It’s nearly half a century since the phrase ‘paperless office’ was first coined, yet as the demand for paper grows with every year that passes, one might be forgiven for thinking that this is still a distant dream. But was the idea ever feasible? Can offices ever be entirely electronic?

One significant reason they cannot, relates to the regulatory demands of some sectors such as law and accountancy. Although government bodies such as HMRC may routinely request electronic files and some courts will accept electronic documents, both sectors still sometimes need to rely on the availability of a physical paper trail to prove that the documents haven’t been altered in any way.

Additionally, many companies depend on communication with customers and other businesses in their sector. A paperless office assumes that both sender and recipient of documents have compatible software. Until everyone in a communication chain has compatible file formats, paper will remain the key means of documentation.

Whilst we do have access to advanced software packages, what we don’t yet have is universal standards, and it’s still commonplace to find different versions of the same system unable to remain compatible.

Owing to the fact that the workplace is made up of those who were born and educated in very different technological eras, it can lead to a skills gap that inevitably requires correcting through training. Those completing their GCSE exams this year in England would have been born around the year 2000, and wouldn’t be able to relate to a world without smartphones. Talking about Betamax or black and white television would lead to a blank stare as High Definition smart TVs are becoming unremarkable.

Going paperless requires architectural changes in a company’s communication structure that are time-consuming and costly to make, even if the long-term benefits are beyond dispute. It also involves the re-skilling of the workforce and the buy-in of each and every member of staff, some of whom may feel threatened by new ways of thinking and working collaboratively.

As the paperless office faces such significant challenges, it may be some time yet before it becomes the only way of working.

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