“There are two key challenges when moving towards a paper-free environment – two P’s that prevent businesses from going paper-free: people and procrastination.”

Going paper-free seems like a relatively straightforward thing to do. You just stop using paper. To the younger generation, being paper-free seems like an easy task. Why would you need to use paper when you can do everything electronically? When businesses are constantly trying to cut costs, why do they continue to spend so much money on printing paper?

As part of our series on ‘Going Paper-Free’, we spoke to Dave Jones, Vice President of European Operations at AIIM Europe (Association for Information and Image Management). AIIM is an organisation that provides research and support for information professionals, and they’re also the people behind World Paper Free day, held annually on 6 November.

So we asked Dave – why don’t businesses just go paper free?

“People don’t like change and they are also naturally resistant to anything that will rock the boat. So the idea of changing parts of the business that use paper is not only scary, but completely against their natural instincts.”

Dave points out that there are two key obstacles that come in the way of businesses going paper free: people and procrastination. He has noted the large number of people who print and file incoming electronic documents (35% of the workforce) and questions how this can begin to be tackled. His extensive work in the field has told him that it can be overcome in one simple way: implementing a sensible filing system.

“But therein lies one of the challenges – many organisations do not have this, but instead, have lots of separate information silos with no common central, well-defined and managed store.”

Many organisations have cited this reason for why they are not as far down the paper-free road as they would like to be. The figures do indicate that many would like to go paper-free, with 57% of companies saying they are committed to digital transformation.

The second obstacle to going paper-free, Dave said, is procrastination.

“It’s easy to see why this happens. Looking at a whole organisation and wondering where to start with paper-free is a big scary thing. But as the saying goes, ‘You can’t eat an elephant in one go’. You just need to break the problem down into smaller pieces and hit them bit by bit.”

The mindset of people within the organisation, particularly the mindset of senior management, can be one of the biggest and most challenging aspects for a business attempting to go paper-free, according to Dave. A business can’t make the decision to stop using paper unless the senior management are on board 100 per cent. AIIM’s research has revealed that 49 per cent of organisations cite lack of management initiatives as something that holds them back from going paperless.

“Having an executive champion or sponsor who will force through the move at all levels of the company is essential. The executive champion needs to be challenging the business and explaining the benefits of becoming paper-free, and also the downsides of not. It is absolutely an executive push that is required to get this ball rolling.”

Transferring business processes to the digital sphere

“Paper-free is about moving relevant business processes to a digital state – not necessarily about removing paper from the workplace. Paper still has its place,” Dave said.

He’s acknowledged that processes such as note-taking or design-work in organisations still require some amount of paper-use, and that is fine. However, he stressed the need for companies to identify which business processes would be easy for them to digitise and use that as a starting point in the journey to going paper-free. He called the process “finding the low hanging fruit”.

“By dealing with those first you can prove that digitisation works and test out the mechanics of scanning, how to retrain staff, and how to manage the change process,” Dave explained.

“Once you’ve done a couple of easy processes you can move onto the more challenging ones.”

Not all business processes should be digitised.

He also stressed that an inefficient paper process would continue to be inefficient even if it was digitised and that companies shouldn’t look at digitisation as a step towards becoming more efficient automatically.

The process of transferring to a digital office space can be a long and painful one for many organisations already established on paper processes. This is why start-up businesses often find it a lot easier to be digital from day one, as compared to existing businesses who have to convert from paper processes to digital ones.

Efficiency in the work place: Better, quicker and cheaper

Having said that, a paperless office does provide an easier work environment. When asked what the main reason is for businesses choosing to go paper-free, Dave said:

“The attraction for most businesses is efficiency – or getting better, quicker, cheaper processes. For some, it is the technical nirvana they have always dreamed of – pristine white offices with no paper and smiley faces (I’m joking of course!).”

The type of processes that are typically digitised include accounts payable and receivable, as well as mailroom systems. While Dave notes that these aren’t ‘exciting topics’ for most, they are things that do need to be done quickly, accurately and efficiently. Digitisation often helps with this.

He said: “This is where stamping out the inefficiencies by using digitisation makes perfect sense.”

For others, using less paper is about cost savings. Calling the amount of paper and ink some big organisations use “scary”, Dave said that cuttings costs in this area can save some companies “serious money”. Going paper-free also saves physical storage space that is otherwise taken up by piles of papers.

With all the talk of efficiency and cost savings, the question remains as to whether companies are motivated to go paper-free by environmental reasons at all.

The environmental aspect  of going paper-free

While some organisations have begun taking into account the environmental impact of their company processes, most are not using this as their main motivation to go paper-free.

“The benefits of going paperless are business focused, not environmental.”

However, one of the benefits of going paper-free is that it makes remote working and remote collaboration easier, therefore bringing in an indirect environmental benefit as people no longer need to travel to particular offices to get work done. Dave points out that this reduces fuel use and emissions along the way, whether businesses are aware of their actions or not.

The future of paper-free businesses

When looking at the future of paper-free processes in businesses, Dave is optimistic, but cautious:

“I think the number of businesses with paper-free processes will indeed become widespread. How widespread paper-free use becomes within the business remains to be seen.”

He notes that the increasing use of mobile and cloud technologies could mean that more documents are being born digital, hence making the transition to digital processes that much easier. Dave is also optimistic about the future thanks to the younger generation, what he calls the “Facebook generation”.

“The next generation of workers prefer to work in digital mode than on paper and the desire to go paper-free within the business starts to go beyond the executive champion, but comes from the ground up. When that happens the main obstacles of people and procrastination can easily be removed.”