It comes as no surprise that the availability of smart mobile technology naturally incentivizes businesses to transition their office operations to digital. Small Business Solutions at Xerox quotes a study from Quocirca’s 2015 Managed Print Services Landscape Report that found 72% of enterprises surveyed said they have “some paper-free processes in place and are planning [to implement] more.” Companies who convert to digital are said to have an excellent opportunity to target and identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies in their workflow, which can help promote greater productivity while using less material goods in the form of paper and ink. Going paperless seems like a total no-brainer when you look at it this way.
Conversely however, a survey by Gartner found that the annual growth rate for the amount of paper produced by the average company is 25%. This growth rate is up from the 1980s, as noted in Wired by Greg Milliken at M-Files Corporation. According to accounting firm Coopers and Lybrand, there are more than 4 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. There’s no denying that businesses print more than ever before. Paper’s stubborn relevance in the face of digitalization leads a lot of observers to ask: is going paperless realistic and productive, even with technology today? The answer: yes and no.
First, let’s look at the tale of the tape and compare plusses for both:
There are many benefits to digitalizing, some of which are:
Connectivity. The ability to send files instantly is perhaps the best thing about switching to digital. If you have multiple offices, accessing relevant data from anywhere is especially liberating. Running your company digitally allows your workers to connect off-site, working from home or while traveling, which gives them more freedom. It also makes onboarding freelancers and contractors into their workflow effortlessly—give them access to what they need, for as long as they need, in an instant.
Minimizing resource investment. Cutting down on paper and ink use costs businesses less over time, and theoretically, minimizes the environmental impact of printing.
Storage and disposal. For businesses located in major urban centers, space is a key concern. If you’re in San Francisco or Manhattan, storing thousands of paper documents or transporting them to storage will cause your overhead costs to skyrocket quickly. Rather than renting additional office space for storage, a lot of companies are converting their files to digitally store on servers off-site—read: somewhere cheaper—that require a whole lot less physical space. Plus, if you have sensitive information that requires specialized disposal, that’s another cost you’ll take into account.
Keyword searchability. As someone who grew up right on the cusp between the library card catalog and digital search, keyword searchability is an incredibly helpful feature to have. The ability to peel through hundreds of documents searching for particular information–that’s revolutionary right there! Finding just what you’re searching for when working with printed files can be time-consuming, and losing valuable data is more likely.
All of this is good, so what advantages are helping paper hold on so well?
Content chaos. One major problem companies find after transferring their storage from paper to digital comes when they realize that at no point during the digitalization process did they improve their filing system. Again, Greg Milliken writes, “Simply moving the same old bad habits into the cloud and trying to find a document buried in a chaotic mess of folders on a tiny smartphone screen probably isn’t the sort of future we’re all hoping for.” Scanning documents into the cloud and throwing away the paper copies can make your access to information slower and more confusing, unless you deploy the right organizational strategy. It’s also incredibly easy to lose files that are mislabeled online.
Updating. Innovation moves quickly and keeping up with technology can get expensive. Nowadays, a laptop or tablet purchased as little as two years ago may have difficulty pacing with the speed of the web today.
The rate of innovation also brings into question the permanence of data that’s more than a few years old. How much information on the internet has disappeared in redesigns since the late 90s alone? While your Geocities fan page may not be something you want to keep around, a good amount of that information likely had archival value. Some of it probably led to a SNAFU at some company when it went away. Without a clearly established organizational regime, you risk losing valuable information while trying to keep up with the joneses.
Beyond file stability and access, there are other advantages to paper:
Physicality. In the 2001 book The Myth of the Paperless Office, authors Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper describe the physical characteristics, called “affordances,” that make paper appealing. Properties that make paper unique, such as being thin, light, porous, opaque, and flexible, help encourage “the human actions of grasping, carrying, folding, writing, and so on.” While many digital interfaces strive to recreate the printed page, your ability to manipulate paper physically in an instant makes it appealing.
Paper has characteristics that give it physical advantages over LED screens as well. For one, it’s much easier on the eyes to read, especially after long periods of screentime. Print also distances the reader from the web, which is famously full of distractions.
Hacking. There’s a reason why computers that launch nuclear weapons operate using floppy discs (and it’s not because there’s no money in the military to upgrade them). Connecting your sensitive information to the web puts your company at risk of data breaches. Hackers hunting for credit card numbers and private information create major PR disasters, as shown in recent years by Target, Home Depot, and other major retailers. Keeping security up to date can become costly, especially if the assets you’re protecting are highly sensitive.
At the end of the day, quite a few tasks are easier and more efficient when done digital. Others, however, are better on paper (literally, in this case). While tech works towards fixing inadequacies, printed paper will likely have a place in the office for the foreseeable future.
Adopting an office model that takes advantage of web-based organization and strives for a “paper-light” model described by Joe Kissell at Macworld seems like the most realistic approach. This method allows digital to correct longstanding inefficiencies created by paper-centric approaches, without striving too hard to push paper out of the equation where it’s the best option. In short, if it’s smarter and more efficient to do something using digital, go digital. If not, stick with paper. Combine this approach with smart waste-limiting practices like print management software and you’re on the way to being a paper-light business. Going paper-light drives your business towards recognizing where print is costing you the most, and how you can save money on the printing you are doing now.
In time, if our social connection with paper dwindles as digital integrates more completely into our lives, an entirely paperless office may be a possibility. However, by nearly all measures, we just aren’t there yet.
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