Printers

What happened to the paperless office?


I remember back 20 or more years ago, when word processors were commonly replacing all those IBM Selectric typewriters, and when computing was beginning to become more the rule than the exception, the term paperless office was thrown around as though it would actually become a reality. However, instead of using less paper, we're probably using more of it, at least it seems that way from my perspective.

We all know the arguments about the lower cost associated by going paperless; and using less paper certainly does cost less money. Then there's the added benefit of having only one copy of something in digital form instead of multiple copies in printed form. Wondering which printed version of something is the most current seems common (unless it's dated somehow), but not so much the case with something in digital form.

We can certainly point to high speed and low cost printers as a culprit in increasing paper use, but on the other hand, we could consider low cost scanners as a technology designed to get paper out of the process. Or is it that scanners only add a digital factor to an already existing paper factor? Instead of digital versus paper, do we now simply rely on both? Banks and other financial institutions, and even the Internal Revenue Service, commonly exchange information digitally, taking the proverbial paper trail out of the picture. Or do they take paper totally out of the process?

At our office, we use wide format scanners to convert older architectural and engineering drawings into digital form, thereby eliminating the need for long-term paper storage. But we still print current engineering drawings with seemingly unlimited liberty, going through rolls and rolls of paper during the design process. We have any number of documents saved digitally in PDF form, but our printers' counters are collectively well into the six or seven digits. How many reams of paper are used by printing a million sheets? The answer is 2,000, in case you're wondering. (But it used to be 2,083 when a ream was 480 sheets instead of the current 500.)

If an office were truly becoming more paperless (more paperless?), it would have fewer printers, not more of them. How many offices have fewer printers today than ten years ago? We used to have about one or two printers per 25 people, but we now have close to a dozen. How can so many printers contribute to a paperless office? And often times, we just print a document to have a copy to file away someplace.

Okay, enough about the paperless office. I've got to think about my next task at hand when I go back to the office tomorrow morning. I've got to figure out why one of my JetDirect cards is registering a device communication error, keeping me from adding this particular printer to my network. And since I don't have the documentation for this device, I suppose I'll have to go to the Hewlett Packard Web site and print out some documents about it to help me troubleshoot the thing.

27 comments
Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

for about fifteen to twenty years. Legally, we're a very long way from it. Many laws require the original paper documents, with the original signatures that can be examined by experts, to be kept and provided at court if needed. Other laws just require the original records to be kept. It's far too easy to amend electronic records today, and that knowledge came out just when the courts were about to accept electronic record keeping as the primary. Now many laws insist on the original format records be kept, and some cases insist the final be on paper to limit the opportunities of false changes. More an more intra office work is now paperless and done by corporate email than written memo. So that's a step towards it, but a full paperless office is not legally possible at the moment.

Jeff Dray
Jeff Dray

I worked in a "paperless office" once. All incoming post was scanned then shredded. Our mail appeared in our email queues, together with all the scanning mistakes, one morning we were all treated to the sight of the back of every letter we had received. Even worse, the day the power went off we did nothing all day. Paper is a wonderful invention, versatile, practical and durable. The environmental argument does not stand up, most paper used in the UK is made from Scandinavian pulp, where there is a policy of replacing every tree cut down with four new ones. Even I, the inveterate scribbler, have been known to use a notebook to record thoughts and ideas, its a lot more practical than carrying a laptop around the shops.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

One place I worked in the early 80s went from clerks with typewriters to a computer system with printers. That meant their paper capacity went up. Of course the execs NEEDED more reports. And they had to be printed. When we went to electronic data acquisition here in the early 90s our habits were set to "Print". It took several years but now we try to only print the final reports. That is not always possible. Your final paragraph is another reason why paper isn't going away. You need the manual with you when working on a piece of equipment. A PDA screen doesn't cut it, neither does a monitor. That paper copy is lighter, foldable and easier to read. We need a substitute for that. Maybe a holographic PDA? In the mean time I print out the relevant parts of a manual, fold them into my pockets and take them with me. My final analysis is if you really want to go paperless "bite the bullet" and follow Jaqui's lead. Get rid of all your printers, copiers etc. And no that's not going to happen where I work. Not soon anyway.

Jaqui
Jaqui

On those rare occasions where I need hard copy, I take the file to a print center and pay to have it printed. I literally do not have a printer or scanner or copier, and do not miss them.

Joe_R
Joe_R

My guess is not too many.

Jaqui
Jaqui

you are right. I only added the comment since I know that a paper less office can be done. I made that decision and enforced it by not buying printers, faxes, copiers. Any company that wants to go the paperless route is going to have to make it a formal decision and put up with the complaints, until the employees get used to not having the print option. [ print to PDF is the only print option enabled ] Most clients are perfectly happy getting an electronic invoice, or PDF file as invoice. The costs of printing for advertising products and services, when printing is being sent out of the company, help to push for more effective electronic advertising plans. Presentations being done by electronic displays rather than paper. A lot of changes to the 19th century way of doing business most companies use. I doubt most Boards are ready for that leap into the current century.

Jaqui
Jaqui

It's more a proof of concept still. Until more operations go for the paperless office option with larger staffing it will only be a proof that it can be done.

