With companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook leading innovation in business techniques, from working environments to revenue streams, it’s no surprise that the trend towards adopting as much tech as possible in businesses of all sizes is growing year on year.
Much of that trend is important, and even necessary, in today’s environment – a business without a well-maintained social media presence or an understanding of the latest networking tools will struggle to fully connect with both its customers and its competitors.
But there is a growing danger that the zeal with which some businesses are shifting their work onto new technologies doesn’t always help, and can sometimes even hinder.
Nowhere is this contradiction more apparent than in the quest for a ‘paperless’ office. Partly fuelled by evermore reliable and diverse digital tools, and partly fueled by misguided preconceptions about paper. Here is a breakdown of the pros and cons of each:
Let’s start with the biggest decision-factor for any business: Cost. Digital seems like the clear winner here, for the simple reason that being a physical medium, paper costs money. So do printers, ink cartridges, and other stationary needed for a busy, paper-based office (paperclips, stables, writing and organization equipment).
This is one area digital has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. Suites like Google docs and Libreoffice have become an easy and effective replacements for the expensive MS Office, and there is an increasing amount of free (or at least very cheap) powerful software available to replace previously expensive tools.
Image editors, database tools, audio and media software; there isn’t much that you cannot do for free on the internet anymore. Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that printing doesn’t have to cost the world either, and effective print management can make it negligibly cheap and organized.
This is an area that has been filled with a lot of misguided information in recent years. As one of the primary reasons people are going digital is the misconception that it is greener and more sustainable.
In actual fact, facts and figures show the opposite, and sustainability organizations such as the ISC have come up with the same conclusions in their research.
Here are some stats: 11% of cut trees are used by the paper industry, 60% of energy used to convert these trees is provided by on-site renewable energy, it is estimated that nearly 70% of paper used in some areas has been recycled, and the paper industry plants three times more trees than it cuts.
But as wrong as the commonly-held notions on how green paper are, there are more so on how sustainable computers and other devices are. Aside from huge power usage (the average person uses nearly two and half times more power on a single computer, than the power needed to produce all the paper they would need in a year), there is also the question of the manufacture of such devices.
A simple tablet, for instance, not only creates substantial amounts of carbon dioxide in its manufacture, but creates non-biodegradable waste during the process, and will inevitably use rare metals gained from shady mining practices in third-world countries (and there are still questions over production conditions in Asia).
E-waste is also becoming an out-of-control problem with the exponential proliferation of these devices, their quick turnover, and the lack of any foreseeable solution.
Workflow and Creativity
This is a big point that is quite subjective to the kind of business and work that you perform. As a designer, there are certain things I find far more easily done with computers, such as three-dimensional modelling, colour-alterations, and image collation. Though the same is true for paper, and tasks like brainstorming, detailed images, and collaboration.
It is here that I think there is a fine balance to be struck, and where over-focusing in either direction is a common mistake with businesses. Nobody should be missing out on the efficiency benefits of certain digital tools, and indeed, if you are not currently using some kind of online platform for sharing and organising documents, you are being left behind.
But there is also a place for paper, which studies have shown helps people read faster, create less fatigue and eyestrain, and enable people to engage with content in far more thoughtful and creative manner.
In an ideal world, each and every employee would be tech-savvy and have the ability to work with all manner of mediums and tools. In reality, employees have strengths, weaknesses, and preferred modes of working.
Difficulties and issues regarding new tools, and the employees working with them, is still one of the most common problems I come across when working with varied businesses.
In a flat-out race, your shiny, new, expensively-acquired proofreading software may beat an admin with a pen and a stack of papers, but unless the tool can perform a task completely, or you have the personnel to fully utilize the tool, it’s worth questioning whether it is entirely necessary, or even more efficient when bearing in mind your other needs.
While it is impossible to create the ideal workforce, an ideal workplace – one which is adaptive, organized, and responsive – is entirely within most people’s reach, though it means accommodating people’s preferences, whether that’s working on a notepad or an iPad.
Overall, like many things to do with office and business management, the most effective approach lies somewhere in the middle. It’s often tempting to think we have an extreme solution, and revamp everything in a singular direction, and this is probably where a lot of the enthusiasm for going all paperless comes from, but taking this idea too far will ultimately hurt your business.
It’s great that we have plenty of new tools to play with, and its great that we can eradicate some of the annoyances and problems we’ve had with paper in the past, but let’s not go so far that we create annoyances and problems with tech simply because we can.
About the author: Johnny Peters has worked in design for over 12 years, from computer game UI to architectural features, and now freelances as a consultant for businesses all over the world. He is currently working on a book called ‘Sculpting Air: A History Of Musical Instrument Design’.