The Myth of the Paperless Office, 40 Years Later
Brother conducted a Print and Technology Survey with New Zealand businesses to understand their attitudes and behaviours towards technology and print—how employers and employees view technology and print and how they contribute to their business.
Read more: How important is print and technology to New Zealand business?
The paperless office is one of those innovations that’s been predicted since 1975. Businesses are awash with the need to go paperless, influenced by media articles promoting its benefits. But is this what businesses should be aiming for? In the purest sense, the paperless office has to be an office, which uses no paper at all. Is this possible? Or are we striving for an impossibility: the myth of the paperless office?
Pixels versus paper: the efficiency motivation behind the paperless office
Businesses are constantly facing pressure to improve efficiencies, optimise processes and reduce costs, so it’s no surprise that the ideal of the paperless office has captured the imagination of many workplaces.
In the Brother New Zealand Business Print and Technology Survey, 32 per cent of Kiwi businesses said that they are actively working towards becoming paperless. The two top benefits perceived in doing so, are that it’s easier to store and manage documents (29 per cent) and environmental benefits (28 per cent). Interestingly, for Kiwi businesses, cost didn’t come up until well down the list.
Other commentary on the benefits of going paperless similarly talks about enhanced efficiencies and workflows, lower costs, increased visibility and control. These are not just buzzwords—it does take more time to search for a document in a filing cabinet, than open it with a click of the mouse—and how do you audit a paper-based process, except with more paper?
The Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM, 2010) highlights several key benefits in shifting from paper-based to digital or electronic processes:
Cost & workflow efficiencies
The modern workplace has experienced a complete shift in how we spend our time—computers and technology allow for faster processing of data and easier retrieval of information. According to AIIM research, paperless processes help organisations respond to customers up to three times faster.
The modern workplace has experienced a complete shift in how we spend our time.
This makes sense; when documents are digital, time-consuming manual activities associated with paper—such as accessibility, physically moving documents between desks or departments for processing—are eliminated. There are lower costs for storing, searching, retrieving, reproducing and distributing documents, and a much shorter query and response cycle. In 2014, Gartner estimated that the cost of filing, storing and retrieving paper for US businesses was between $25bn and $35bn, indicating huge benefits in cost cutting if they were to shift to paperless.
And say goodbye to space-hogging filing cabinets and desk clutter. A huge space and time saving benefit of using paperless documents is that they can be archived digitally in files or the Cloud. Simply tag and electronically file documents for easy and efficient access.
Collaboration in a fast paced, mobile environment
IDC has identified a clear trend towards mobility in the global workforce; in the USA, it’s anticipated that nearly three quarters of the workforce will be mobile by 2020. Similarly, a joint Massey University and AUT study of over 1700 staff across 50 Australian and New Zealand organisations found 89 per cent worked remotely at least some time during the working week. More than half worked from home at least one day per week.
Studies from several countries have shown there are productivity benefits from a flexible, mobile workforce. Employees save time by not commuting during peak hour traffic, they have increased autonomy and uninterrupted working time, and there is greater work-life balance, wellbeing and retention within the workforce.
Going digital allows instant access to files and documents and better collaboration, no matter where an employee is working.
As more companies shift workloads to the Cloud to accommodate these workers, a paper-based work environment for document storage is no longer feasible.
Remote working can be improved by going paperless. Sales people out on the road, for example, can use technology like Brother’s scan-to-cloud to digitise documents in real time. There is no chance that a postal order, contract or other important piece of documentation can go missing before the sales person returns to base.
Going digital allows instant access to files and documents and better collaboration, no matter where an employee is working and no matter what device they are working from. Important documents are available 24/7 from anywhere in an organisation—as accessible to a colleague in the UK as a co-worker in Wellington, Christchurch or just down the corridor.
Audit Trails & Security
In a paperless environment, you don’t need to rely on employees to shred confidential documents or send them to third-party storage or document destruction facilities.
An electronic file allows for the digital authentication of highly confidential files. It’s easier to see audit trails, as everything that happens to a document is recorded electronically—you can see who has accessed a document and when it has been edited. You don’t get these benefits with paper.
