A paperless office is a work environment that operates with most or all of its documents in digital form, stored electronically and easily accessed. It's based on the idea that many of formerly paper-based functions of traditional offices have become digitized. As computers became ubiquitous in the Western work environment, opinion leaders began to envision a workplace where conducting business digitally would not only streamline the business process, but would also largely eliminate the need for paper.
The basic idea underlying the paperless office is that, in most cases and in most industries, documents don't need to be printed. Contracts, for instance, can be created in one office, emailed to the parties and signed electronically, with each party provided a certified copy of the signed document. Blueprints can be stored and accessed online, with construction progress tracked digitally. Restaurants can streamline their operations and minimize errors by digitizing their food ordering systems. Most businesses conduct at least some of their financial transactions electronically.
In addition to simply reducing the volume of paper in the workplace, a significant advantage of digitizing documents is that the most recent version is instantly available to everyone. Access to accurate, up-to-date information is especially crucial in healthcare, where patient records have traditionally been maintained in paper files in various locations. The potential for error is substantial when depending on such files. Some patients, however, carry their pertinent medical data on a digital storage device that is updated whenever they visit a healthcare professional. These devices, mirrored by records maintained in a central database, are a major contribution toward reducing healthcare professionals' reliance on paper and vulnerability to the problems associated with it.
Compared to digitized records, paper has many drawbacks. Paper documents require a significant amount of staff time for handling — creating documents, then storing and retrieving them. Mailing adds another layer of time and money to paper handling. Paper documents must also be stored, whether alphabetically or by date of creation, and the only way to retrieve a paper document is by knowing how it was stored. In addition, managers are acutely aware that a misfiled document is often a lost document.
One of the most significant obstacles to the paperless office is the human factor — that is, most businesses have traditionally been paper-oriented, and it's difficult to change old habits. For example, many electronic documents are frequently printed and filed simply as a matter of routine. In addition, the increasing sophistication and capability of printers and copying machines makes it possible to print documents of a quality that was previously available only from commercial printers, but at a fraction of their cost. This led to a worldwide printing frenzy; from the time the paperless office was first articulated until 2000, it's estimated that the global output of paper documents of all sorts doubled. Since then, however, the output has leveled off and subsequently started to decline.
Implementation of paperless offices might produce desirable environmental benefits. The production of paper contributes both to deforestation and pollution, in addition to the production of greenhouse gases said to exacerbate global warming. In addition, the inks used in the production of documents themselves can contain harmful components which, in volume, also have an adverse impact on the environment.
Many archives can be digitized, and enterprises that implement paperless programs include scanning of existing paper records as part of those programs. Many companies have found that they've been storing many paper records they don't need, such as copies of monthly statements sent to customers. In addition to reducing the volume of stored paper documents, organizations that have undergone digitization programs have been able to rededicate space to purposes other than document storage.