Productivity

The Smarter debate: Paperless or paper less?

Every month, Smarter brings you two different sides of a topical business issue. Our selected writers go head-to-head in our debate so you can decide for yourself who comes out on top .

Every month, Smarter brings you two different sides of a topical business issue. Our selected writers go head-to-head in our debate so you can decide for yourself who comes out on top .

Can your office really go completely paperless, or should you just be aiming to use less paper? Two Smarter writers tackle the great paperless debate.

group on laptops man on phone Paperless or less paper? That is the question.

Team paperless: Simon Sharwood – Embrace the digital age and embrace paper now

When someone hands you their business card, do you file it away carefully?

I bet you don't and you have piles of business cards all over the place. And that one card you need, for that lead or contact you would really like to talk to right now, is nowhere to be found – which isn't good because they looked like a very decent prospect.

If only you'd been smart enough to use a business card scanning app like CamCard or World Card Mobile you could have taken a photograph of that person's card and it would have automatically been added to the contacts in your phone. And if you synch your
phone with Office 365 or a similar cloud service, those contacts would also be backed up in a secure data centre.

The good news is that you found that card and the contact became a good client; so good you just caught up with them for a coffee that turned into a lunch that went on for longer than either of you planned. You usually just pay for quick coffees with a client out of your own pocket but this lunch needs to be accounted for. If only you hadn't left the receipt… somewhere?

Phew! The restaurant turns out to have an electronic point of sale system and they can email you the receipt. In fact they offered to send it as an email before you left, but you weren't paying attention. The restaurant owner tells you she loves this system because she gets a few requests for old receipts, especially at tax time. And quite a few of the customers who are delighted by electronic receipts become regular customers.

You did better when you visited the office supplies store that morning: when buying some new toner and paper, plus some new textas for the kids, the receipt went straight into your wallet and then into the shoebox you use to store receipts.

But when you handed that shoebox to your accountant three months later, the cheap paper had faded and the only legible number was the total.

Your accountant, who charges $90 an hour to have a junior do the data entry on this stuff, tells you to just claim the textas as a business expenses. And then points out that Microsoft has a free app called Office Lens that lets you scan stuff with your phone and upload it into OneDrive or OneNote. Your accountant says the junior is ready to take on more responsibility and would rather stop doing data entry, and that it's also possible to read scanned documents straight into accounting software. All you need to do is point your phone at receipts within a day or two of purchase.

A year later, the junior accountant calls to tell you that you got away with the textas and the lunch, but the tax office wants to review your files from a couple of years ago.

Was that the year the kids accidentally recycled half your records? Yes it was. Which rather complicates matters.

Of course if only you'd gone paperless a couple of years back this review wouldn't be a problem because all your files would be digital and therefore searchable. Finding whatever it is the tax office wants would take minutes, not an afternoon wading through files.

Hopefully the scenarios above have convinced you to start moving to paperless processes, because they can save you time, effort, make you better organised, win you more loyal customers and perhaps keep you out of trouble too. And that will mean you avoid another form of paper: tissues to mop up your tears at wasting time and effort when paper-free technology could make your life easier and more productive.

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Team less paper: Andrew Colley - Why going paperless is hard

For any environmentally conscious business the idea of getting rid of all its paper-based processes and going purely digital must be very attractive. Even in the legal industry at the big end of town – where small libraries, printed multiple times over with elaborate indexing schemes, are trolleyed in and out of courts daily – there have been attempts to replace them with tablet computers.

However, to date, these attempts have gained little traction against a paper tradition that stretches back to thick parchments handed around ancient courts.

You might think the legal industry an outlier but most sober commentary on the paper vs. paperless debate acknowledges paper can’t be eradicated from commerce completely.

Some businesses are restricted by the contractual challenges of ditching paper records, like the real estate industry and lands and patent entitlement bodies. Others are also highly resistant to paper such as architects, graphic designers and academics. They may be able to go paperless but their often touch-based cultures resist it.

A recent survey by Xerox in Canada found that 55 per cent of businesses still rely on paper in some way, with the biggest obstacle to digital transformation being the re-engineering of businesses processes – and, of course, this would be even more pronounced in developing countries.

Xerox found that the biggest incentives to going paperless were cost and security concerns. But that debate isn’t settled – paper might be expensive to store and transport but it’s much easier to steal information en masse if it’s in digital form. No hacker ever breached a locked filing cabinet from three countries away.

There is even research suggesting that younger workers have an affinity for paper because they perceive it as sustainable.

In a February 2014 article, Mark Pitts, executive director of printing-writing at the American Forest And Paper Association (AFANDPA) told the Guardian: "What people often don't realise is that the paper-making process is sustainable, and claims to the contrary are misleading to the consumer”.

Is Pitts merely a corporate propagandist? Perhaps not.

Since 2010, Greenpeace has warned that the digital revolution is responsible for increasing greenhouse emissions. At the time, Greenpeace predicted PCs and peripherals (and their production) would account for 57 per cent of world emissions by 2020, telco and mobile (then forecast at 5 billion devices by 2020) would account for 25 per cent, and data centres for 18 per cent. There are currently about 7 billion mobile phones users around the world and mostly coal-powered cloud computing is growing exponentially.

Still, it’s clear that less paper can be good for forest protection.

Don’t worry; there is a middle ground. There are simple ways to become greener, use less paper around your office, and do it safely.

The first thing you should do is seek legal advice to make sure that switching to digital won’t leave you exposed to litigation or in breach of privacy laws.

Secondly, determine if simple business processes can be moved to email or other electronic paper forms. It’s surprising just how many of these can leave you feeling with that “duh” factor for not doing it sooner.

Thirdly, if you have many remote workers, why not consider a GPS-powered tablet-based remote accounting and logistics system? It’s surprising how much travel-time and money you can save them and yourself while speeding up cash flow and making
payments simpler for your customers.

Finally, check out some of the newer paper saving technology that is being developed. Everybody has joked about someone in the office nicknamed “the tree killer”; someone with a pathological resistance to PDF files who regularly jams up the printer queue with enormous documents they rarely bother to read. New identity-based print audit technology can oblige individuals to take physical action to confirm that they genuinely need a document printed; they can’t just sit there and leave it to fate, their memory or the locked, big blue bin in the corner. (It may also stop workers bringing private print jobs to the office.)

These few steps may be simple, but powerful ways to ensure every sheet of paper counts.

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