeling of being less in control, isolated from co-workers, under higher (electronic) scrutiny, etc.
There is another downside to the paperless office theory, related to using documents and files. Some things can be done easier or in a much more obvious way with paper files only! Apart from a personal preference to read a document on paper, you can fold it, add written comments or stick a post-it on it. While you might argue that we can comment using software options available in many applications, and reading and folding are luxury items, those little human things are part of our experience of the documents, help us to relate to the content and assimilate it. Post-its are not just locations for notes, but are being used as spacers, reminders, and structure the document in very visible ways where the electronic version lacks the visceral element. On-screen, all documents look similar and – more importantly – feel alike.
There are some general considerations that hold as much importance as those already mentioned: sharing electronic files through networks has added the need for additional levels of security for the information contained in these files. A balance has to be found between accessibility inside and outside the company, while maintaining security against illegal access by outsiders. Paper files could – of course – be taken off-site as well, but there was a physical limitation to that option. Electronic files can be downloaded by the thousands once the security has been breached! Besides these usage considerations, we should never lose sight of the fact that we fully depend on the availability of the relevant technology to make continued use of our documents and files! What if the network breaks down, maybe due to a computer virus attack? What if there is no electricity for extended periods? What if our password no longer works? Are there backups available? How long does it take to access them?
Where does this leave us? Paperless or traditional? Both have their distinct advantages and it is up to you to consider these important decisions carefully and make your own choice, based on your own particular situation.
Tilo Flache (Outsorting), talk given at a Meet 19 Network event on 14/9/2016
[i] “The Office of the Future”, Business Week (2387): 48–70, 30 June 1975
[ii] The Paperless Office Trademark Registration, United States Patent and Trademark Office, retrieved 13 December 2015