The paperless office is coming. We can all see it. Wholly electronic work practices are destined to be the future. In fact, foreseeing a wholly electronic life is not that outrageous. More and more people are downloading films and songs rather than buying DVDs and CDs. We don’t write letters anymore; we email, text and Skype. We buy our groceries online. We now have online banking and the cheque book is on its deathbed. The rise of Kindle means that now even books are going paperless. We live our lives through computers, phones and the Internet, so much so that one day we will just live in the ether.


Offices are still clinging on to their paper and pens


If anything, offices and workplaces are taking their sweet time to catch up. I have worked in two very different law firms. The first was where the boss always talked about going paperless, but it never quite happened. We still corresponded with the court, barristers, other solicitors and our clients by letter. We still went to court with paper files, textbooks, pens and pads of paper. Other lawyers appeared with laptops and dongles. But we hung on to our pens.


The second law firm was much more reliant on email; most correspondence with clients, barristers and other solicitors was by email. While most of the time the county courts still sent letters, even they had jumped on the email bandwagon and at times used this to correspond with the parties. Most agreements and contracts, even evidence, witness statements and schedules, were exchanged by email.


However, even at the second firm, there was no sign of a completely paperless office on the horizon. Every case had an electronic file and a paper file. Agreements still required handwritten signatures, which meant printing by both parties and scanning for email exchange – that’s a practice that only cuts out the stamps and envelopes on the paper-saving front. But a legal document needs a signature, so how can a law firm ever be paperless?


Well, it is possible, and it’s happening more and more. Each day we make legally-binding agreements over the Internet by sticking a ‘tick’ in a little box that says, “By ticking this box you agree to our terms and conditions.” Digital signatures are becoming increasingly more acceptable. And how many of us have had to try and write on those awful Postal Digital Assistants, which postal workers now use for signed for and special delivery items?


But why are our offices taking their time to catch up, and continuing to rely on paper?


Paper versus paperless


The benefits of going paperless are clear. It’s green. One more tree lives to see another day. It’s also space-economical. Bulky filing cabinets and huge printer-photocopiers will be a thing of the past, meaning less physical space is needed. A business could relocate to a smaller office and save money on a lease. Emails eliminate the need to print and post documents to clients, saving time and postage expenses, and reducing the need to invest in huge reams of paper. A businessperson is more likely to lose a piece of paper than a document filed electronically, which saves an enormous amount of time. Electronic searches can locate documents in seconds.


Moreover, electronic storage helps businesses adhere to strict compliance guidelines and requirements for storing records for years. There are often no limits on the number of documents that can be stored and each document has a unique number, which creates an audit trail.

Processes are simplified by going paperless. Users can action tasks, authorise transactions and transfer information simply by pushing a button. Ordering goods becomes so much easier, which is why the amount of solely Internet-based shops is increasing. Customer service becomes much more effective because customer information, such as orders and enquiries, are more accessible, and thus any problems and queries can be dealt with quicker and more effectively.


Going paperless also means greater flexibility and practicality in people’s work practices. People can work remotely by logging in to the company system from wherever they may be. They can catch up on tasks without needing to be in the office.


Finally, going paperless means a tidier, more organised and more efficient office. I once worked with someone whose desk was a deep puddle of paper you had to wade through to find a coaster to set her coffee down on. How she ever kept on top of things is a minor mystery.


But what are the disadvantages of going completely paperless? There are several. Firstly, technology can be frustrating. It’s as if there’s a new media format – mp3, mp4, avi, mkv – every day. It’s as if, every time we turn around, a new version of Excel or Word, or a new Windows operating system pops up. Constantly our processes are in need of upgrading, so that we can keep our computer hardware and software bang up to date. But upgrading is expensive and time-consuming, not least because once the software is installed, employees then need to be trained to use the new system. Many employees still aren’t ready to completely embrace computers as it is. Many still prefer a pen and paper for some practices.


The process of going completely paperless itself requires a big investment of time, before we start worrying about upgrading and the headaches that come with that. There will be obvious productivity losses as the new systems are installed and the pens and filing cabinets are shipped out. Government regulations and business policy may also slow down the change.


The other major difficulty for businesses going paperless is that much of a business’s communication is with other businesses and individuals, rather than just being internal. Electronic communication requires both the sender and the receiver to have access to the same hardware and software. Fortunately, at my last law firm for example, most of the outside agencies we were dealing with were catching up next to us. But at my previous firm, a criminal defence firm, many of our clients had no access to emails (or sometimes even phones!).


There’s also the greater potential for privacy invasions, confidentiality breaches and computer viruses in an electronic work practice. Moreover, computers go wrong. A virus, glitch or a simple accidental push of the delete key might eradicate a whole folder of important documents. That is something that is far more likely to happen than, for example, accidentally setting fire to a file cabinet and losing a few drawers of paper documents.


And what if there’s a power cut?


Despite this, computer systems are improving every day. Increasingly, it becomes impossible for documents to be entirely lost, because there’s a digital backup. More and more we are relying on Internet-based storage systems like Dropbox and I-Cloud, rather than on local servers and specific hard drives. And the vast majority of employees today are computer-literate. But even though the advantages are vast, and the drawbacks can be alleviated, 65% of UK small and medium-sized businesses have still not taken that big step into the realm of the paperless office. This is no doubt because it is a big step, could involve substantial cost and productivity loss – and what if it doesn’t work out?


The paper-light model


Perhaps for now, while the trepidation of businesses about going totally paperless continues, the more realistic goal should be to go ‘paper-light’ instead. Indeed this is a workplace model that a lot of businesses have already adopted, such as the second law firm I worked at. Businesses should increase their use of email to correspond and use electronic files wherever possible. When paper is necessary, i.e. for a ‘wet signature’, businesses should make sure to limit its replication. Does it need photocopying four times and posting? Or can it be scanned and emailed? I for one am someone who rather likes paper occasionally. Sometimes I like to handwrite some notes on a pad, instead of tapping keys on a keyboard. It would be nice for offices and workplaces to give their employees a paper option, sprinkle a little variety into the proceedings.


In any case, while it is improving, technology is not yet infallible. To that end, we should always have paper available in the event of a power cut or a computer failure – even in a paperless office.