Opinion
May 7, 2012

What happened to the paperless office?

Stacked in different colours and piled high on our desks, paper occupies every inch of our daily office space. HP predicts that by 2010, more than 53 trillion pages will be printed worldwide. That’s a lot of paper and trees for a society that once envisioned being “paperless.”

In government, the dependence on paper is extremely high, in part attributed to the silo operations of government agencies and departments and the habits of its workers who share, collaborate and retain knowledge through the use of paper.

Yet moving away from dependence on paper will improve efficiency, reduce costs and promote an environmentally conscious image.

The real cost of paper for government and the environment is serious. To understand the impact of paper, governments and private organizations alike need to look beyond the financial costs of purchasing paper: storing two million pages of paper can cost an organization typically between $40,000 and $60,000 on filing cabinets alone, and that’s not taking into consideration that information stored in filing cabinets is a drain on time and employee productivity.

Take a daily government office activity such as processing invoices. Manual invoice processing inflates processing costs and accounts payable cycle times. A financial document arriving into an organization is typically photocopied at least once, an invoice up to eleven times. The printer used in this process will typically emit 456 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year; a tree typically absorbs 13kg of C02. It takes 35 trees each year to offset that printer’s emissions.

In addition, one third of an employee’s time is spent answering queries about the invoice, which may typically add up to $20 more per invoice processed manually. The need for a paperless routine is clear and powerful.

Does that mean that all paper should disappear from government offices tomorrow? Reducing paper consumption requires a vision and strategy from the top and attitudinal changes across the board. Introducing a paper reduction campaign is easy but obtaining a level of support at the top is critical, as any cost saving measure will need initial investments. It requires a person who will champion the process and foster creativity and the sort of problem solving that will have a trickle down effect on employees, and who will encourage the vision to come to fruitation.

Any paper reduction measure entails revisiting the 1970s vision of a “paperless office.” The advent of computers was supposed to transform the hardcopy office files into neatly stacked yellow folder icons on our computer desktops, yet the opposite occurred: we printed everything over fear of losing control of the process and information. If public sector offices are truly going to become paperless, solutions will need to incorporate technology.

Investment in document management systems is essential: records, email and forms management software exist to digitalize information as soon as it comes in, reducing not only duplication costs but improving an office’s ability to manage, share and find information.

If government is going to preach to the private sector the need to be more environmentally conscious in its actions, walking the talk must start in government offices first. Employees in government have the habit of printing e-mails for their case files, discussing and making decisions over paper at meetings and printing every version of a project draft to mark changes in red pen. Attitudinal changes among older workers are necessary and putting to bed the fears and incapability of technology is crucial. Long-term commitment to education and sustaining cultural momentum to bring about change cannot be overlooked.

And, maybe, the next time I walk into a meeting it will be “paperless” after all.

 

Ekta Khullar is a new professional with the Ontario government and co-chair of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada Toronto Region Group.

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