Death to Paper!

A short while ago, the chief executive officer of one of our clients gave my firm the mandate to eliminate 100 percent of paper usage from the company’s office environment. It was the second such directive my firm received from a client within the expanse of a few days.

Companies’ move toward a paperless office isn’t new. Three years ago I wrote a piece on the shrinking need for file cabinets, and in 2015, I revisited the issue with a piece on upcoming trends. What is new, however, is that it’s no longer enough to reduce paper usage. Now the ideal is to eliminate it all together.

Consider the biggest influences of modern office design: mobile technology and high connectivity, especially as they relate to the newest workforce, Generation Z, whose digital savvy and hyper-connectivity rival even that of their tech-smart predecessor, the millennial crowd (a.k.a., Generation Y). As Martin Harrison wrote for Huge, Gen Zers are known to juggle up to five screens at a time, assessing the worthiness of what they read in eight short seconds. And, with companies focused on productivity, including shortened turnaround times and the employee experience—such as flexible work hours and sustainability—it’s no wonder that workplaces centered on a digital work ethic are on the rise.

Indeed, perks like an in-office café and fitness center still are appreciated, even expected in some cases, but they’re only part of the modern business culture. Policy changes aimed at supporting virtual productivity and connectivity aren’t only management-backed; they’re appreciated by employees. Even some traditionally conservative companies, such as law firms, are taking steps, slow that they may be, toward the advantages of digital record-keeping.

As for the office environment, paperless practices mean file cabinets and copy rooms are no longer necessary and that storage areas can be reduced in size. Instead, companies might look at having a central Information Technology desk with dedicated personnel that goes beyond their conventional role of fixing tech-related issues to helping people solve their computer and connectivity problems, themselves.

As Dan Schawbel’s recent article in Forbes noted, tech use outside the office is making its way into it, with investments in virtual reality hardware and those that use it on the rise.

Beyond that, office designs that support digital business practices dictate how a company operates, including floor plans, furnishings and equipment that align with mobile practices, such as shared workstations, digital file storage, document scanning and Smartboard presentations that are automatically saved—marked up, notations and all—and sent to key personnel. In the paperless office, documents are shared digitally with a zip or USB drive.

Everyone knows offices are headed for fully paperless operations, even as they continue to reduce their use of physical documents. Yet maximizing virtual benefits requires compliance and perspective. By educating employees with IT practices staff members become empowered to use the initiatives to their full advantage while increasing productivity. Providing a design that highlights this and supports the use of new technology will drive engagement and promote mobility. However, it is important to continue educating employees throughout the process to ensure best practices. A walk through of the new spaces to show how they can be used on a daily basis can help with the success of these initiatives.

After all, even those who prefer paper will acquiesce in time. Paper train tickets, even passports, aren’t needed anymore. There are apps for both, and a whole lot more.