‘Paper free’ has been a buzz word for around thirty years now[i]. It’s a phrase that conjures up images of businesses with decluttered and contemporary offices, or people who live minimalistic and entirely modern lives. Lives where all files are digital, where in-trays are banned and where bank statements, bills or other personal paperwork isn’t bringing chaos to home offices and desk drawers.
World Paper Free Day (4 November, 2016) is fast approaching, so perhaps it’s time to reflect on our relationship with paper and how we manage our documents. For some, the concept of going paper free is aspirational, but operating without paper still sends shivers up the spines of many.
We have an attachment to paper, which makes it hard for some of us to even contemplate the idea of going paper free. Paper is useful; it gives us a physical record of a document, event or piece of information. We can read it, mark it up, proof it and share it with others. We can file it with other similar documents and, according to some reports[ii], the tactile experience of reading on paper can help us to navigate long texts in an intuitive and effective way – something that is difficult to replicate on a screen.
Many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.[iii] So people have a tendency to print out electronic documents too. Back in 2003 Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, authors of The Myth of the Paperless Office, found that when an organisation used email, it experienced a 40 per cent increase in paper consumption. Perhaps that’s no surprise – sometimes we print our documents to better digest them before we dispose of them. Sometimes we keep them neatly filed as a ‘safety net’ for future use.
Despite the clear benefits of digesting information in paper form, we can have too much of a good thing. In many instances our love of paper can result in document mismanagement, with people hoarding paper documents ‘just in case’ they need them again. If we’re honest, there are plenty of old bank statements, out of date warranties and receipts at home that we don’t need any more. It just feels wrong to get rid of them.
Apply this ‘hoarding’ mentality to the corporate environment though, and the results can be alarming. Strict regulations exist about how businesses should store information and how long files such as contracts, HR records and account details should be retained. But truth be told, many of us have been guilty of carrying a candidate’s CV around for too long, or storing customer records in more than one place for our own convenience. However, with data privacy rules constantly evolving, if businesses aren’t careful, the hoarding habits of staff could find them on the wrong side of the law.
On the flip side of the page to the paper hoarders are the paper purgers – people who are able to comfortably live a paper-free life. These people use online tools, such as Evernote, to write their ‘to do’ lists, they balance family and work with an online calendar, and that calendar syncs across their multiple devices and apps. They don’t need paper. It weighs them down. Everything they could possibly need, they can access via a screen anyway.
Nevertheless, just because they live paper-free lives, don’t be fooled into thinking that paper purgers are document management experts. They, just like anyone else, may be spotted storing personal documents on their desktop instead of in the correct and secure central location, or losing sight of how many times they’ve shared a CV with colleagues.
Considering the tactile nature of paper, perhaps going completely paper free is something that only the emotionally robust can handle. There are environmental benefits and measurable energy saving advantages to paperless working,[iv] but storing and managing documents paper free isn’t without its hurdles. The same data protection rules apply, so even if it’s digital, storing information on your laptop instead of in the central depository, or keeping personal records on email instead of in a protected archive can still get your company in trouble if you’re breaching regulations. Processes must be put in place to keep information under control if businesses are to remain compliant.
Whether we are at work or at home, there’s no need to cut all paper ties if we’re not ready. For those that want to strike a balance between hoarding and purging, Iron Mountain is advocating ‘paper light’ as a viable alternative. The paper does not have to go away – many documents will have to be kept on paper until they are no longer needed or until retention rules oblige secure destruction. It might be tempting to digitise all the paper as a fast track to paper free. However, digitising everything is simply too expense for most organisations with a legacy of paper. Taking a ‘paper light’ approach, businesses can think about digitising documents as they are required. This will not only be cost effective, it will reduce the risk of error.
Whatever path you take, there is a need to make sure that all information is handled with care, and in line with the appropriate legal requirements. So, why not make this World Paper Free Day the day that you take a good look at the documents you store. Ask yourself, whether you’re a hoarder or a purger, how you might manage your digitised and paper-based information better, and how you can help others to do the same.