10 smart ways to pursue the holy grail of a paperless office

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Strategy & Leadership,Technology] October 24, 2017

The path towards a paperless office has been bumpy for businesses around the world, but intelligent technology adoption and new tools offer the ability to significantly reduce the use of paper with law firms, writes Mark Andrews.

For as long as I have been in the legal sector, the discussion about paperless offices has been going on.

As new technologies come to the fore, they are often accompanied by claims about how these innovations will allow lawyers to work with minimal need for hard copy. Revamps in office design have led to significant reductions in available on-site storage, while changes in regulations, along with tools enabling digital signatures, have significantly cut the need to print. Furthermore, technologies such as follow-me or follow-you* printing have allowed firms to significantly cut the volume of unclaimed printing.

The concept of a paperless office was written about in Business Week in 1975 when it was stated that the answers to a series of complex questions held the key to how soon and achievable the paperless office might be: “Can desktop terminals be made ‘friendly’ enough so that executives will use them? Should a lot of powerful machines be moved together with central libraries and thus break up traditional working relationships? Will office systems get needed computer power by depending on the machines already in EDP (electronic data processing) centres doing accounting and financial work?”

It is interesting to reflect that those questions are not all that different to some of the questions that have been posed since 1975 – the common theme being the focus on what technology could do. The second question is perhaps the most interesting as it points to the importance of physical change as well as technological change. It is physical change that I suggest is driving the paper trends of today.

Are we there yet?

Anecdotally, the legal profession does seem to be using less paper on a per capita basis, but it is certainly not at the paperless point. Technology has matured enormously since 1975, but I suspect the authors of the Business Week article would be somewhat disappointed to discover that, seemingly, the move towards reducing paper is very loosely, if at all, correlated with the maturity of technology.

In my view there is a far stronger correlation between paper usage and the move to more flexible workspaces, greater use of open-plan offices and a range of flexible work approaches. In fact, I think it fair to say it is causation rather than correlation in terms of the impact of office design on paper usage. There is a further connection between technology consumerisation and less paper – as people have turned more and more to screens rather than paper, this has translated into the work environment. We can look, for example, at the decline of print media as a portent for where we are heading in terms of paper use in the office environment.

Do we need to get there?

Let us define ‘there’ as being an ongoing trend towards using less paper, rather than being completely paperless. In any case, there are many good reasons why firms should strive to limit their reliance on paper. They include:

  • security: a wider range of controls can be applied to electronic documents than paper documents. Paper documents are obviously binary in that you either have access or you do not. Electronic documents allow a range of access and security settings.
  • audits: paper does not come with the ability to maintain usage logs and trace back and audit changes.
  • efficiency: it is faster to search for and retrieve documents electronically
  • costs: the price of electronic storage is far lower than the total cost of paper, given it is not just the paper but the printing and storage costs.
  • the environment: clearly using less toner, paper and other print resources is beneficial for the environment. Reducing the size of your printer fleet is also a positive from an environmental perspective.

What can you do?

There are some practical actions and ideas firms can consider if they hope to use less paper.

1. Start with some measurement

As unglamorous as it may seem, begin with a storage audit. This will tell you how many lineal metres you are using for paper storage. I would suggest engaging a third party to do this. In briefing them, ensure they not only cover the obvious offsite and onsite shared storage of paper, but also to look at people’s desks and offices along with the piles of unclaimed printouts that can often be a feature in firms. Once you have the results of the audit, convert the lineal metre number into something more evocative such as two geographic points your storage would stretch between, or the number of trees required to produce that volume of paper.

Another interesting exercise is to consider the cost of storing the paper versus the electronic storage cost of the files required to produce that volume of paper. You will be able to generate a fairly compelling case to drive initiatives that lead to less paper use.

2. Know the regulations

Ensure you are clear on regulations, both in terms of what needs to be in paper form and for how long you need to keep material. When possible, for those in private practice, return original documents to your clients rather than retaining them. You may well find that not everyone in your firm or legal department has the same understanding of regulatory environments around hard copy material, so some education and awareness-raising will be helpful.

