The BBC is Wrong – The Paperless Office is Possible

Late last week the BBC posted a story on the paperless office.  Given the errors in the story, I’m not sure it’s reading, but I do want to direct your attention to the related video clip.

About half the clip was shot in the UK National Archives, and it covers digitization. I would embed it if I could, but that’s a no. You can find the clip here. (If you’re puzzled why an article about the paperless office would feature a detour to an archive, you’re not alone. I don’t understand it either.)

The topic of the article focused on how the paperless office was still beyond our grasp. As you can imagine, a paperless office is of particular importance to me, given how many of my posts cover digital content. Naturally I was a little disappointed to learn that the BBC thought that a paperless office was impossible.

Ten years ago, the tools for the paperless office were less commonplace. But now there are tablets, smartphones, laptops, high-speed wireless broadband, high capacity storage and many more.

But paper remains at the heart of our culture.

Microsoft Business is one of many companies which advises people wanting to become paperless, but it agrees that in practice this often means “less paper”.

When it was contacted and asked for an example of a company it has assisted to go “100% paperless”, it came back example-less.

Again, its own offices are not entirely without hard copies. But this appears to be true nearly across the board.

That’s funny; I found a paperless office without any effort. Mine. I generate no paper at all, and I can promise you that the last dozen things I printed were all shipping labels – and one boarding pass (the airline wouldn’t accept a digital boarding pass). I’ll admit to having a few paper bills on my desk as well as a couple checks, but that’s mainly because not everyone is willing or able to go to digital billing and payments.

But you don’t have to take me for an example; I have a better one. My mother remarked the other day that she was having an argument with her boss over whether it was possible to go paperless; in her last job she worked in a paperless office.  Every business process had gone digital, and aside from the few holdouts it was a paperless office.

That was in 2006; has anyone gone paperless even earlier than that?


image by khrawlings

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. monopole11 July, 2012

    Paperless is moderately easy until you have to interact with another party w/o the same system.
    It also is limited by the circle of trust you interact with.

    If you are dealing with a unified office in which everybody has the same editing software, and a tablet, things are easy. But, what happens when you need to give a diagram or a formatted bill of material to a carpenter or a landscaper? Are you going to loan him a tablet? Incoming packing slips and receipts start getting a bit complicated as well.

    The other issue is when you need to work with a multitude of documents at the same time. While I look forward to having multiple tablets coupled together (like PARC was doing in ’91 !) it’s not there yet.

    The “paperless” office is descriptive not prescriptive, just like the “PostPC” era. Many of the functions of paper are displaced. Good riddance to carbon paper and correct-o-type, but labels, signs, post-its and handouts are going to be paper for a long time to come.

    Paper excels at being the cheapest, most universal static medium around. In small quantities it beats the hell out of anything else. But when a dynamic medium or bulk medium is required digital solutions become much better.

    1. Jim T.11 July, 2012

      Well put, monopole. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t even know why “paperless” is considered to be the ideal by techies. Technology doesn’t always replace old ways, it merely supplements them. Often, the old fashioned way is simpler and more efficient.

      1. Nate Hoffelder12 July, 2012

        I don’t know that I would call it the ideal, but it is already here. And it’s fun to be on the cutting edge.

  2. Nate Hoffelder12 July, 2012

    BBC posted a behind the scenes clip which might interest everyone:

    1. Jim T.12 July, 2012

      I think the video proves the point that without paper, you are vulnerable to technology breakdowns.

      As far as I’m concerned, living without paper would be like living without the wheel. There are certainly ways to use technology to reduce paper, but the problem with electronic documents is that they don’t actually exist independent of the devices and power sources they’re dependent on. That’s their fatal flaw.

      1. Nate Hoffelder12 July, 2012

        But you’re already dependent on technology.

        They wouldn’t have been able to shoot the clip at all without a functioning camera, and you wouldn’t be able comment on it without a computer of some kind. In both cases you’d be out of luck without power, so i don’t see how going paperless would worsen the situation.

        1. Jim T.13 July, 2012

          I didn’t say I was dependent on technology. I said that paperless documents, unlike paper documents, are dependent on sustained and reliable technology in order to exist. By contrast, a paper document will continue to exist independently of the technology that created it long after the printing press it was made on is scrapped.

          Using this forum does not make me dependent on technology, it is merely a useful, but non-essential, communication tool. I can take it or leave it. I don’t expect this message to be significantly more permanent than a phone call.

          But I always print important documents created with my computer because the printed pages will greatly outlast my hard drive and even the digital back-up copies. And once printed, I no longer am dependent on the technology to keep the document secure.

          1. Nate Hoffelder17 July, 2012

            No, I was the one who said we were already dependent on technology.

  3. Peter12 July, 2012

    “I’ll admit to having a few paper bills on my desk as well as a couple checks, but that’s mainly because not everyone is willing or able to go to digital billing and payments.”

    Then you aren’t paperless.

    I kill a tree every day- and NONE of it gets recycled.

    That being said, I design landfill gas to energy systems, so I don’t exactly feel bad about landfilling all that paper. It’s round-a-bout solar energy.

    1. Nate Hoffelder12 July, 2012

      My last checkbook was printed in 1999, and I cannot control how other people generate and send paper.

  4. Edward A Crowley18 July, 2012

    This is an interesting article and string of commentary. We actually see several drivers of the paperless (or less paper) office including changes in the workforce, technology (oh yes.. the Ipad), and mobility. In fact, we have started a LinkedIn group around this very topic – Digital Workflow Transformation group. I encourage you to leave your thoughts and comments there also.

  5. Paul Johnson17 February, 2013

    We are a new firm and want to keep paper use to a minimum. As a law firm, we must have some hard copies (legal documents that require signatures, documents for courts, incoming documents from clients) but we use e-mail in preference to snail mail, send letters and other documents as attachments etc…
    The difficulties are with having to put together hard copy bundles for use in hearings and having to comply with requirements to store “client files” for at least 6 years after cases close.
    We’d be interested to know if any firm has managed to approach paperlessness. If so, how they overcome any issues with the Solicitors Regulation Authority and how they deal with the practical difficulties of handling multiple documents at once, when working on them. It is generally easier to have several paper documents strewn across a desk with some open on particular pages and other tagged with “post-it” notes, than flipping backwards and forwards on a device of any kind. Multiple devices aren’t practical, as the most I can manage at a time are a pc, laptop and phone/tablet and even that is difficult.
    Any ideas?

  6. chelsea potter8 April, 2014

    I think the BBC are wrong that the paperless office is a myth but i can understand why they were at the archives. I think you are right that the paperless office is possible but i think you are perhaps wrong with the suggestion that your office is completely possible.
    The paperless office struggles to be achieved because of a misconstrued definition. It doesn’t mean getting rid of paper completely; it means taking digital initiatives to move your records online. It doesn’t just apply to the office then; as it was initially intended as a document management solution, it applies to the archives.

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