One would think that after talking about the paperless office for over two decades, we would have made a real leap in achieving it – but the truth is businesses are still struggling against the tide of paper documents that clog up offices and slow down business processes.

Most organizations are all too aware that they need to use less paper, but are uncertain of how best to approach doing so. In a recent survey carried out by AIIM (Association for Information and Image Management), entitled ‘Paper Wars 2014 – an update from the battlefield’, 68% of respondents agreed that business-at-the-speed-of-paper will be ‘unacceptable in just a few years’ time’. Furthermore, around half of businesses surveyed claimed that the biggest single productivity improvement would be to remove paper. The downside, however, is that only one in five has a board-level endorsed policy to reduce paper consumption and the same figure are actually increasing how much paper they use.

This is hard to understand, but I do not feel that all is lost. Instead of aiming for the seemingly impossible paperless environment, businesses need to opt for the lower hanging fruit, identifying areas they can introduce paper-free processes and either cut out or reduce the amount of paper being used.

Changing the Rules of Engagement

In the war on paper, we need a change of strategy. With faster more sophisticated technology and a mobile, computer literate workforce and the legalized use of scanned copies and digital signatures we can change the rules slightly. Rather than aiming for a paper-free workplace, perhaps we should be aiming to achieve paper-free processes.

One of the biggest obstacles to paperless offices is lack of endorsement by senior management driving paper free policies. To reduce or eliminate paper use, senior management must get behind paper free processes and give the green light to the use of tools such as electronic signatures and digital records.

A recent global initiative, World Paper Free Day, which sought to show how much paper is wasted in the office environment and how easily we can actually work without it, turned up an important nugget for board room discussion. Introducing paper-free business processes into the workplace is a far more realistic goal than jumping in at the deep end and trying to go paper free from the onset.

Moving forward

Electronic data saves space, improves efficiency, saves money, reduces waste and helps to protect the environment. Yet we still print out paper copies to take to meetings, review and read when we are away from the office, despite the onslaught of mobile technology.

The argument for paper-free processes hinge on improved productivity and cost cutting – but the biggest impact is on speed of response to customers and clients, which can dramatically improve the way a business runs.

The key is to put a coherent records management strategy in place and deploy suitable technology to make it work. Look at how paper enters your business, where it creates bottle-necks and restricts data access. Recognise where paper-free process can improve business initiatives, particularly when it comes to customer response and customer experience management.

Audit your existing processes that rely on scanning and electronic workflows. Make sure they are taking full advantage of OCR, data capture and integrate with your core enterprise systems.

Consider creating a ‘digital mail room’ where all in-bound mail is scanned on entry. Although this does require investment in scanning and capture-server technology for scan on entry systems, 38% of respondents to our survey who had gone down this route so a return on investment in just 12 months or less!

Properly managed and archived digital data has many benefits over paper files that are handled manually. The big question is ‘how is your business going to get a competitive edge in the mobile 24/7 connected world in which we live, if you cling to paper?’ Moving to paper-free processes will produce improve productivity, provide tangible financial gain and add to your green credentials. Make the move now or risk being hung out to dry on paper mountain.