Processes can also be put in place electronically to ensure that steps are actioned in sequence and approval rules are followed, while security is controlled via authorisation rules. There are different levels of access, too. For example, you may want to prevent users from being able to delete documents or some employees may need read-only access to information, but shouldn’t be allowed to copy or print the data.
However, paper also benefits employee productivity
Despite this push towards paperless, the extent to which printing continues to be part of how businesses function is one of the interesting facts that came to light in the latest Brother Print and Technology Survey.
32 per cent of the businesses approached said that they are actively working towards becoming paperless and digital. However, nearly half of those who are actively working towards a paperless office noted that they realistically can’t become paperless and still effectively function. To remove printing from their business operations is more of an aspirational idea than practical and doesn’t align with what makes employees productive.
Printing continues to be regular fixture in the life of New Zealand employees. Most are printing every day, with almost 90 per cent printing at least a few times per week. In fact, 85 per cent of employees see print as continuing to be a critical component to effectively functioning in their job.
Office printers: the unspoken heroes of your business?
The question then is: if 85 per cent of employees are more productive with print—do we really want to push to go completely paperless?
These statistics illustrate perhaps the most important consideration in the paperless versus paper debate: what part of the business are you trying to become paperless in?
There needs to be a distinction made between the needs of information management (where there are undoubted benefits in filing, storing and processing electronic documents compared with paper documents) and other daily business needs such as reviewing, editing, and presenting documents. If employees see strong productivity and quality benefits in the latter processes, then it doesn’t make sense to insist they go paperless here.
When it comes to reading, analysing and editing documents, research tells us that over 50 per cent employees prefer to do this in hard copy, meaning there is still a role for print to play in amongst document management systems and digitalisation. Some industries have a greater requirement than others to be paper based, with this percentage rising to nearly 70 per cent, for instance, for design services (interior, architectural, graphic design).
In 2002, MIT social scientists outlined in The Myth of the Paperless Office, the psychological reasons that humans prefer paper documents over information presented on-screen. Paper is tangible—we can pick it up, flip through pages to pick and choose what we read; we can spread pages out on a desk, arranging it in a way that best suits us. Often it’s easier on the eye to read off paper than the screen.
Often it’s easier on the eye to read off paper than the screen.
Customers still seem to prefer paper too. According to a study released by technology consultancy Forrester Research in 2013 on banking, more than half of the customers of US companies were still opting for paper statements when given the option.
The conclusion here is that perhaps we shouldn’t be viewing paperless and paper as contrasting solutions for businesses, rather as the ends of a continuum that should be balanced according to workplace needs.
There is certainly a role for document management systems in a storage sense. However, when it comes to interacting with information in a business, print plays a different role. There’s an argument to say that the goal of businesses should not be to become paperless (because this is not what employees feel is making them more productive), but to improve their document management system processes when it comes to storage and ensure the most productive and cost effective printing option is in place when it comes to print.
Good for business, good for the planet: the environmental motivation behind the paperless office
We live in an age of transparency, where consumers can find any information they’re looking for on the Internet and social media—there is no hiding from important issues. Consumers today have a greater environmental awareness and sense of environmental stewardship than ever before, and accordingly, higher expectations of the organisations they do business with.
It’s no surprise then, that part of the motivation behind having a paperless office is environmental—the Brother Print and Technology Survey found that 28 per cent of businesses see a benefit of paperless being the environmental benefits.
Paperless offices help to reduce paper demand
“Please consider the environment before printing this email”—implicit in these requests is the belief that going digital is better for the environment. Everybody knows that paper production requires trees, right? The argument for a paperless office is that using less paper means that fewer trees are harvested. It has been calculated that each ton of paper produced takes 24 trees (Thompson, 1992).
There is also a perception that printing less can save energy. According to Carbon Trust, office equipment is the fastest growing energy user in the business world, with its consumption representing 15 per cent of total electricity use in offices. This figure is expected to double by 2020. However, many modern printers and other office technology are designed to reduce energy consumption, with features such as sleep / deep sleep modes or the ability to print multiple pages on one sheet. Energy Star labelled equipment can provide savings up to 75 per cent. In New Zealand, a carboNZero certification indicates that brands—such as Brother—are proactively reducing and offsetting carbon emissions.
