Paperless Offices: A Look at Successes and Challenges

By Anna Johansson

The concept of a paperless office isn’t a new one; the term started circulating in the early 1980s. But even today, more than 30 years later, companies are finding it hard to transition to a model that allows them to function completely without paper. Despite our thriving digital environments, which include online communications, unlimited information, and now, cloud storage, there are significant obstacles to adopting total “paperlessness.”

Here is a look at three companies that have already done it.

Decos

Decos is a paperless company founded in the Netherlands. Its efforts are currently saving about 16 trees’ worth of paper every year, but employees found it difficult to transition right away. They started by getting rid of trash cans, which made it harder to get rid of paper, and therefore made paper less disposable. Then, it made printing more difficult—rather than abolishing it altogether—by relocating the printer to an almost-inaccessible area. When the printer wasn’t convenient, employees relied on it less, and eventually, people adapted to a purely digital environment. The company also enforces a “no notebooks” policy, and even goes as far as to return mail to the people who send it.

Idea Rebel

Idea Rebel is a digital agency that started in Vancouver back in 2008. From the beginning, the company was committed to minimizing paper waste—to the point that its founder, Jamie Garratt, didn’t even buy a printer. Going further, the company banned all notepads and paper for note taking, or creative sketches, and started banning paper cups from fast food restaurants and coffee shops. The company permits designers to bring their own notebooks from home, but they have to take them back at the end of each day, making it more difficult to use paper on a regular basis. Everything else is done on computers or whiteboards—even signatures for important documents. If a company refuses to sign digitally, Idea Rebel refuses to do business with them.

The Austin Company

The Austin Company is an international firm based in the United States that handles architectural, engineering, design-and-build, and construction management services. With more than 135 years of experience, they’d gotten used to traditional, paper-based inspections as a core part of their business, but they found that the paperwork slowed down most of their operations, and resulted in significant clutter. Plus, with inspections lasting longer, human errors increased, and mailed forms extended project lengths by days. After the company went paperless (running all inspections on smartphones or tablets), inspections were cut down to a speedy 15 minutes, and the company estimates it’s saving as much as $250,000 annually (including $90,000 in saved productivity costs).

Key Challenges

These companies prove that it’s possible to go entirely—or almost entirely—paperless, but there are some key challenges you have to overcome first:

  • Eliminate options for employees. If it’s easy for your employees to use paper, or even possible, they’re going to use it. Subtle things like conveniently available printers and trash cans can influence higher levels of paper use, so try to eliminate those options as much as possible.
  • Sacrifice some business. Paper isn’t just used for internal communications; it’s used by and for other businesses as well. Going paperless has the potential to interrupt those external communications. For example, if one of your clients is used to communicating via paper—such as sending paper purchase orders—you may be forced to either sacrifice their business or come up with a compromise.
  • Recognize peripheral paper uses. Paper has many uses throughout the office—not just printing flyers, information to file, or taking notes. Peripheral uses of paper, such as in disposable cups or in toilet paper, are especially difficult to identify and eliminate.

If committed to the task, your company can become even more sustainable by going paperless (or nearly paperless). It won’t be easy at first, but you’ll have a stronger business model, and will likely save money along the way.

Anna Johansson is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @Number1AnnaJo.

Image credit: Pixabay / kasgirl

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