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Back to the future: Living the myth of the paperless office Add to ...

It's official: The paperless office, predicted for more than 30 years, hasn't happened. Less paper? Today's offices use more. Paper use at home is skyrocketing too, and printer sales are way up. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

When a Business Week story in June 1975 touted the "paperless office" as the way of the future, pundits everywhere took the bait. After all, paper seemed so passé, so bland, so 1850.

John Maine, now a 30-year veteran of the paper industry and vice-president of American pulp and paper consulting firm RISI, admits he was as wide-eyed as anyone back then about the expected paperless revolution.

"I was one of the ones making those prognostications. Instead, we had very rapid growth in paper use back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. We actually started using more paper, because of technology demands for printing," Mr. Maine said.

But the tide is turning. While paper still reigns supreme, with North American office workers each using roughly 60 kilograms of copy paper per year, Mr. Maine's research shows paper use at offices peaked in 1999 and has subsided about 6 per cent since then.

Change is slow, but it is happening. The last frontier is the home office, where Mr. Main says increasing penetration of Internet access has fuelled a greater demand for printing. According to marketing information company NPD Group Canada, retail sales of inkjet printers in Canada are rising, up 7 per cent from last year, while sales of home laser printers, long seen as a market benchmark, are up more than 40 per cent in the same period. It's a trend that has been steadily on the increase for at least 10 years now, something which NPD technology director Darrel Rice says is proof that paper certainly isn't going down without a fight.

"I wouldn't say the paperless office is dead -- I think it just hasn't materialized as quickly as people thought it would," Mr. Rice said.

But in Saskatchewan, at the law office of Behiel, Munkler & Will, partner Aaron Behiel has started to turn the battle in favour of the digital camp.

The office in Humboldt, Sask., has taken 20,000 documents and files, scanned them into a digital format and placed them onto computer hard drives. The files are essentially just photographic copies -- they can't be manipulated at all -- but the system saves time and is a step toward freeing the company of the paper addiction afflicting most legal offices.

Mr. Behiel has also converted many document processes -- such as the filling out of land survey forms, wills and various tax templates -- to an electronic format, speeding up those procedures and allowing lawyers to handle larger case loads and increasing overall revenue.

Going digital has been a big step for the 60-year-old law firm, but Mr. Behiel believes his firm's success is setting a good example for the rest of the law industry.

"A lot of law firms are now starting to go this route, and it never used to be that way. I would like to see the legal profession move even further to reduce paper," he said.

Still, the changes are deliberately small in an industry Mr. Behiel says is still not quite ready to abandon paper. "A law office wastes so much paper, but I don't see paper use disappearing. The fact of the world is people still want that hard copy in their hands, and in the legal world we need that original signature."

Most clients don't even want to see e-mailed documents but rather want a copy mailed to them, he says.

"Even if I e-mail documents to people, they'll just print up a copy on their end, so, really, no paper is saved."

While Mr. Behiel's practice is trying to wean itself off of paper gradually, Uptown Health Centre, a walk-in clinic in Toronto's suburb of Richmond Hill, is trying to do it cold turkey. Just as in the legal profession, however, Uptown director Moe Jiwan discovered that old habits in health care are hard to break.

"One of the things we're really good at in health care is creating a lot of paper. Each report is followed by another report that's followed by another report, and it's become a disease that affects everything health care touches," Mr. Jiwan said.

Shortly after opening in 2003, Uptown was swamped with paper from files, faxes and prescriptions and caught in a deadly spiral of spending tens of thousands of dollars to maintain and accumulate yet more paper.

"We were getting an average of 300 faxes a day, five days a week. We were burning a lot of paper, a lot of toner and buying a fax machine every year because it would just die on us. Doctors were spending almost as much time shuffling paper as they were treating patients. That was a big deal for us -- we wanted to move forward," he said.

In an effort to cure Uptown of its paper dependency, Mr. Jiwan decided to overhaul the clinic's entire patient record system, to dramatic results. In a year, Uptown has managed to convert thousands of patient records from dusty, yellowed pages to the metaphysical vapour of digital ones and zeroes. Tall stacks of cream-coloured folders with alphabetized stickers, more expensive to get rid of than to simply leave alone, now exist only as a sort of paper-age museum behind Uptown's reception desk.

Most patient files have migrated to a wireless computer network, stored on hard drives at a Mississauga holding centre and protected by powerful encryption software with passwords that change hourly. Doctors at Uptown also use laptop computers instead of paper forms to record patient information.

Forget hand-scrawled, hieroglyphic prescriptions, too. Patients at Uptown can have their drug orders digitally signed by their doctor and printed or e-mailed directly to the pharmacy, although Mr. Jiwan admits that, for now, many wary pharmacies still refuse to honour e-mailed prescriptions. He plans to eventually connect Uptown's fax machines directly to the network, eliminating paper faxes altogether.

It's as close an effort to the true paperless office as you're likely to see, and Mr. Jiwan says Uptown's operating bills have dropped from between $16,000 and $20,000 a year to just $8,000 as a result. The savings come in the cost of paper, toner, fax machines and lost time -- something he says even larger, more established businesses could appreciate.

"We had to do something because we were wasting a lot of money and resources on moving paper from one end of the office to the other. Charts were going from a doctor's office to the front desk, to the filing room, back to the doctor. It's amazing how paper travels kilometres within an office," Mr. Jiwan said.

For Mr. Maine, even though he remains reserved about the future of paper in the workplace, stories like Uptown's are a sign of the times.

"The culture in the office is starting to change. We're starting to see huge advances in office transactions that are done completely electronically. But the paperless office is still something that I think will not be present in our lifetimes," he said.

***

Paper cuts

Reducing paper use can have an impact on your bottom line, no matter what size your business is. Here are some tips for how to start:

Make use of the computer network already in place at the office. A single sheet of paper can only be in one place at one time (or needs to be copied, for even more wasted paper) while a computer file can be accessed by several people simultaneously. Scan important documents digitally and allow privileged users to access them via password on the office network.

Connect your fax machine directly to your network to receive and save faxes digitally instead of having them printed out. With nothing physical to pick up and file away and no ink or paper needed to produce it, you'll save time and money.

With thousands of data software vendors hawking data management programs, make sure to pick one that offers the right blend of security, ease of use and effectiveness for your business. Most vendors offer a 30-day free trial of their software, so feel free to check out a program before you commit.

Paper's raison d'être has always been simple, easy transport of information. Fight back by replacing employees' stationary desktop clunkers with laptops. You'll enable them to have the same mobility of data they would get with paper, but with the added benefit of being able to plug that information directly into a projector for presentations, e-mail it out, or manipulate it instantly during a meeting. Bringing laptops to the boardroom means much less printing of documents that will just get trashed five minutes later.

Save computer memory by using document-scanning software that offers filtering. Filtering is a process by which all the extraneous dots and black marks that tend to appear in scanned documents are removed from documents. Those little specks and dark spots eat memory and using a filter can save anywhere from 20 to 50 per cent of computer memory. Toronto's Uptown Health Centre uses document capture software from Kofax that includes filtering.

Get rid of paper-wasting habits such as printing out correspondence e-mails or binding enormous tomes of reports. "I want it on my desk by Monday," should become "I want it in my e-mail by Sunday night."

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