Use less ink
Ink and toner used in printing contains chemicals, oils, heavy metals, and other substances that are potentially damaging to the environment. While this is true of practically any technology product, it is worth noting that many printer manufacturers take responsibility for the ecologically friendly disposal of their products. For instance, Brother provides the most comprehensive waste management and end-of-life recycling programme by any New Zealand print manufacturer, with only 4-5 per cent going to landfill—but this is not damaging to landfill.
Printer manufacturers take responsibility for the ecologically friendly disposal of their products.
Additionally, when you use genuine consumables, environmental and health considerations have been made by the print manufacturer in the design of their cartridges. Brother genuine consumables comply with Ecomark and RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) design and environmental requirements, which means their consumables have no hazardous substances and meet specific criteria such as:
- No mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium and nickel or their compounds included as constituent parts of toners and inks.
- Polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) etc are not added to plastic parts of cartridges.
- Toner cartridges and toner containers are sealed to prevent leakage of toner during storage.
Is the paperless office a worthwhile goal?
Businesses should see the interaction between scanning and document management systems and printing as a balance of what’s best for the environment and what’s best for the productivity of their business. Both print and paperless have an impact on the environment and a cost associated to them.
The ideal situation is that we use both traditional print and electronic media in a way that meets our social, environmental and economic needs. Printers and multifunction centres still have a need in the workplace, whether that’s through producing physical hardcopies or digitally scanning paper documents into the Cloud or an email attachment. Similarly, paperless technology such as document management systems provide real productivity gains for information filing and storage.
What’s important is that businesses look for a print partner that has genuine practises in place that minimise the impact that printers have on the environment, whether through recycling programmes, Energy Star products or carboNZero certification.
Whether it’s generating collateral to use during a trade show or customer meetings, the need to print out a contract to get a “wet signature,” or simply because some people still feel more comfortable reviewing and editing a printed document—most businesses will never go fully paperless.
One of the diluted paperless office concepts that has evolved is the paper-light office. A more achievable goal for many businesses, than going full on paperless.
Becoming paper-light eliminates an over-reliance on paper as the primary medium for information management.
Becoming paper-light eliminates an over-reliance on paper as the primary medium for information management, facilitating quick and easy access to documents. It encourages a reduction in paper use while still advocating for paper where it helps employees to work smarter and more efficiently.
Some examples of how to go paper-light include:
- Managed print services (MPS)
Companies wishing to go paper-light can also consider managed print services (MPS). By partnering with an MPS provider to manage their print and imaging function, businesses can realise significant productivity benefits and cost savings. MPS provides a business with a mix of printers and multifunction centres (for scanning), providing them with the latest technology which is able to scan to the cloud and integrate with document management systems. Brother MPS provides up to 25 per cent cost savings from standard pricing and substantial on-going service and support, including automatic toner replenishment and free recycling.
- Cloud collaboration
Integrated cloud solutions allow companies to easily file, store, and share documents in a Cloud hosted platform. Alternatively there are free apps like Google Docs or Dropbox which allow teams to work together in the Cloud and reduce the need for printing, as co-workers can see exactly what they’re working on, and who else is working on a document.
- Document management solutions
A “document management system” refers to software that allows you to store and keep track of electronic documents. They come in many forms—some are standalone and solely used to manage files and documents, while others are part of a full suite that include a number of other business related tools.
- Start digitising documents
Encourage staff to digitise paper documents coming into the business. These can then be stored in a document management system and processed electronically. Even if you’re doing less printing, a multifunction printer which prints, scans, copies and faxes can be a valuable tool in digitising documents.
For instance, Brother business printers have built-in Web Connect features that allow you to upload documents from a memory card or scan direct to Cloud services from the printer without needing a PC. You can also print documents directly from online Cloud storage such as Google Drive or Dropbox.
- Reward smart printing behaviours
Start small and encourage employees to change their behaviour and attitude towards printing. Ideally, you want them to think twice before hitting the print button. They should be asking themselves questions such as:
- Did I preview the page before printing?
- Can I print double-sided, or multiple slides to a page?
- Do I need every page of my document printed?