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Author's profile photo Chris Barry

There’s Hope yet for the Paperless Office: Six Tips to Get You Closer to That Goal


I don’t know about you guys, but I’m certainly old enough to remember the ’90s and how the promise of the paperless office seemed inevitable back then. Except here we are in 2016, reducing paper consumption is both easier and more important than ever before, yet far from being universal just the concept alone remains something of a pipe dream in the public imagination.

The past two decades haven’t been a total environmental wash-out, mind you, some progress has definitely been made. For instance, the once omnipresent fax machine is notably less ubiquitous today – although certainly not obsolete – while email and even social media have also had their affect on the amount of paper we consume. On another positive note, recycled paper has become a valuable commodity, with the result being most municipal governments have either mandated recycling or at least made it relatively hassle-free.

While the financial benefits of reducing the volume of paper consumed at your workplace should be fairly obvious [no more paper, ink, printers, maintenance, etc] the ecological cost of NOT doing so still tends to get overlooked.

To this end, consider that in spite of their being plenty of relatively inexpensive, simple and accessible technologies which could eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, the use of paper for most bureaucratic endeavors, the EPA reports that the average office still uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper every year. More unnerving, other recent studies show that 45% of documents stored in filing cabinets are just duplicates while 80% of them will never be referenced again.

Ah, but it keeps getting better. Forget that the carbon footprint a sheet of paper produces over the course of it’s “lifetime” is way off the charts, it takes 324 liters [85.6 US gallons!] of water just to produce 1 KG of paper – which is outrageous to begin with but that much more distressing when you understand just how precious a commodity water is fast becoming.

Have I convinced you that reducing your office’s paper consumption has important consequences yet? Consequences that go far beyond the dollars saved on office supplies? Good. I thought so.

So to help get you on your way to that ever-elusive Utopian dream of the paperless office, I’ve compiled a few suggestions on how to painlessly reduce your own business’ reliance on the resource. Some are obvious, most are inexpensive, all are simple while some reduce paper usage more than others. Better, each suggestion you choose to incorporate here is not only the socially responsible thing to do but will ultimately save you money. As the old cliche goes, it’s a win-win situation.

1: Straight out of the shoot ask your employees to start considering the environmental costs of the paper they use and to try and limit that amount as much as possible, letting them know this is an important issue to you. Meanwhile you can set the office printer default to double-sided printing and insist that employees keep, re-use, and eventually recycle scrap paper whenever possible. Also, try reducing your font sizes a notch or two, use smaller margins and consider editing the “fit to page” layout.

2: Move to electronic invoicing. Do you really need to mail out invoices anymore? That’s totally old school to begin with, and when there’s such a wide variety of software out there designed for this very purpose, with open-source options available to boot, it doesn’t make much sense to print, assemble, stamp, and walk over to the post office just to mail out invoices you could easily distribute electronically for considerably less time and money. Electronic invoicing may also soon be mandatory if you’re involved in government procurement processes.

3: The paperless fax. Depending on the nature of your business, you may or may not still be relying on that miracle of 20th century technology, the Almighty fax machine. While most businesses no longer use them, a surprising amount of operations still do, depending on the nature of their business. Only a few months ago I suffered through a temporary 9-5 job at a publishing house that produced ad-heavy travel publications catering to various islands in the Caribbean. With their head office in Montreal and their advertisers primarily being small local businesses based in the islands, deals were usually confirmed via fax. The fax machine in that particular office was constantly on the go. Other businesses still use faxes to send legal documents that, in the age of email and digital signatures, no longer need to be physical copies signed, sealed and delivered. Is that you? If so, set yourself with a company offering online fax services. With nothing more than a mobile phone you’ll be able to fax documents saved on a cloud, or receive them at any time – even when you’re out of the office.

4: Speaking of digital signatures, many people remain unaware that this process has become infinitely more practical in recent years. As you probably know, when it comes to internal communications like approving decisions or in-house purchases, a simple email will usually suffice as a legal document. And when it comes to external documents, there are numerous ways to embed your signature electronically without having to print anything.

While I don’t believe any of the software and/or services mentioned here are especially expensive – especially if you’re prepared to do a little shopping around – if you’re concerned about affordability don’t forget how many contracts you come across over the course of a month that could be 60 or more pages long, with many of those requiring multiple copies be printed out and delivered to several different parties. That represents a lot of expensive paper and ink you no longer need to buy – not to mention courier expenses or how much faster and efficiently your contract[s] get where you want them to go when you send them electronically.

5: Scan everything! And all those reports you used to print out and file away to never be seen again? Sheesh, stop doing that! Besides, if you ever need to reference those documents again you’ll probably reach for the digital versions anyway, right? Right.

6: Use digital notes and encourage your employees to do the same. From SimpleNotes to more elaborate offerings like Microsoft OneNote or EverNote, there’s no shortage of note-taking apps. Most of them will let you save to a cloud – doodles, scribbles and diagrams included – and if money is no object, the Livescribe pen is pretty cool in that it lets you save notes and audio recordings to an Evernote account, or a PC or Mac with a USB cable if you prefer.

Cover photo: American computer scientist Bob Braden in 1996.

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