Do you work in a paperless office? Or do you work in an office where “paperless” is, well, only on paper?

In preparing a Business Consulting Proposal recently, 2 items in the RFP caught my attention:

Background: …’Going paperless’ has been a focus of the process mapping initiative undertaken in 2010/11.

Submissions: Four complete copies of your proposal (one of which must be unbound for photocopying), and one CD, Memory Stick, USB,…

This means that a company that went “paperless” 3-4 years ago is now relying on people in vehicles to deliver paper which will then be copied onto yet more paper. Furthermore, they still want a digital copy delivered by those same people in vehicles?? Clearly, they need someone to take a step back and ask a few questions, particularly around why they (think they) need paper.

In 15 years as a home-office worker, I’ve worked with many companies going paperless, including highly-regulated offices like a law firm and a casino operator. In the past, there was reluctance as people didn’t trust the reliability or security of email and FTP was too complicated for many. Now there are so many options for automatic digital data-sharing that even FTP seems like a dinosaur. As work teams become globally-distributed, employees move to contracting, and families value a work-life balance, the efficiencies offered by technology are essential to modern offices.

The drivers for going paperless may be speed, accessibility of information across locations, process efficiency, even the storage space used by all that paper. Those drivers are key to the success of such projects; there needs to be a strong reason that engages the whole company culture. Otherwise, there may be a lot of lip-service but you end up with RFP’s like the one described above.

To decide if you are really ready to go paperless, start by looking at your desk. Is it totally clear with just a laptop and a coffee cup? Do you have binders on shelves, papers piled high? These are a good indication of your work style – more paper on your desk means it will be harder for you to eliminate it from your work.

Now look at the actual papers on and in your desk, and why you have them. Are they things that people have given to you or things that you’ve printed for yourself? How many of them “required” a real, physical signature? Do you (or others) really need them on-hand or could you keep an electronic copy and store the paper off-site?

Third, how ingrained is paper within the company culture? Will you need baby steps to get technology into the organization?

When I worked at a small software company that implemented paperless office systems for other companies, my boss used to email me documents and tell me to bring a printed copy to our next internal meeting. Invariably, I would show up with the document open on my tablet. At first he would admonish me for not following instructions, but eventually he started showing up with his tablet too. That was the point where our internal paperless initiative really started to get some traction.

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