In 1975, a Business Week article titled “The Office of the Future” predicted that offices would be revolutionised in twenty years by electronic files:
“I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button,” [George E. Pake] says. “I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy I’ll want in this world.”
The article goes on to predict that the office will become ‘paperless’ and that electronic office systems on desktops will change the office environment. Whilst the latter has most certainly occurred with the ubiquity of email, and there are indeed systems for managing electronic records, many organisations have retained the use of paper document systems.
What does a ‘paperless office’ mean?
It is an idea that as much as possible, files and records are kept in electronic format. Printed forms, notes and such are no longer used. Is paper truly a necessary reality or is it merely sentimental assurance? With the advances in technology now, a little more than forty years since the article in Business Week, are we any closer to a completely paperless future? As Paul Mah explains, “Completely eliminating paper may not be economical or even practical for everyone. The realities of paper in our society force even the most tech-savvy businesses…to contend with external forces such as client needs and regulatory or legal requirements.” Thus many definitions of the ‘paperless office’ include paper reduction strategies and digitisation procedures. Some have called this the ‘paper-light’ approach.
Why cut down or eliminate the use of paper?
- It is good for the environment
- It saves money spent on paper, toner, filing cabinets and more
- It saves time spent on copying, binding, stapling, filing…
- No annoying papercuts!
This article examines the top three obstacles to a paperless future and suggests strategies to overcome them:
- Cultural resistance to change – The Business Week article noted that change always took longer than expected because businesses are slow to transition. This may be due to the natural resistance to change, like the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But this type of attitude stunts organisational growth and innovation. It is important to acknowledge that the top obstacle to a paperless organisation is that people dislike change and don’t want to change. Buciarelli’s (2015) research on innovation and change management noted in the abstract that “[the] change process is necessary in order to maximise the innovations and/or to adapt to new Realities”1. In this case, this is relevant as technology has increased the searchability of records and enabled even full-text searching of files. If the content of files can be searched with increasing accuracy, will catalogue records become completely superceded? With the digitisation of old, fragile records such as old census data, these records can be viewed and used online in perpetuity. Addressing the fear of change as well as helping staff and users understand the benefits of electronic records can help tackle this obstacle to a paperless future head on.
- Outdated processes – The notion that paper records are more official simply because they are printed is an outdated concept. In New South Wales, Australia, as cited by this blog post from the State Records Initiative of the NSW Government, the State Records Act does not specify what format records are to be kept in, only that “you need to make and keep the evidence and the information you need to support your business operations” in the way that best suits the business. There is also no need for a ‘wet’ signature. It may be worth revisiting one’s assumptions of legal requirements if this is a major concern to an organisation’s move to a paperless future. Even small changes to an organisation’s policies such as accepting emails as proof of authorisation could cut down on paperwork and not only save paper but also, more importantly, valuable time. For organisations, policies on digitisation and electronic recordkeeping go a long way in transitioning from print to digital resources. Like a room full of unlabelled photographs, imagine folders of images with default file names! Clear guidelines on information architecture such as naming conventions are key to managing and developing an electronic collection.
- Technological infrastructure – Organisations need to have the software and hardware to be able to manage electronic records. Whilst many modern organisations do this without realising it, such as storing documents in cloud-based services like Google Drive, organisations need to ensure that these decisions are strategic and address concerns such as security, quality and format. The Smithsonian Institutional Archives has a great guide to setting up electronic files. The number one issue is to find a secure location to store the documents. Whether it is in a company’s servers or in the cloud, there should be contingency and disaster recovery plans, like there needs to be for physical items. Two other important issues are quality and format of the files. This is a significant decision when digitising old records. Higher quality files needs more storage space and this can be costly depending on the size of the collection. What formats will be kept and what technology is available to ensure that the files can be opened and used? An organisation needs to look at the technology and programs that enable a paperless future.
A paperless future is not a ground-breaking vision, it already exists. Think about the way that we send text messages instead of telegrams, emails instead of letters. At the very least, an organisation can reduce the amount of paper used by piloting paper reduction strategies, such as offering the electronic version of company documents and only printing them when necessary. Of the three barriers to a paperless future, or even a paper-light society, it should be noted that the top barrier is not about technology – it is about people. An organisation committing to a digital future is more than just saving trees, it is challenging processes at work and in society.
What do you think an office of the future would look like in 20 years?
- Bucciarelli, L. (2015). A review of innovation and change management: Stage model and power influences. Universal Journal of Management, 3(1), 36-42. ↩
Also published on Medium.