3. Policy and communication

Ensure you have a policy about hard-copy and electronic filing and that this policy is promoted. The policy provides a reference point to encourage those that may still have doubts about electronic filing (and there are some) to adopt the habit. The policy also serves as a statement of intent about using less paper.

4. Technology measures

While I have made the point that technology in itself is probably not the major driver of less paper, there is no doubt that some technology tools are helpful. They include:

  • Electronic filing – having an effective electronic filing system is one of the keys to reducing paper consumption. This does not have to be an overly complex system, but you need a consistent approach.
  • Scan and file – using devices with rapid scanning facilities coupled with the ability to file directly from the scan, or at least making it easy to send the scans to your email, is important in the quest for less paper. Of course, it is always important to consider from where the hard copy was produced as it is often interesting to discover that we are scanning things that already exist in electronic form.
  • Optical character recognition (OCR) and matching – making use of OCR where key data in a document is identified and used to assist in matching the document to a client or matter can significantly reduce the administrative burden of converting hard-copy material to soft copy.
  • Online expense processing – allowing expense claims to be made through the use of photos and an app can also reduce paper volumes.
  • Follow-me and follow-you printing – requiring people to log in (for example, using their security pass) in order to release printing from a device is a key way to reduce paper use. It also provides the benefit of allowing printing from any device and improves security, particularly where ethical walls may be in place. There is significant cultural change required to adopt follow-me/follow-you printing as people will naturally resist the need to wait at a printer while their job comes out, but given page printing rates of 55-85 pages per minute these days the wait time is rarely long.

5. Work studies

Taking time to observe the way people work and, in particular, how they use paper is crucial. Providing dual monitors and tablet technology can assist in reducing paper, but people need guidance in making a shift to less paper usage. There may also be some things where paper remains the better alternative – at least given existing available technologies. Do not be afraid to leave some areas as paper based.

6. Move or replan space

Changing premises or replanning the use of space are significant undertakings, but such moves contribute markedly to creating environments that use less paper. New space allows you to reduce available storage and the number of printers, but more significantly it provides a means to prompt changes to work habits. The legal sector in Australia is one of the more progressive on a global scale. Australia has been faster to adopt open-plan and hybrid space, whereas some other jurisdictions are still grappling with whether a single office size for partners and associates is achievable. There is no doubt that the real advances in paper reduction have come from many of the office moves in recent years and, in particular, the adoption of more open space.

7. Security controls

The key to electronic storage and filing is having effective security controls. Consider whether you should adopt an open or closed security policy – that is, should documents by secured by default or not. Ensure that people are aware of how to apply security to documents and that you establish some standards around document security.

8. Backup

It goes without saying that effective backup is crucial with any initiatives designed to use less paper. You must have confidence that you can recover documents in case of a disaster and this means you at least need offsite backup.

9. Cloud usage

The cloud can provide a cost-effective way to cut paper use, but it does require a clear understanding of data security along with any requirements in terms of data protection and sovereignty. It is certainly far simpler for locally focused firms and legal departments to consider cloud solutions compared with global firms which may face client- or country-based restrictions on cloud usage.

10. Digital signatures

Removing the need for physical signatures by adopting digital-signing technology is another consideration for driving less paper usage. The paradigm of printing long documents in duplicate and triplicate with physical signatures on every page is changing. Keeping abreast of both technologies in this space, as well as regulatory approaches, is important.

I have really only scratched the surface of this topic. I would hope that if you have not started on the less-paper trend there might be some ideas you can take from this article. In 1975, some people thought the paperless office was imminent. Forty-two years later, the trend towards using less paper is clearly with us and it certainly seems that it will not take another 42 years before we are paperless or very close to it.

Mark Andrews is Director – Global IT Service Delivery at Baker McKenzie. He has a varied background, including time in the public and private sectors, along with considerable professional services experience. He has held roles ranging from HR to management consulting and has previously been a guest lecturer as part of University of Technology, Sydney’s Executive MBA program.

* Follow-me or follow-you printing refers to a process whereby users print to a single virtual queue and then go to a print release station and get their print job. Authentication is required, which increases document security, and it also cuts down on abandoned documents being left at the printer (and potentially printed again at another time).