By John Culkin, Director of Information Management, Crown Records Management

Q We have been talking about the possibility of a paperless office for decades — why do you think it hasn’t happened so far?
A “The speed of technological advancements in the last few decades has been truly remarkable, but unfortunately the speed of organisations’ environmental attitude change has not. Organisations are still clinging to their paper, especially when it comes to spread sheets, large documents or drawings. Progress is being made we are still some way away at the moment.”

Q But are we at least entering an era where paper becomes less important in an office environment, simply because we now have tablets and smartphones?
A “Certainly, over time, tablet computers will move beyond the executive offices to all members of staff. At the minute IT departments are trying to accommodate mobile devices or fighting to keep them at bay. It’s complicated because the way people work and interact can change as they become more mobile within, as well as outside the workspace. It’s not uncommon now for modern offices to have relaxing seating areas and “coffee shop” style areas to work and meet, for instance; and this creates different issues.”

Q How can technology help small businesses reduce their reliance and use of paper?
A “If the working environment needs to be adapted to become more flexible and allow for initiatives such as hot-desking and mobile working, then the technology is there. But establishing what can be stored, either physically or digitally is the first step to creating a more flexible, space-saving environment. Sometimes processes demand a ‘wet’ signature of a pen for compliance reasons rather than anything electronic, in which case careful storage considerations can be made such as lateral or compact filing systems. Another choice is scanning documents or off-site storage, which can offer more flexibility, considerable cost savings and still meet regulatory requirements.”

Q Is there not a way of just throwing all paper away and starting anew?
A “I’m afraid not. Clearly any changes require careful consideration and unfortunately it’s not advisable to just sweep paper off desks and empty filing cabinets into bins, as important information can be lost leading to legal and financial implications. Outsourcing data scanning, storage and destruction can help and that’s a good first step.”

Q Is a cultural change in a business necessary for more paperless working practices to become established?
A “Quite possibly; and it’s clear the journey from purely physical paper records to the digital future may take longer than many people expect; but seeking advice from experts can help make the transition smoother. Without careful understanding of how a business and the documents and records within it currently work, and a clear view of the future goal, mistakes are likely to be made. So it’s not just about a change of culture but about taking advice too.”

Q So to sum up, do you think a totally paperless office environment will ever be possible?
A “The answer is it’s ‘unlikely’. The concept of the "paperless" office may never become a reality, but steps can be taken to work towards a "less paper" office. The dream of going paperless is still just that for many organisations — but that doesn’t mean that progress has not been made.”