Is the paperless office possible?

Talk of a paperless office has been around for well over 40 years.

Automation has displaced paper from some activities. On London Underground for example, over 80% of journeys are now undertaken without a paper ticket being issued.

But the office or rather “the last corporate holdout to the automation tide that has swept through the factory and the accounting department,” as Businessweek put in 1975, still shows no sign of giving up its fight to stay in print.

Paper mountains

Demand for paper is at an all-time high. Finnish paper provider Foex predicts that the global paper market could reach a new record of 400m tons in 2012.

While not all office-based, the mountain of paper is a steep one to descend.

Ten years ago, the tools for the paperless office were less commonplace. But now there are tablets, smartphones, laptops, high-speed wireless broadband, high capacity storage and many more.

But paper remains at the heart of our culture.

Every time a paper cup is used for coffee, a banknote is used, an email is printed, the post arrives or a physical newspaper is read at a desk, the paperless ideal disappears back into the mythology it came from.

Companies have tried, but being genuinely paperless is an expensive thing to even attempt to do.

“We’ve worked out what it would cost – not just to reduce the amount of paper we’re producing every day but to wipe it out,” says Caroline Kimbell, head of licensing at the National Archives, the official archive of the UK government.

“It came to £259m ($400m) to reduce the number of boxes we’re producing in the reading room just by 20%.

“We’re a government department, we have got nowhere near that amount of money – neither does the whole private sector put together in this sphere.”

Paper records

For historians and researchers, paper is still important and something they are keen to preserve.

And nobody is calling for the destruction of 17th Century manuscripts, but the British Library is looking at ways to make itself a little bit less reliant on paper.

Its newspaper library at Colindale, built up over the last three centuries consists of 750 million pages of newspaper.

But it is now being moved to digital with the originals secured and placed in storage, in a new facility in Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

The actual library is expected to close by the end of 2013.

Death exaggerated?

But does this mean that paper no longer needs to be collected in the first place?

“In terms of the material that’s in our collections already and that we continue to collect, the death of print is very much exaggerated,” says the British Library’s Ben Sanderson.

We continue to collect linear kilometres of this stuff every year. Paper will continue way into the future.”

“It seems to be multiplying if anything.”

Microsoft Business is one of many companies which advises people wanting to become paperless, but it agrees that in practice this often means “less paper”.

When it was contacted and asked for an example of a company it has assisted to go “100% paperless”, it came back example-less.

Again, its own offices are not entirely without hard copies. But this appears to be true nearly across the board.

‘Just in case’

Microsoft has worked with organisations as varied as insurance companies and government departments to offer reductions of “up to 95%”. The paperless office, in Microsoft’s words, “is now getting closer” but, it seems, has yet to arrive.

“I look around many offices as I visit clients and they’ve got binders upon binders of paper that no one will ever look at again,” says Hanns Kohler-Kruner, of tech research firm Gartner.

“‘Just in case’ is a really bad excuse to cling on to paper.”

But there are a number of examples of offices that have saved money by saving paper.

Islington Council has saved nearly £200,000 a year by switching to e-invoicing and believes that figure grows if the time saved on paper-associated admin tasks is included.

So why does paper endure and is it safer than a disc or a hard-drive?

“It’s quite difficult to burn hundreds of thousands of books,” says Sanderson.

“If you stand on a CD, you can achieve the same thing.”

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