The Myth of the Paperless Office

Long time readers of mine will know that I grew up around computers and associated technology – my dad was a computer analyst in the late 1970s, and so it was usual in my house to talk about minicomputers, mainframes, and computerish terms like “paperless office”.

The term comes from a Business Week article from June 30th 1975 entitled “The Office of the Future” and take on a life of its own from there. However, the principle is simple: given that we can record data in digital formats, and retrieve them wherever we are, why do we need to store information on paper?

The reality is that 45 years on, we still rely on and require paper in an office. Even as I write this in my wife’s study, there’s paper everywhere – including a Filofax in which she manages her diary, and handwritten notes from recent meetings. In my wallet there’s stacks of receipts from business and personal purchases that need some sort of processing, and in the morning on doubt some post will find its way onto the doormat. If we believed the Business Week article, or any one of a million pundits opining on this over the past 45 years (myself included), we’d expect everything to be digital.

There is a huge advantage to paper in that the baseline technologies of pen (or pencil) and paper are universal. Cash – paper cash in this analogy – is a powerful technology because the only tool required to receive a cash transaction is an open hand. Children can encode, record, and transfer their ideas on paper before they even go to school. Noting down things to remember on Post-it notes is often simpler and more accessible than using a to-do app on a smartphone.

Whilst some aspects of our workflow have been irrevocably changed by IT – I remember my dad used to bring home internal mail envelopes used to distribute interoffice memos – there will always be some edge cases that require paper. As a result, we’re likely to always need some way to generate paper-based information, and some way to “ingest” paper-based information into the business.

For a good number of years now, since the overall migration to cloud-based email and file storage, the only technology that a SME office requires are laptop or desktop computers, a network router with Wi-Fi capability, and a network printer.

Over the past few months though, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about printers – as people have decamped to working from home, there’s been a bump in the number of people needing printers at home, as the office printers were no longer available. As such, I’ve had a chance to think more about printing.

My recommendation is that an office requires two printers, not one. A nice, colour printer, and a workhorse monochrome printer. If you need to print something out for a customer, it’s worth doing it well, and producing a high-quality colour print on nice stock gives a better experience to those unusual cases where you’re presenting something printed. However, although colour printers are pretty cheap, the toner for colour printers is ridiculously expensive.

For example, a printer that we have in our office – an HP Color LaserJet MFP M283fdw – will set you back £310+VAT for a set of toner, and that toner will last about 2,500 pages. (The printer itself cost £250+VAT.) A box of five reams of Amazon Basics paper (2,500 pages), will cost you £21 – and so your total outlay for 2,500 sheets of colour laser print is a staggering 13 pence per page. An eight-page document will cost you just north of £1 to print.

I’ve always been suspicious of quoted toner cartridge yields, but it turns out that such things are governed by ISO standards. ISO/EIC 19752 applies for monochrome printers, and ISO/EIC 19798 applies for colour printers. These standards are weirdly logical in that they specify a PDF file to print, that looks much like the sort of document a normal person would print day-to-day (ICO/EIC 19752’s sample document is a letter), and the rules of the standard say all the manufacturer has to do is print that document over and over until the printer says it’s out of toner. The upshot of this is that you can trust that toner yields advertised by manufacturers are logical and sensible.

When we discovered quite how much our colour printer was costing, we bought a second printer for day-to-day office printing. In particular, we bought a Brother MFC-L2710DW for £133+VAT. The toner for this is £50+VAT for 3,000 pages, bringing out print cost down to 3p per page. That eight-page document now only costs 24p to print.

Given that I like to recommend a Coca-Cola and Pepsi choice to my customers, my view is that you can’t go too wrong by buying printers from HP or Brother.

Another thing to watch is that your printer can do duplex (double-sided) printing automatically. Both of those printers can, and although duplex printing reduces the overall spend on paper, the bigger advantage is to the environment. On that topic, although it will cost more, you may be minded to consider paper from sustainable sources. This can be tricky to do – even Amazon Basics paper is has FSC certification – but we found products from Navigator, Evolution, and Q-Connect that are from recycled stock.

One product that we’re testing is called envoPAP – this paper is made from agricultural waste (it’s made from sugarcane fibres), and costs a reasonable £18+VAT for five reams.

So far though, we’ve just thought about how to produce paper. What do we do with paper that people give to us?

One thing that we have found in our own experience, and with our customers, is that there is a huge win in terms of workflow productivity in having a sheet-fed scanner on the network that is able to save PDF files to a location on the network. Most of the MFP (multi-function) printers will do this – and what it allows you do is very quickly and easily just capture any post or other documents that the business receives. Of the printers I called out above, both of them have a scanner, although only the HP will write PDFs to a network location. This is far and away the most useful type of scanning, so try and make sure that any MFP printer that you buy has this.

SharePoint (via Microsoft 365) and Google Drive (via G Suite) will now both run “OCR” on scanned images or PDFs – i.e. it will go through and make any text on a scanned document searchable. This is such a fantastically helpful thing to have at our disposal, and yet another reason why all business should base their operations on these technologies.

The final type of paper document that we often have to deal with as a small business is received from ad hoc payments on company credit cards. Sometimes vendors will email through receipts (which can then be passed to a bookkeeping for keying into an accounts system), but oftentimes this isn’t the case. For many years, we’ve been recommending Expensify for this, but increasingly accounting software itself such as Sage or Xero will capture receipts through their apps. Of course, accounting software apps won’t be available to all staff – as such, if you do need regular employees to upload expenses, Expensify or an equivalent would be the correct choice.

By Matthew Reynolds