Genera-nation
Genera-nation

I thought you may have said 1 or 2 and I was going to point out that these numbers are too small to claim a true paperless office. However as you say seven, well done!

dogknees
dogknees

My organisation is currently moving (slowly) in this direction. The simple fact is that the cost of storing the masses of paper are starting to bite. Why hasn't it happenned faster? Inertia and lack of will. Most people aren't prepared to spend a bit of time and effort learning to read documents on a screen. It's something that does take some effort to get used to, but once you do, it's not harder than reading paper and in some cases it's more effective. There's also the issue of screen resolution and size. In the days of 640x480 desktops on 14" screens, it was hard. Now that the norm is more like 1280x1024 and dual screens (or wide screens) are being rolled out to more people, reading documents on the screen and being able to compare two documents or refer to one while working on another is becoming a really effective way to work.

jdclyde
jdclyde

They are more affordable for more of your workers, just like the price of PC's dropping, so now everyone in a corporation gets one instead of just key people. The affordability of the components is why there are more printers instead of a group of people sharing one printer. As for the actual paper, there are now many things that never get printed that would have HAD to have been printed before (because of non-computer people needing a memo). Again, the other side is with more people it increases the amount of printing. We have many forms we have to keep for three years in hard copy. The other side is the uneducated worker that prints EVERYTHING because they are USED to holding a piece of paper to read.

Joe_R
Joe_R

And then there's the hand-me-down factor as well. We buy faster and better printers, but the old ones don't get totally replaced, they just find homes someplace else.

DABowers
DABowers

And at the same time they were predicting a paperless office, I remember they also told us that the PC would shorten our work day. Well . . . I'm one System Engineer who will vouch that neither of these predictions have happened.

DanLM
DanLM

That a hard copy of various forms must be retained? 7 years(accounting)? Dan

Jaqui
Jaqui

electronic copies are acceptable here :) paper copies not required.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I believe the law states RECORDS must be retained, but I don't believe they specify the medium or format. Knowing this crowd, I'm sure I'll be corrected if I'm wrong (again). I wish I could remember who said, "There will be a paperless office not long after the paperless bathroom."

DABowers
DABowers

At first the Accounting people (I was one at the time) didn't think too highly of the idea of paperless. They have since come a full 180 on that. For the record . . . I don't think my leaving the Accounting field had anything to do with it ;)

Joe_R
Joe_R

Are you close to having a paperless office environment, or farther away than ever? Do you have more printers today than ten tears ago, or fewer? Will a paperless office ever become reality?

tim.stapleton
tim.stapleton

We are paperless since 2001. We are a technology company and felt that it couldn't be too difficult. We were wrong. It was really difficult. I had been involved in large-scale document management implementations in the past but these are too expensive and not appropriate for a smaller organization. I had expected to be able to buy an inexpensive turnkey solution but couldn't find one. We tried a number of scanners and low-end software packages. (These experiences prompted us to create the www.MightyFile.com turnkey solution). We don't store paper and we use full-text searches to find documents. We send invoices by email and receive them by email when possible. However we still do print documents. Probably a lot less than average but I don't think it's practical to print nothing. We will sometimes print documents to make them more comfortable to read and we print contracts in order to sign them. Digital signing really hasn't caught on yet. So I think you could say that its possible and very cost-efficient to be *mostly* paperless today.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

electronically. When you need one, you download it to your OC, print it out, get your biro out, fill it in and then walk up to their office and hand it in. Progress is a wonderful thing.

royhayward
royhayward

10 years ago, I was working for a call center supporting printers. We had one or more printers on every desk. Heck, that means we had more printers than people! Now I work in an office where we have one color printer, one black and white printer and one fax machine that can be a printer in a pinch. (well there is that one ink jet in the CEO's office.) That is shared between about 100 people. I have printed an email or two in the last month. they were full of data and I posted them on my cube wall so that I could have it right in front of me for client calls. they are still there, on the wall. So what does this mean? Well, you are in the architecture industry, and I am in the software development. This may be a major factor in not only the habits of the people there, but what they do with what they print. If we printed all our code, we wouldn't be able to hold it in this building. but from time to time, we will print a ERD or spec and the like to bring to meetings or use in debuging some odd code. But we are not paperless either. We fill out time sheets by hand as mandated by our contract with the gov, and we print out the phone list to be posted in every cube, and there are a stack of requirements that were printed and are sitting on my desk right now. I think there will be very few if any truly paperless work spaces in my field in my life time. But there are some where this will be coming sooner, and others later.

Joe_R
Joe_R

It is indeed a paper hog, no doubt about it.

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

Before reading your article, I commented to a coworker "how many printers and copiers did we have when you started here ten years ago?". He said maybe three and one. I guess I was on the same wavelength as you. We are currently upgrading our whole infrastructure and will have twelve and six by years end! Paperless? Even with duplexing we're using so much paper it's unbelieveable. We have scanners to scan in received documents yet people still print them out. I've seen users print out an emailo, read it and then recycle the printed email! It's all about habits and cost. The former isn't easy to change but will be if the latter ever gets to the point of extreme (cost). EMD

Joe_R
Joe_R

It is largely about habit. And with printer paper being pretty cheap, about a penny a sheet (or less), it's a hard one to break. (Although the cost does indeed add up.) Buy printer paper by the case, and it's about a half a penny a sheet.