For companies looking to become more efficient and productive in today's digital economy, the prospect of becoming a paperless office can be quite enticing. After all, done properly, your paperless office should be tidier, more efficient and easier to manage - in theory.
Of course, ambition is one thing and the reality of transitioning from an 'old-fashioned' paper-based business to an all-digital paperless office isn't without challenges. But are the advantages of going purely digital worth it? Let's take a look at the potential pros and cons for your business.
The advantages of paperless workplaces
There are a few different ways going paperless can help any modern business, from productivity enhancements to reduced waste.
Better environmental impact
One of the easiest and most visible ways to reduce your carbon footprint is by reducing your paper usage. With digital record-keeping and archiving, you don't need to print or photocopy documents and thousands of trees will be saved.
There'll probably still be times you have to put something in an envelope and trudge to the post office, but with all-digital processes that'll be sigificantly cut.
We can't claim it'll remove your footprint entirely - servers need electricity to run, which always has at least some impact on the environment. But it's a great start.
More productive and efficient
A digital office is usually a more productive one. Think about all the touch-points that a physical document will have along its journey. Paper documents are printed to be read and archived. They are copied in bulk for meetings. They are marked-up in pen for editing, before being corrected and reprinted.
They are distributed for reading or put in the post for sending. Every touchpoint takes time, energy and resources. Digital solutions can make these processes far quicker and easier for everyone involved.
Less waste inevitably means cost savings - music to any business owner's ears.
Consider the costs you can save by taking the physical paper out of your office mix; not just the costs of the paper itself, but the costs of photocopiers and printers, toners and cartridges, storage units, mailing envelopes, files, stamps and more. That's a fair bit of coin.
Imagine working on a complex document that needs multiple checks by different stakeholders, content edits, signatures, sign off and then distribution to a working group. The difference between doing this in hard-copy and doing it digitally is obvious; without physical paperwork, the entire process is far smoother, easier and more accurate.
Emails can go unread, of course, but chasing them up can be diarised, completed and even automated at the click of a few buttons.
Project working is already made easy with cloud-deployed remote collaboration systems that allow teams to work together online, from anywhere and at any time.
By digitising this process, no paper is needed; everything is stored online for immediate retrieval, sharing, collaboration and archiving.
Teams and processes are far easier to manage when everything is digitised.
Managers can provide digital sign-offs, see where workflows are up to and keep on top of their team's work without cumbersome paperwork.
There's no replacement for face-to-face interaction, but a big chunk of project management and staff evaluation can be successfully digitised.
Disadvantages of a paperless office
There are certainly some potential downsides for businesses to consider too; many of which are industry-specific, or down to timing issues.
Lack of accessibility
Not everyone finds it easy to read long documents online - so for long-form paperwork, hard-copy prints may be easier for some. A decent mixture of the two, being mindful of everyone's accessibility needs, will probably be a good choice.
There may be concerns over security when important paperwork is only stored online. Some businesses store original hard copies of vital paperwork alongside digital scans, but this is inefficient because of duplication.
Passwords can be guessed, servers can be hacked, USB sticks can be left on trains. Security is an ongoing process, so if you're going all-digital, make sure everything's locked down tight.
Many digital file storage and sharing systems require constant reinvestment for software licence upgrades, server space, accessibility and so forth. Subscriptions are an expense, but compared with the person-hours saved, they're usually worth the outlay.
In some industries and circumstances, hard copy originals of documentation may be required - not simply scanned versions. Particularly in the legal sector, sticking to paper might be the norm for quite a while.
Where businesses have years of hard-copy records, the work, time and expense involved in digitising this paper can be particularly onerous. It's up to them to decide whether it's worth it.
The future of paperless offices
Ultimately, most businesses are likely to transition to becoming paperless workplaces in the near future, especially as regulatory requirements catch up and allow digital receipts and paperwork in place of paper records. The question then becomes less about whether to become a paperless office, but when to make the transition, and how.
There is no single right way to do it, but it's certainly worth looking into the options available to your business and making a cost/benefit analysis to decide whether now is the right time for you to transition to digital. You could just begin with one element of your business (like annual leave tracking!) and take it from there.