Having a paperless office is now more a question of trusting the technology and changing one’s habits than a question of technical possibility
Way back in the mists of time (aka the 1980s), the “Paperless Office” was some kind of technological Holy Grail. Ironic, methinks, that this was also the time when computer programs used to spew out reams and reams of green and white continuous paper as it thundered through chattering dot matrix printers. There even used to be a car bumper sticker that read “Save trees – murder a programmer”. The IT industry undoubtedly created more paper than it saved.
Things are very different now, and I can think of several good reasons why:
- With the advent of personal computing (ie the “one on every desk” that IBM used to dream about), the user of the data is much more likely nowadays to be the person who produced it, and that person can see his output onscreen rather than waiting for the office boy to deliver a 10kg printout from the computer room.
- Word processing and the internet – especially email – have, between them, almost annihilated the printed letter (that was often printed in three copies if produced in an office).
- The pdf (portable document format) file means that the output of one program can easily be read by anyone having the free software (Adobe Reader) to open it. We don’t need to print something on paper in order for someone else to read it. My own client records system was written (by me) using Microsoft Access. There wouldn’t be any point in my sending an invoice with an email if it were in the Access format as it would be unlikely that the client could open it. By “printing” the invoice as a pdf file, the entire process is completed without paper (at my end, at least – I have no control over the client printing it out and filing it).
- Following on from the point above, most invoices and other paperwork that we deal with on a regular basis are now routinely sent out by, for instances, the utilities companies, as pdf files attached to emails. We don’t even need to keep most of these invoices as we become accustomed to the fact that our financial history with companies such as the utilities is always available online. I am aware that a lot of people do still routinely print out such invoices and file them away in lever arch files, but that (I submit) is only a matter of habit. If we were confident of our computer backups and confident that the information would always be available online, then we wouldn’t bother with the paper. This confidence will almost certainly increase over time.
- Programs such as Evernote and Dropbox allow us to synchronise our data across computers and mobile devices (tablets and smartphones) without manual intervention. In my own case, for instance, whenever I raise a client invoice, it is saved in a Dropbox folder that then automatically synchronises with my Evernote database. This data can be carried about with us anywhere on tablets and smartphones for almost instant access.
- There are also plenty of other pieces of hardware and software that allow us to scan any pieces of paper into our computers so that we need never hunt down the hard copy original again. The problem with doing this is that you constantly wonder if the effort to scan and electronically file something is ever going to be repaid by saving you time in finding it in the future. For that reason, I still maintain one single lever arch file, where all the “semi important” bits of paper go. Since I refer to it so rarely and there’s so little going into it these days, I don’t even bother separating it into sections. I just bung one sheet in on top of the previous one and I only seem to fill about half a file a year.
As time goes by, we who were born in the days of paper will gradually fall off our twigs. We will be replaced by people who’ve used computers all their lives – people who may never know what it’s like to have a brown envelope drop onto the mat.
All of this came to mind this morning when I received an email from my electricity supplier inviting me to check my tariff. I clicked to follow the link and was taken immediately to a page on their wesbsite where it showed calculations indicating that I was already on the best tariff. I clicked the Evernote icon on my browser and Evernote saved that exact page for me in my Evernote database and gave me the opportunity to file it in the “notebook” that I have labelled “domestic”. All over and done with in a matter of seconds, and not a piece of paper in sight.
You see – there really is an upside to computers.
PS: if you need to create pdf files, investigate before buying Adobe Acrobat as some programs (eg “Word”) have a pdf writer inbuilt. Also, some scanners can create a pdf file direct from the scan.