The arrival of the paperless office has been predicted for more than three decades, yet global consumption of paper has increased by almost half since 1980. The average UK office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year, or 4 boxes of paper in total, at an estimated £10 per box. Needless to say, there are some businesses by their very nature are especially paper heavy, including firms of lawyers and accountants.
Why go paperless?
Most office workers including myself, have a preference for physical copies and like the way paper feels (psychologists call this 'haptic perception'). More often than not, information stored within the cloud or inside a computer doesn't appear as real as a physical copy. However there are some tangible benefits from going (nearly) paperless:
1) Reduce costs
Decreasing or eliminating paper usage within an office, will usually be accompanied by a reduction in printer toner and energy costs. Additionally replacing the storage of paper documents with their electronic counterparts could deliver further savings. A reduction in paper storage could free up valuable office space which in turn could be used for desks, effectively unlocking savings in rent and rates.
2) Help the environment / reduce carbon footprint
The paper industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy in the world, and the over-use of paper has a significant impact on a company's carbon footprint. Making just one piece of A4 paper requires 10 litres of water. One tree makes approximately 16.67 reams of copy paper, or 8,333.3 sheets. As the average UK office worker consumes 10,000 sheets per year, that's over 1 tree lost per employee per annum! Then there is the impact of fossil fuel power used for printing to consider...
3) Digital storage is more effective than physical storage
Digital documents are becoming simpler, and easier to send and store. One of the major benefits of digital documents is that they can be retrieved, indexed and searched much faster than paper ones. The storage of digital documents is also beneficial from a disaster recovery standpoint. It is an unfortunate fact that many organisations have never addressed how their business would recover key documentation in the event of a fire or flood.
4) Improve the office environment
Paperwork often appears untidy, and is inefficient when compared with digital documents. An entire company's documents could be stored on a single computer, instead of rooms of shelving. A tidier workplace is good for morale, and is likely to improve clients' perception of the business.
5) Reduce audit fees!
Companies which rely heavily on paper usually face far higher audit fees due to: (i) the manual aspect of the audit, (ii) higher compliance risk associated with missing documentation. SMEs are spending on average £23k on audit fees, hence any steps that can be taken to minimise these costs are worth considering.
I am yet to encounter an office where paper usage is nil, hence I still feel that the paperless office is an urban myth. That being said, I am an advocate of the "nearly paperless office" and believe where there is supporting technology, this could be a workable solution. For practical purposes, the term "paperless" is a bit of a misnomer; it's difficult to completely eliminate paper from a workflow. Contracts, government documents and employment forms are examples of business materials that often need to be printed on paper even when stored electronically. Having worked in the Finance department of a law firm, I am absolutely certain there is scope to significantly reduce paper usage in a typical office. The challenge is getting everyone on-board with the initiative.
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