As far back as 1975 in an article printed in Business Week entitled “The Office of the Future”, the phrase “Paperless Office” was introduced. The same article that predicted that by 1995, it would be possible to have a “TV display terminal with keyboard” located on office desks, also predicted the reduction of “hard copy” or “printed paper” in the office. Interestingly, over 30 years later, the reduction of paper in the office remains the elusive and complicated concept and office desktop computers (a strange concept indeed in 1975!) have become as commonplace as pencil holders and staplers.
The simple truth is that people like to touch paper and have it on their desks. They like to move it from one pile to another as a symbolic gesture of completion. They like to size up the amount of paper as a prediction for how long a task will take or has taken. They like to write on it by hand and circle and highlight words. In short, people like paper. Paper has staying power.
But if, as some have estimated, we each use 675 pounds of paper per year in the United States, isn’t paper reduction an identifiable way to reduce waste and costs in the office? Well, “identifiable” does not equate with “easy.” The 1975 Business Week article quoted a corporate executive as saying: “How well we succeed . . . depends on how well we understand the human interface and the thought process as they go through the daily work process.” How true that is. There are, as we know, certain advantages to using paper documents at certain times. Very long documents are often more easily read in hard copy, for example. When several people are making edits, suggestions or comments to the same document, it may be practical to make handwritten mark-ups to individual paper copies of the draft. Certain documents that one relies on or refers to many times throughout the workday might be more conveniently located on one’s desk for ease of reference, than in a computer database.
Certainly, there are paper documents that are extinct or nearly so today. Telephone directories and encyclopedias exist almost exclusively in the virtual world. But Paperless Offices? They are hard to find. Unless you know what you are looking for. In other words, perhaps there has been something read into the early predictions of a “Paperless Office” that was never there in the first place. Perhaps we have misinterpreted the concept of the Paperless Office to mean zero paper, when in fact, a more appropriate goal is probably Paper-Less not Paper-Free. This is a much more attainable and still quantifiable goal for small businesses. Keep in mind that the economic benefits of going Paper-Less extend beyond the mere reduced costs of paper reams. Ultimately, a Paper-Less office can provide more efficiency, less duplication of effort, faster communication with and responses to customers, all of which can only improve the bottom line.
With the above thoughts in mind, here are five steps to move toward a goal of going Paper-Less in 2009.
“Person” is figurative in this step. It could be a group. It could be a department. The point is, this has to be a centralized effort. All incoming mail must come into the office exclusively through this point person and all outgoing mail must leave the office exclusively through this point person. What does the point person do with the mail? See Step 2.
The reason this step necessarily follows Step 1 is that your point person should be involved in helping to choose the scanning equipment appropriate for your company’s needs and should be someone who can train on and appropriately train others to use the scanning equipment. The point person can then scan all incoming and outgoing mail and distribute through electronic means exclusively. This means that outgoing mail can be distributed via email to persons outside the company, quickly and without copying or postage costs. This also means that all incoming mail can be routed electronically to one person or every person in your company without making a single paper copy. Most people will review their mail quickly and efficiently on their computer desktop, although there will be some who will insist on printing out their mail in hard copies. Accordingly, see Step 3.
This step will be an inherent part of any successful effort to going Paper-Less. The truth is some people will resist the effort. Not everyone, but some. Some will insist that they like paper. Agree with them. Some will insist that they have “lost” documents online. Point out that they likely have “lost” paper documents that have not been properly organized. Assure everyone that no one has to give up paper forever. If there are documents that certain people use often and would prefer to keep in hard copy, allow them to do so. Maintain a list (preferably electronic!) of such “hard copy” documents so that the number of documents falling into this category remains finite and identifiable. Ensure that the point person will be the “record-keeper” who will keep, maintain, and preserve the originals of the scanned documents in an organized manner. However, label the originals “Inviolate” and allow only the point person to handle these originals to ensure that they remain organized and intact. These safeguards should assure the naysayers, particularly as you walk them through Step 4.
In addition to keeping the originals of the scanned documents, it is imperative that appropriate electronic back-up systems are in place. In addition to the obvious benefits of preserving important documents, you can also help to ensure your employees’ cooperation in the Paper-Less strategy if you demonstrate a commitment to this step. Once you have successfully navigated Steps 1 through 4, you can move on to Step 5.
After you have a methodology in place that relies on a centralized point person or group to: a) receive and distribute all incoming and outgoing mail; and b) ensure regular and consistent back-up of the systems in place, then you are ready to go Paper-Less with more and more documents. You can begin looking for other ways to turn your paper documents into electronic files. For example, scan internal memos, brochures, proposals, invoices, manuals, address directories, and compilations of customer information. Scan internal forms that are updated regularly. This way you can update them electronically, saving costly reprints every time changes are made. Keep striving to be Paper-Less. But remember that the only way to successfully go Paper-Less is to embrace the likelihood that you will never be Paper-Free.
By Amy K. Impellizzeri
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