Geertjan's Blog

  • September 9, 2007

Paperless Office: The Way of the Tiger

Geertjan Wielenga
Product Manager
Comments at the end of Paperless Office: One Month Later indicate that people want a set of "best practices" for maintaining a paperless office. After all, the maintaining part is the point. Establishing a paperless office is relatively simple, if not without a certain level of discomfort. (Read Nirvana is a Paperless Office for notes on how to establish a paperless office.) The maintaining part is where everything falls apart, or not, as the case may be. Before looking at that, though, let's point out that all of this, of course, is premised on a number of assumptions. For example, if your job entails typing data from paper into a computer program, well, then you are unlikely to find yourself in a paperless office, are you. Ever. So, before tips and tricks for maintaining a paperless office, let us first look at factors conducive to making this possible. So, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does anyone in your office regularly give you a document, accompanied by the words: "Read this and tell me what you think, by tomorrow."
  2. Do you often get postal mail (you know, mail with stamps and envelopes, like how things used to be), sent to you at the office?
  3. At the end of a typical meeting, are there more than 3 things that you need to do, and are they things that take longer than 2 minutes to complete?
  4. Do you often have to fill in claim forms, such as when you come back from traveling somewhere, with a bunch of bills and receipts from hotels, taxis, and restaurants?
  5. Are you a decision maker (or an implementer of decisions made by other people)? Put differently—are you responsible for other people at work, in any way at all (or is your sphere of influence the same size as your desk)?

Now, the more times you said "No" to the questions above, and the more vehemently you said it, the greater the chance that you will be able to maintain a paperless office. People saying "No" to all the above questions, are basically self sufficient and might as well be working from home, except that they might miss the social element of the workplace. If you said "Yes" to some or all of the above, maybe a paperless office is not for you. That's kind of the point of this blog entry—to point out that the circumstances in which you work might simply not be appropriate for maintaining a paperless office. On the other hand, if you said mostly "No" (especially if you said only "No"), then the only factors prevening paperlessness are psychological, not physical.

The interesting thing about item 3 above is that, assuming that that scenario is true for you, you probably do not need to take paper to meetings either. Aside from the fact that you should have Meeting Minutes to refer to, simply remember the three things you need to do, then go back to your workplace and immediately get the ball rolling. For example, if at the meeting it turns out that you need to meet Joe Smith and ask him something or other, that's easy to remember and it's also something you can do right away. Or you can send an e-mail right away, which effectively results in the e-mail becoming your notes from the meeting. Now compare that to the scenario where you have paper with you at the meeting. Firstly, you are probably doodling (which is mostly what I did with paper in meetings), which means you are not really paying as much attention to the meeting as you could be, or even should be. Secondly, you're writing down the things you need to do. And then you think: sure, I'll get to that sometime. And then you never do. Or too late. Or based on notes that make less and less sense as time goes by. Or not as effectively as you would do compared to if you did it immediately, with the related meeting's discussion still fresh on your mind, knowing that if you don't do it immediately you're going to forget it, since you didn't write it down.

Someone asked about books. Most books I need are online. Or there's a book case where they can be put, instead of cluttering up your desk. And I brainstorm ideas in e-mails that I save in my Draft folder, which I clean out on a regular basis. I exchange ideas with others via e-mail, often even when they are in the same room, because the moment of reflection needed for composing an e-mail is often absent when people are just talking ad-hoc without thinking, in response to some verbal request. Any paper I do get I try and deal with as quickly as possible and then I get rid of it. Sticky notes cause more harm than they solve. They're so small and informal that the quick scribble you put on them is rendered meaningless within 48 hours and then you're afraid of throwing them away for fear of destroying information that might turn out to be valuable after all, with the result that you end up living in a forest of obscure sticky notes, like in some grotesque Kafkaesque netherworld.

If item 5 is true for you, then there's nothing stopping you. Your influence is limited, but therefore it is also very focused on a very specific domain. And that domain is your desk. That is maybe not much but it does mean that you are the king of your own castle. The time has come to lay claim to your kingdom, to exert your modest control, and... to evict all that paper!

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Comments ( 4 )
  • David O'Meara Sunday, September 9, 2007

    Thanks for the follow up! My initial request was because I was interested, but typically _I_ am the person handing out printed pages asking for comments by the next day (ie item 1) The rest is fine, but I still see dead trees as a better reminder, when used in moderation. Please keep us updated, particularly if you gain converts ;)

  • Ryan de Laplante Sunday, September 9, 2007

    Your series on going paperless is very fascinating. I find that I write notes on yellow sticky pads, envelopes and anywhere to remind me to do stuff or just ideas. I use MS Outlook for more important reminders such as meetings and deadlines. Where do you put these kinds of notes and ideas? If I created a bunch of text files or word documents then my computer would be cluttered just like my desk is. I've seen some people use Microsoft One Note, others use the Tasks feature in MS Outlook, send an email to themself, write a note on their white board, etc. Usually it's the kind of information that is needed for less than one week.

    Also, when you are brainstorming new ideas for a project do you load up Open Office and start typing point form notes or do you use special software?

  • Joe Sunday, September 23, 2007

    I'm going to make a concerted effort at the new job in Gouda to go paperless, taking your uncluttered workspace as inspiration.

    Artist Chris Jordan has some interesting work illustrating the amount of various items used in short time periods. (http://www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php?id=7) Scroll down to the one called Office Paper which illustrates the 15 million sheets of paper used in US offices every 5 minutes.


  • jeremy Friday, November 9, 2007

    Adobe acrobat is a simple tool that helps me get rid of some paper. Instead of completing a Word doc and printing it out and putting it on someones desk...you simply create the PDF and email it to them. They can open in and make notes right on the PDF and email it back.

    Also, Google actually has a bunch of cool gadgets that you can add to your IGoogle page for notes, documents, dictionarys, etc.

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