Paperless Office

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paperless office by slug signorino

A paperless office is a work environment in which the use of paper is eliminated or greatly reduced by converting documents into digital form. Proponents claim that ‘going paperless’ can save money, boost productivity, save space, make documentation and information sharing easier, keep personal information more secure, and help the environment. The concept can be extended to communications outside the office as well.

Traditional offices have paper-based filing systems, which may include filing cabinets, folders, shelves, microfiche systems, and drawing cabinets, all of which require maintenance, equipment, considerable space, and are resource-intensive. In contrast, a paperless office could simply have a desk, chair, and computer (with a modest amount of local or network storage), and all of the information would be stored in digital form. Speech recognition and speech synthesis could also be used to facilitate the storage of information digitally.

Once computer data is printed on paper, it becomes out-of-sync with computer database updates. Paper is difficult to search and arrange in multiple sort arrangements, and similar paper data stored in multiple locations is often difficult and costly to track and update. A paperless office would have a single-source collection point for distributed database updates, and a publish-subscribe system. However, some argue that paper will always have a place because it affords different uses than screens.

The ‘paperless office’ was a publicist’s slogan, intended to describe the office of the future. It was facilitated by the popularization of video display computer terminals like the 1964 IBM 2260. An early prediction of the paperless office was made in a 1975 ‘Business Week’ article. The idea was that office automation would make paper redundant for routine tasks such as record-keeping and bookkeeping, and it came to prominence with the introduction of the personal computer. While the prediction of a PC on every desk was remarkably prophetic, the ‘paperless office’ was not. Improvements in printers and photocopiers have made it much easier to reproduce documents in bulk, causing the worldwide use of office paper to more than double from 1980 to 2000. However, since then the use of office paper has leveled off and is now decreasing, which has been attributed to a generation shift; younger people are believed to be less inclined to print out documents, and more inclined to read them on a full-color interactive display screen.

According to the EPA, the average office worker generates approximately two pounds of paper and paperboard products each day. Paper product manufacturing contributes significantly to deforestation and man-made climate change, and produces greenhouse gases. According to the American Forest & Paper Association (a trade lobby), paper manufacturing is the third largest user of fossil fuels worldwide. Although measures such as recycling and using tree-free paper can help reduce the environmental impact of paper, most paper still ends up in landfills. Paper production also leads to air pollution, as paper manufacturing releases nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide (major contributors to acid rain) and carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas). Waste water discharged from pulp and paper mills contains solids, nutrients, and dissolved organic matter that are classified as pollutants. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can cause or exacerbate eutrophication of fresh water bodies.

Printing inks and toners are very expensive and use environment-damaging volatile organic compounds, heavy metals and non-renewable oils, although standards for the amount of heavy metals in ink have been set by some regulatory bodies. Additionally, deinking recycled paper pulp results in a waste slurry, sometimes weighing 22% of the weight of the recycled wastepaper, which may go to landfills.

The need for paper is gradually being eliminated by computerized systems, such as replacing index cards and rolodexes with databases, typed letters and faxes with email, and reference books with wikis. Another way to eliminate paper is to automate paper-based processes that rely on forms, applications and surveys to capture and share data. This method is referred to as ‘electronic forms’ or e-forms and is typically accomplished by using existing print-perfect documents in electronic format to allow for pre-filling of existing data, capturing data manually entered online by end-users, providing secure methods to submit form data to processing systems, and digitally signing the electronic documents without printing.

One of the main issues that has kept companies from adopting paperwork automation is difficulty capturing digital signatures in a cost-effective and compliant manner. The E-Sign Act of 2000 in the United States provided that a document cannot be rejected on the basis of an electronic signature and required all companies to accept digital signatures on documents. Today there are sufficient cost-effective options available, including solutions that do not require end-users to purchase hardware or software.

Another key aspect of the paperless office philosophy is the conversion of paper documents, photos, engineering plans, microfiche and all the other paper based systems to digital documents. Technologies that may be used for this include scanners, digital mail solutions, book copiers, wide format scanners (for engineering drawings), microfiche scanners, fax to PDF conversion, online post offices, multifunction printers and document management systems. Each of these technologies uses software that converts the raster formats (bitmaps) into other forms depending on need. Generally, they involve some form of image compression technology that produces smaller raster images or use optical character recognition (OCR) to convert a document into text. A combination of OCR and raster is used to enable search functions while maintaining the original form of the document.

An issue faced by those wishing to take the paperless philosophy to the limit has been copyright laws. These laws may restrict the transfer of documents protected by copyright from one medium to another, such as converting books to electronic format. Also, as awareness of identity theft and data breaches became more widespread, new laws and regulations were enacted, requiring companies that manage or store personally identifiable information to take proper care of those documents.

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