The Quest For The Paperless Office

PCs, e-mail, PDAs--these miraculous technologies were supposed to deliver us from the evils of paper use. What happened to the quest for the paperless office?
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the September 2000 issue of Subscribe »

"I can't budge it, boss," said the mover as he gave my filing cabinet the evil eye. "What do you have in there?"

"The ," I laughed under my breath. And it was a good thing the mover didn't hear me because he was noisily pulling out the drawers so they could be carried individually to the truck for transport to my new home. Otherwise, he might have angrily dropped the obese drawers on my foot because-quite plainly and, to my movers' backs, painfully-the paperless society hasn't happened. are everywhere, and for 20 years we've heard the paperless office was just 'round the bend, but, "We don't seem to be moving any closer to achieving the paperless office. My guess is we never will," says professional organizer Stephanie Winston, author of Getting Out From Under.

"We actually have more than we used to," adds organizer Barbara Hemphill, author of Taming the Paper Tiger at Work.

Yep, says the American Forest and Paper Association, which reports that from 1990 to 1998-the very years when the computer, the alleged key to paperlessness, became an office staple-annual consumption of paper rose from 80 million tons to 96 million tons in the United States.

We are drowning in paper-witness my backbreaking filing cabinet-and, says the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development (a Paris-based global research arm for world governments), in the United States, we each use about 730 pounds of the stuff in a year. Do the math: That's almost 14 pounds a week, two pounds a day.

There's a reason why, nowadays, our piles of paper seem to be growing, says Lisa Kanarek, author of Organizing Your Home Office For Success and's "Get Organized" columnist: "There now are more sources of information than ever before. We have faxes, e-mail, snail mail."

Then, too, the printer by your desktop gives you a remarkably cheap copier. For many years, I operated a home office without a copier-they were expensive and this was a easily sidestepped. But now we all have printers and that means we have the ability, at the touch of a button, to make multiple copies of everything that crosses our computer screen.

And make copies we do-of e-mail, Web sites, articles on the Web and lots more. The result? Sooner than we ever might have dreamed, we find the paper piles around us growing...and growing. "I own three printers now," says Joe Brancatelli, the frequent flying columnist for "There's all kinds of stuff the brings in that I would never have had access to [before]-and sometimes I print it out."

Sound familiar?

Robert McGarvey covers the Web-and plays with the latest cool gadgets-from his home office in Santa Rosa, California. Visit his Web page at

Going Paperless

Here's the big question: Could we go paperless if we wanted to? , paperless, what's the difference? asks Brancatelli: "I don't want to be all paper or all paperless. I want to be efficient."

Winston agrees: "You need to choose your tools and, sometimes, paper is the best tool."

Chew on this scenario. I talk with organizer Hemphill, and in the interview, I make a half-dozen pages of notes. I could make them on screen in Microsoft Word, but I'm not so swift a touch typist. So I scrawl them on paper, the old-fashioned way. Afterwards I could fire up the scanner and feed this material into my computer, but why? My scanner-a cheap, home model-is slow, and for files to be readable, they're huge. Scanning would take at least 15 minutes from start to finish, and soon scanned output would gobble up my hard drive. Sure, I could eliminate this paper, but that would put me well over the edge of tech-extremism.

Another plus with paper: "Some people feel better holding a piece of paper in their hands," says Winston. It's a peculiarity of human nature but it seems that even if our schedule is meticulously kept in a software program, we just feel better if we print it out.

Paper has value, in other words. Sometimes it's more efficient, often it leaves us feeling more secure, but still, what can we do to stop its malevolent multiplication to the malignant point where it breaks movers' backs, hogs an expanding share of our diminutive office spaces, and eats up an expanding share of our supplies' budget? "What we want to do isn't necessarily to eliminate paper but to tame it," says Hemphill, and that indeed is a goal we all can jump on.

The plain truth is, too much is definitely too much-so how can we cut back on our paper consumption? A real pro at this is Sam Greengard, a homebased business writer from Burbank, California, who says, "I generate almost zero paper. I got to this point in early 1999 when software tools advanced to the point where I thought a was completely feasible. Let me point out," Greengard, who is also the president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, adds, "that I haven't gone paperless to save tree-though that's a nice result-but to gain efficiency and speed."

