Paperless Offices

These days, the term “paperless” is pretty familiar to many people. From credit cards to utilities, more and more businesses are urging their consumers to move away from paper. Following this trend, the rise of the paperless office has been long predicted, yet one has still failed to appear.

Despite the growing presence of cloud-based software services within workplaces, paper use is still frequent and abundant. With the average American office worker using approximately 10,000 sheets of paper each year, the environmental benefits of reducing office paper consumption can be substantial.

A report by Tufts University titled “Business Guide to Paper Reduction” explains that the over-use of paper contributes to deforestation, which has negative effects on wildlife, natural erosion control, and the removal of carbon dioxide from the air contributed by trees. This report goes on to explain that pulp and paper mills within the United States produce almost 245,000 metric tons of air pollutants each year, many of which are associated with harmful health effects. Decreasing unnecessary paper consumption by offices can reduce the demand for paper products, requiring fewer trees to be chopped down, and generating environmental benefits.

The idea of converting to a paperless office was popularized in a 1975 Business Week article, which framed the benefits of a paperless office in terms of potential productivity gains and reducing financial costs, quoting a prediction that most corporate records would be handled digitally by 1990. The prospect has since been dubbed a “30-Year Old Pipe-Dream” because “the dirty little secret rarely discussed is that most organizations will never be totally paperless any time soon.” Despite this consistent failure to achieve a truly paperless workplace, new digital collaborative technologies may allow new reductions in unnecessary office paper consumption and create workplace environments that are far more pragmatic in their paper use.

The failure to shift to a paperless office was the subject of 2002 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, who spoke to the advantages of being able to annotate paper documents and spatially arrange piles of paper in a workplace environment. Since the publication of this article, the introduction of cloud-based document sharing and editing services such as Google Drive has mitigated some of the previous limitations of digital documents in iterative, collaborative work processes. However, the inability to pile and arrange digital documents in a tactile way is an advantage that still falls on the side of paper documents.

This shift to a “paper-light” office instead of a paperless one can generate worker speed and efficiency gains, as well as pointing out that many workers at offices will always prefer the use of printed paper for some purposes, such as contract signing. This employee resistance could derail a transition to a totally paperless office, but the preferences of employees for paper use can still be respected and incorporated into a paper-pragmatic model of businesses.

Savings in costs and productivity are another benefit of shifting to a paper-pragmatic model. Eliminating the handling of paper documents could increase worker productivity from 25 to 50 percent. While this figure for productivity gains would likely vary by field and company, it makes sense that a reduction in printing and paper can cut costs, provide environmental benefits, and also save time associated with office paper use, distribution, and management.

Choosing a path of paper pragmatism also allows companies to avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by some efforts to go paperless. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense recently spent 1.3 billion dollars in a failed attempt to create a paperless system of electronic health records, resulting in a backlog of veteran’s disability claims and with no clear explanation as to why this system was not functional. Health and medical records are an area where people tend to display hesitation at moving to a fully electronic accounting system, often due to privacy concerns. In cases such as this, pragmatic paper reduction may be a more realistic goal than the creation of an integrated, fully electronic system.

The shift to a less paper-intensive office environment will likely be driven by younger workers entering the workforce, many of whom are used to using cloud-based office suites such as Google Drive for collaboration with their peers. Coupling the rise of digital natives in the workforce with further advances in e-reading technologies, tablet computers, and cloud-based office software presents hope that future office places can become less paper-intensive. Achieving paper-pragmatic workplaces provides an excellent opportunity to not only cut costs and increase business productivity, but also facilitate tangible environmental improvements at the same time.


Image Credit: Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons, originally published by S&S on Jan. 15, 2015.


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