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game changer

Jamie Garratt, at Idea Rebel’s Vancouver office, says his company is so adamant about staying paperless that he won’t deal with prospective clients that insist on signing hard copies of contracts. ‘Nine times out 10 it’s no problem,’ the president says. ‘But for that one person that says no, we will turn down the business.’Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail

When Jamie Garratt started Idea Rebel, a Vancouver-based digital agency in 2008, there was one piece of technology he refused to have in his office: a printer. He came from a company where everyone printed everything and he didn't want that much waste.

After thinking more about it, he realized he didn't want any waste at all. Not only would there be no printers, but his new company wouldn't provide notepads or pieces of paper for designers to draw out ideas. Even Starbucks cups were banned.

"There's just so much waste," the company's president and chief executive officer says. "We don't want to have a garbage filled with 100 cups a day."

Idea Rebel is a truly paperless office. Pay stubs are e-mailed to employees, notes are taken on tablet devices and whiteboards get heavy use. Designers are allowed to bring in a pad of paper, but they have to take them home with them at the end of each day.

He wanted to go paperless, he says, because his business is all about creating digital products, such as applications, websites and social media tools. Using paper is the antithesis of his company's core values.

Still, it's not easy to be a no-paper business. His designer pushed back when he told her she couldn't print out her layouts. "She liked to print out big [copies] and put them on the wall and get inspiration," he says. It took a few months, but she got used to looking at everything on a screen.

Mr. Garratt says that going paperless would have been impossible a decade ago and it was even difficult five years ago, when he started the business. It's thanks to technology, though, that he's been able to be free of paper for this long.

Almost all of his 30 full-time staff members have two computer screens and an iPad at their desks. Designers get 27-inch monitors, while everyone else gets 21 inchers. The screens give everyone plenty of space to read and edit various documents, he says, while the iPad allows employees to take notes during meetings.

One challenge early on was finding software that enabled on-screen signatures. Just because he's paperless doesn't mean the old ways of doing business – such as putting your John Hancock on contracts – has changed. At first, the staff would have to place signatures on documents with Photoshop. It was cumbersome, taking about five minutes a document to complete.

They eventually started using SignEasy, a document-signing app for Apple and Android devices that allowed them to sign contracts from an iPad or iPhone. Now, the process is even faster. The Mac Preview program allows people to import digital signatures. The process, he says, is nearly as fast as actually signing a piece of paper.

Answering requests for proposals from clients has also caused some problems. Most potential clients want physical copies of a proposal along with a digital version. Under no circumstances will they provide a print out, he says. Files are sent via e-mail or put on the cloud-based file storage and sharing site Dropbox. If the company must have paper copies, Idea Rebel will take a pass on the business.

"Nine times out 10 it's no problem," he says. "But for that one person that says no, we will turn down the business. It's often a government RFP [request for proposal] where they won't do only digital."

While it might seem like only a small company with just a few employees can go paperless, even multinationals are using technology to reduce paper waste. Accenture, a global consulting firm with thousands of employees around the world, strongly recommends that its staff use as little paper as possible.

The company does have printers, and it still does use a lot of paper, but it's keeping track of how much waste is created. "We know who prints and we provide reports back to them saying, 'You printed X number of paper copies this month and this represents a carbon footprint of Y," says Nicholas Bayley, managing director of information technology strategy at Accenture Canada.

It has been able to cut down on a lot of paper by making use of a variety of collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Lync, a video conferencing and instant messaging tool. The program allows people to not only see each other face-to-face via webcam, but it also lets staff share and edit documents in real-time.

In the past, documents would need to be printed and possibly sent by courier to other locations, then edits to each paper would have to be retyped on the file that's saved on the computer. Now changes can be made in an instant. "This program really advances the discussion.

A lot of Accenture's staff takes notes on an iPad. When it's time to present those scribbles, e-mails or presentations, all someone has to do is plug the tablet into a computer, which is attached a large screen.

Part of the reason why both Accenture and Idea Rebel do this is because they want to be more friendly to the environment. But a paperless office also saves some money and, more importantly they say, it helps them work more efficiently.

"It's unbelievable how fast things move," says Mr. Garratt, who points out that he uses Basecamp to collaborate with co-workers and clients. "When a document is finished it gets posted and the client can see it within seconds and make revisions just as quickly. It would take weeks if we had to print and show them everything."

While his paperless office is running smoothly now, Mr. Garratt will continue adopting new technology to make the process even easier. "We're always looking at ways to improve," he says. "It's the era of easy technology and we're taking advantage."

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