What are Greengard's top tips for going paperless?

Junk your fax machine. "Use Jfax to send and receive faxes via e-mail," advises Greengard. Pay $12.50 monthly and you pick your own area code. A free version-with most of the strengths of Jfax except your area code is the luck of the draw-can be had at eFax. Either way, faxes come to you as e-mail attachments-and you print out only the ones you want hard copies of.

"Use iHarvest to collect and store Web pages, and it lets you search Web pages by key word," says Greengard. Note: iHarvest is a freebie archiving system for Web pages, and signing up takes only minutes.

"I just don't print and I try to avoid scribbling info down," says Greengard. "I create notes and tasks in Microsoft Outlook, and I use the Journal [a tool built into Outlook] to keep track of incoming calls." Whoosh, he eliminates the myriad little pieces of scratch paper that clutter most desks (and always get lost!).

"I use a Palm V for taking data on the go," says Greengard. That means there's no need for a paper organizer or printouts.

"I create invoices in Quicken, then use Adobe Acrobat to create an attachment I can e-mail to clients," says Greengard. This is the only one of his suggestions that involves any technical complexity-and it's not much, just using Acrobat to create a .pdf file that's viewable on any computer. This step also produces a real benefit, Greengard says. "Clients receive the invoice a few days sooner than if I mailed it to them, so I get paid faster.

"Doing these things lets me work faster," says Greengard. "It's a lot easier to find the information you need inside a computer."

My Way

Believe me, as I watched my movers' backs break, I took their pain as a wake-up call. And I personally resolved to cut back on my own . What steps did I take?

I switched all task and event planning from paper to Lotus Organizer. A big plus: It's now easy to rearrange tasks as client needs and priorities shift. Another plus: The data synchs readily with a Palm.

I stopped printing out e-mail, copies of correspondence, and even articles and columns that I write. Aren't I worried my drive will go kaput and I'll lose everything? Nope. I back up the works, online and effortlessly, at, for $14.95 a month. Seem like a high fee? Not compared to the cost of filing cabinets, paper and liniment for my movers' backs.

Which system is right? Know that when the will is there, we can cut way back on paper consumption. Maybe it won't be eliminated from our lives and maybe we shouldn't even want that, but with a little diligence, you'll see a giant drop in your personal paper usage. "The real key is finding what works for you," says Hemphill. "Your success depends on your ability to find what you need, when you need it, so you want a system that serves you and the way you work."

What's Hemphill's most important advice? "Whatever system you pick-and there are many ways to organize an office for efficiency-you have to stick with it."

Three Steps: When To Trash It

Want three steps that will bring you closer to paperlessness? Follow Kanarek's formula. Before keeping any piece of , ask yourself these questions:

Will I ever refer to this paper again?

If I toss it and subsequently find I need it, can I get it again?

What is the worst thing that could happen if I toss it and can't replace it but discover I need it?

"If you answer 'no,' 'yes' and 'nothing,' respectively, toss that piece of paper," says Kanarek.

The problem, of course, is that we just don't know the answers to these questions. We don't know if we'll need it again and we don't know how hard it would be to get it again, so we keep it. And plenty more like it. But listen up: The more paper you keep, the less potentially useful any piece becomes because you're that much less likely to ever find it.

"It takes real discipline to be organized," says Winston. "You've got to learn to be very discriminating about what you keep."

When You Should Use Paper

Want to get attention? Scoff at paperlessness and send a handwritten note, urges Mary Mitchell, etiquette columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Etiquette. "Now, more than ever, handwritten notes have impact," says Mitchell. " is cold; we're starved for real human contact, and a handwritten note draws positive attention."

Mull on that before you fire off a thank-you e-mail to the colleague who tipped you off to new marketing opportunities or the client who gave you a lucrative chunk of work. It may take a few seconds longer and will cost about $1 for and postage, but pull out a sheet of good stationery and put your pen to work. "That's a way to stand out," says Mitchell. Think about it: You probably have bunches of notes saved over the years that you've put in a folder. Recipients do that when the note hits their sweet spot. No need to overdo this. Notes can be short, just a few lines, but know that when you drop that envelope in the mailbox, you're making somebody's day.


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