The Great Paper Debate: The Push For A Paperless Workplace

To go paperless or not? It is the greatest debate since the argument over whether toilet paper should be hung over or under. And much like this other great quandary of our time, I’m here to suggest we’re focused too much on logistical pros and cons and not enough on the people doing their business. 

There are many articles out there that weigh the pros and cons of paperless work environments. They all essentially boil down to environmental concerns and cost cutting vs. technological logistics. While I agree that technology can be expensive and frustrating, I also agree that excessive paper use is wasteful and expensive.  Though I feel this argument leaves something really important out of the mix: the people.

It is interesting to me that our digital incline parallels our apparent progress towards a holistic understanding of people in relation to how they work, learn and engage. We can do amazing things with technology, and as we adapt to using it we’ll only be able to do more. But just because we adapt to technology does not mean this is how we, as individuals, learn, work and relate to one another best. Computers might make our systems of knowledge transfer more efficient, but a blind focus on this negates individual intellectual and emotional needs for engagement.

In a recent article, Evernote CEO Phil Libin says they’ve declared ceasefire on the pen. “We want to eliminate the stupid uses of paper, but we want to embrace the good uses.” I happen to agree. There is a lot of needless waste.

So what is a good use of paper, and who gets to define that? If I worked in a paperless office space, that definition would be provided for me, and not at all related to how I best perform my duties.

For me, a good use of paper is printing out an article that I need to use to research a difficult topic. It is using a piece of scrap paper to make a grocery list because if I don’t physically write “toothpaste” I will definitely forget to buy toothpaste. It is sitting with my yellow legal pad and scrawling down thoughts as fast as they can make it from my brain through my nerves to my fingers and out the end of my pen, something I have yet to learn to do without self-editing on a laptop. It is standing barefoot on two old English dictionaries while I attempt to recite a stanza of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a seminar paper I’m presenting. That is how I produce my best work. It’s the method behind my personal successes (aka madness.)

If I was forced into a paperless environment, I could do it, but I would not be performing at my optimum capacity because I am, in part, a tactile learner.  I would be less engaged with my work. That is just me, and my needs as an individual don’t outweigh everyone else’s, but the need for a workplace to be “bleeding edge” with its use of technology should never outweigh the collective needs of those expected to be engaged and offering peak performance. If you want me to fulfill your needs to the absolute best of my capacity, I need to be engaged, and you cannot choose how I am best engaged.

The absolute same can be said about engaging donors and stakeholders. While data suggests that older people prefer traditional direct mail and younger people prefer digital engagement, it comes down to understanding that donor as an individual. We relate to our donors and stakeholders on their terms, not ours, or we simply don’t succeed in engagement.

It is pretty wild that within the span of a few decades, a paperless environment is actually possible. Some offices and individuals have done an incredible job at making the switch, and for that I applaud them.

But for me, the pros of 100% paperless will never erase one giant con that is seldom on these lists of reason to go/not to go paperless. There is growing concern that technology is killing eye contact and drastically changing how we relate to one another.  We are becoming slaves to our devices. We are in constant contact with the world yet losing grasp of intimacy and reality in our personal relationships (be they romantic, friendship, familial, or other.) Technology makes so much possible, and is changing more rapidly than we ever could have imagined. Don’t let it fool you into thinking paperless efficiency trumps active engagement, or that ideas need to be stored in a cloud to be meaningful, or that our adaptation of technology means we are using it in ways that will ultimately make the world a better place.

And under, by the way. My TP is always hung under.