Is the Paperless Office Back on Track?


Back in the 1970s, Business Week predicted that the office of the future would be a paperless one. It was thought that the rise of the personal computer would introduce new technology into the workplace and a computer on every desk. It was also expected to phase out hardcopy paper documents in favour of electronic devices and on-screen reading.

Two out of three of these predictions materialised – but the paperless office hasn’t quite come to fruition. At least not yet. So are we any closer to achieving the idea of a paperless office – or is it doomed to fail?

A recent study by Iron Mountain shows that only 1% of offices in Europe are completely paper-free. Rather than opting for electronic storage and cloud systems, the research found that 58% of respondents store paper records on office premises. This of course exposes several major issues. Not only does it create bulk that is difficult and expensive to store, it also leaves valuable documentation at risk of damage – including fire, flooding and mould, along with the risk of theft or fraud. It also creates a filing nightmare, as information is difficult and laborious to identify.

Furthermore Iron Mountain discovered that 2% of businesses have no structure whatsoever for storing customer communication.

Printing represents a huge cost for businesses. It’s not just about paying for glossy printer paper – it’s also the cost of maintaining the printer itself with ink cartridges, toner, servicing and repairs, not to mention the cost of storing paper documents. Organising a collection service for recycled paper also costs. It’s altogether an expensive overhead for businesses of any size. So why aren’t more organisations going paper-free?

Reducing the amount of paper used in an office is a huge cultural shift. Reading on paper is still more natural than screen-reading, which encourages users to print documents even if they don’t theoretically need to. Documents are also easy to print in bulk thanks to improvements in printers and photocopiers. Research suggests that the worldwide use of office paper more than doubled from 1980 to 2000.

However statistics show that the use of paper has reduced significantly in recent years. You only have to look at the number of emails in your inbox to know that we are all working in a partly paperless office, if not a fully paperless one. The Economist claims that the global use of office paper has been decreasing since 2000.

Improvements in computer screens and technology, along with a global shift towards portable devices such as tablets, smartphones and of course e-readers like the Kindle has helped to naturalise screen-reading.

The gradual shift towards paper-free communication and its associated cost-saving benefits is encouraging organisations to lessen their paper usage. Real Business recently reported on US paper Newsweek’s imminent transformation to a fully digital format, while Islington Council in London saved nearly £200,000 a year by switching to e-invoicing. Furthermore Oyster, the electronic top-up system on the London Underground, means that in 2011 approximately 80% of tube-users travelled without a paper ticket.

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“Companies do and will continue to create, copy and store paper documents,” says Christian Toon of Iron Mountain Europe. However he believes that hardcopies can be reduced by focusing on printing only the most essentials documents, and investing in a Corporate Information Responsibility programme.

As Toon added, the future may not be entirely paper-free, but it’s not far off. “A paperless office may be an unrealistic goal for many, but a paper-efficient one is achievable.”

How does your business centre reduce paper use?

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