I have a nice document scanner. I have great OCR and document-management software. I have a solid system for converting paper into digital documents. I hardly ever print anything. I even wrote a book on the paperless office. And yet, somehow, I still have tons of papers in my home office, and despite my best efforts, more appear all the time. What's happening?
The old joke goes, "The paperless office has about as much of a chance as the paperless bathroom." For the moment, let's ignore the fact that paperless bathrooms are apparently becoming a thing. Is the paperless office really that hopeless?
The business world is in fact making slow but steady progress toward paper reduction. For example, the use of office paper decreased by 40 percent from 2000 to 2011, and it's increasingly rare to find banks, utilities, and other services that don't offer paperless billing and payments. Those of us who run small companies may be in an ideal position to push things further, because unlike managers in big corporations, we have greater latitude to set our own rules--and less inertia to overcome.
But the biggest barrier to a paperless office may be the very word paperless. If using any paper at all, ever, means that you fail to meet the definition of paperless, maybe we're thinking about this concept the wrong way. You may not be able to achieve a completely paperless life, but that doesn't mean the paperless office is a myth or failure, any more than the fact that you can still drive a car makes airplanes a failure. Going paperless doesn't have to be all or nothing to be effective.
Examine your goals
Why do you want to go paperless, anyway?
Back in the 1970s, when the idea of the paperless office first surfaced, the care and feeding of paper was a much bigger problem than it is today. Executives recorded memos on tape and paid people to type them up, photocopy them, and circulate them by hand. Communicating with the public involved writing a lot of letters, each of which had to be sealed, stamped, mailed, opened, replied to, and so on. Filing required vast amounts of space, and finding previously filed papers often took a long time.
In short, dealing with paper was a huge drag on productivity, and a future without those annoyances was what a lot of people were hoping for. All those problems have greatly diminished, and some of them have virtually disappeared. We may still have lots of paper, but we have less paper-related pain. If your goal in maintaining a paperless office is greater productivity, you may find it more useful to focus on that, rather than on the paper itself.
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