Forget the paperless office: Here's how to get a less-paper office

The concept of the “paperless office” first appeared way back in 1975, when an article in BusinessWeek predicted that offices would be entirely digital by the mid 1990s. Obviously, that didn’t happen. In fact, in those 20 years, paper use increased rather dramatically in North American offices. New technologies like email and the Internet actually had office workers printing more, not less, sparking the creation of a whole new industry -- software that helps offices reduce unnecessary printing --not to mention those ubiquitous “please think before you print this email” tags on every responsible professional’s email signature.

Such disappointing progress prompted a string of articles pooh-poohing the idea of the paperless office, and the publication of an entire book devoted to the topic, titled “The Myth of the Paperless Office,” which proposed that certain human traits would make it impossible for the paperless office to exist.

These days, people are a bit more realistic about the paperless idea. There are always going to be situations where people prefer paper: for legal documents, for example. In other cases, people want the portability of paper or simply like the tactile nature of the stuff. In the last five years, however, the economic downturn and various technological advances have conspired to drive paper use down fairly substantially, making the idea of at least a “less-paper” office more feasible.

According to the GreenBiz State of the Paper Industry 2011 report, total paper consumption in North America declined 24 percent between 2006 and 2009, and per-capita consumption of paper in North America dropped from more than 652 pounds per year in 2005 to 504 pounds per year in 2009.

While in many other realms what was perceived as environmental progress during those years was in fact economic stagnation (hence the renewed climb of greenhouse gas emissions as the economy begins to rebound), in the case of paper it looks like the reductions are here to stay. That’s mainly because the offices that began using paper-saving technologies did so to save money and successfully did so.

“Environmental considerations aren’t typically a primary driver in the decision-making process,” says Julia Noonan vice president of sales for CollegeNET, a company that sells software enabling colleges and universities to make scheduling and course and faculty evaluations digital.

Although Noonan says more and more universities do have committees interested in the environmental benefits of saving paper, the first order of business is saving time and money. To wit, the University of Oregon saved $200,000 by eliminating paper course/faculty reviews (and scanning costs/labor). The University of Washington’s online admissions system helped it avoid having to send 30,000 pieces of mail.

Similar savings have been realized in the business realm.  GreenPrint, a Portland-based company that makes software that helps users conserve paper and ink/toner by avoiding unnecessary print jobs, claims an enterprise with 5,000 PCs can avoid printing some 6.3 million pages a year, saving nearly $400,000 annually.

The biggest leap toward the less-paper office, though, has come not from software, email or PDFs as once expected, but from the emergence and popularity of tablets and e-readers. Because these devices offer a portable way to read documents, they’re a better replacement for paper printouts, and now that Amazon has come out with the “send to Kindle” app for Macs as well as PCs, it’s getting easier to avoid printing documents. The iPad and Nook have yet to offer this service for documents, but it’s unlikely to stay that way for long (although Apple surely won’t be providing a “send-to-iPad” option for PCs).

Noonan says the ubiquity of tablets is providing unexpected benefits for her university clients as well. “Universities are getting a much higher response rate from students to various requests for information,” she says. “With paper forms, people would just throw them out. Now they can just whip out their iPad and get it done.”

The same could be true for corporate HR departments, and businesses could reap other benefits from using tablets to further digitize their offices: reduction of paper and ink use, increased collaboration and improved mobility to name a few. While the use of tablets in the workplace is still relatively new, it’s expanding quickly. In a recent Forrester Research survey of IT decision makers, 93 percent expected their administrative professionals and knowledge workers to consume or create content on tablets by 2013, and it’s becoming increasingly more common for companies and institutions to supply employees with a tablet of some sort.

The paperless office remains something of a pipe dream, but the money-saving potential of the latest software and devices is helping to make the less-paper office a reality.

Photo of PDA with stylus by 0833379753 via Shutterstock.