A paperless office sounds wonderful, but becoming paperless is a very poor goal. Becoming paperless is a side effect of creating an efficient workflow. If you set out to create a paperless office, you’ll find that there are all kinds of scanners and software to help you move your files from paper format to digital files, but just changing out your filing cabinet for hard drives doesn’t automatically make you more efficient.
The reason so many people pursue a paperless office is because it is easy to understand. It isn’t hard to understand the idea of reading files on the computer instead of on paper. Workflow improvements are a lot harder to visualize, but if you are trying to actually become more efficient, your workflow improvements is where you are going to make all of your real gains.
The thing that makes this difficult is that paper forms a lot of our interfaces between people and organizations. Your gas company sends you a paper bill in the mail. When it is time to get your tags renewed on your car, you get sent several pieces of paper from the state government. This is one of the reasons most people think of scanners when they start talking about going paperless–they need some way to capture all of the “interface” paper that is sent back and forth. A workflow solution starts looking at ways to eliminate the paper entirely.
The results of a workflow improvement usually have better environmental impact than the results of a push to go paperless. In the situation described above, a scan/shred workflow that would have likely resulted with a paperless goal doesn’t really produce less waste. In some situations it may actually produce more. Shredded paper is less useful for recycling because the fibers have been cut. If you kept a document for 10 years until the information on it is no longer sensitive, you may be able to recycle it in ways that are not possible with shredded documents.
By focusing on your workflow, you’ll increase your efficiency. The end results of an efficiency goal are much better than the end result of a goal to go paperless.