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Following several high-profile security breaches, including the unlawful extraction of personal data from TalkTalk customers by hackers, businesses are understandably concerned about the implications of relying on electronic data. However, these recent events should not discourage firms from continuing the transition to a paperless office. If correctly managed, the reduction of physical documents and automation of business processes can improve productivity, allow more efficient use of space, and drive significant business benefits.

Promotion of the paperless workplace is motivated by a desire to lessen a firm’s carbon footprint. The average employee is currently thought to use over 10,000 sheets of paper a year, a third of which is not recycled. Therefore, for many businesses, a renewed focus on reducing waste should be a priority.

This aside, eliminating the need for files to be stored on site can free up a large amount of space which can be utilised for more productive purposes. ‘Dead space’ previously taken up by boxes or filing cabinets can be transformed to house extra desks, a change that is of particular benefit as office rents continue to rise across the UK. In addition, old storage rooms can be adapted to become employee break rooms or meeting rooms. This is often a more efficient use of square footage, as providing staff with an environment where they can take time away from the working day increases concentration, productivity and wellbeing.

In some cases, the initial investment required to facilitate the paperless office can act as a deterrent. For electronic data to be stored, shared and analysed, businesses need to install sufficient hardware, software, security systems and provide training programmes for employees. However, while the financial outlay may seem considerable at first, money is often saved in the long run. Files are easier to locate and processes are often streamlined through automation, reducing time invested by staff and the scope for human error.

The issue of security should be paramount when negotiating the move to a paperless office. While important documents can be locked away in a safe or filing cabinet, electronic documents can be shared inconspicuously via email and files downloaded and removed via a USB or external hard drive. However, these risks, along with the access of confidential data by hackers, can be significantly reduced. Organisations can combat against these problems and prevent access to sensitive documents via password protection, while the business’ online security and firewall should be regularly evaluated to detect any weaknesses. The electronic back-up of data and storage of documents via cloud computing removes many of the business continuity issues surrounding equipment breakage, flood damage or fire, as files can be easily recovered.

While the benefits of going paperless are numerous, there is an argument that removing traditional ways of working completely can be detrimental. In most offices, there will still be the need for paper and printing in at least some capacity. Here, businesses should concentrate on reducing waste and ensuring that supplies are both sustainably sourced and recycled after use. Simply by printing double-sided and asking staff to confirm they would like to print the entirety of documents over 10 pages (i.e. can some sections be omitted from print) can go a long way in limiting paper consumption.

The key to businesses successfully adopting a paperless approach hinges on the ability to patiently and effectively smooth the transition from the physical to the electronic. Changes cannot happen overnight - any new systems should be trialled and gradually introduced as the other is phased out, allowing staff to get to grips with new processes. The notion of a truly paperless office can at times seem unrealistic and unachievable due to a resistance from staff and leaders to move forward. However, businesses must identify the areas where they can act to reduce undue waste, while also acknowledging that a degree of printing and manual writing may still be required for work to be completed efficiently. In this instance, balancing innovation, training, waste reduction and sustainability is vital.

By Nigel Crunden, business specialist at Office Depot