Reducing paper use in the workplace is a growing trend, and for many good reasons. However, going too far and eliminating paper completely could hinder work performance and thus harm the business. Here are 5 reasons why using paper for some work activities might be a good idea.
Paperless – or less paper – is the future
More and more offices are going paperless – either partially or fully – as the barriers to electronic data-handling are diminishing and leaders are realising the benefits for work and organisational efficiency.
In a paperless office you need less desk space and less storage space. There is less mess and less clutter. The environment also benefits, since less paper is used and less waste is produced. Documentation and information-sharing become more efficient, double-handling is minimised, and people spend less time finding the information they need. Workers can now work remotely; they no longer need to sit at their desks – or even come to the office – to access their work files. To sum it up, going paperless can open new doors, make organisations more nimble, and transform the way they operate.
We need to remember that there is a difference between knowledge creation and knowledge management (i.e. capturing, storing, and sharing knowledge), and while paperless practices tend to make knowledge management more efficient, this often comes at the cost of compromising the quality of knowledge created. In other words, if you get caught up in trying to eliminate all paper from your practice, you might end up creating average quality knowledge, and then managing it exceptionally well. I’m sure you see the irony here.
How can paperless work interfere with knowledge creation?
Our attention is already heavily biased towards digital media, since that’s where most of the interesting innovation is happening – there are not many exciting breakthroughs in ‘pen and paper technology’ – and so we often forget about the benefits of using non-digital media. In a paperless practice it’s even easier to fall into the habit of routinely sitting down in front of a screen for almost any task, without questioning, ‘is this really the best way to do my work?’
1. The way we think
Have you ever noticed how different your ideas are when you develop them on paper – or perhaps scribbling them down on a napkin – as opposed to using sophisticated software? All work tools and media offer some form of freedom and also impose some limitations which influence how we think. For example, on the computer it’s easy to be slick and precise or to come up with hundreds of variations on a theme; on the other hand, it’s difficult to capture rough ideas or to choose the right direction from a plethora of choices. Using paper might help us come up with better solutions in certain situations, for example, when developing early concepts or when experimenting with ‘what ifs’.
2. The way we learn
When we read something on a screen, our brain works differently from when we read something on paper. According to studies published by the Scientific American, ‘Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper’. We tend to read on screen slower than we read on paper, and interestingly, also less accurately and less comprehensively. As the article states, ‘Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done.’ … And what about taking notes? Research suggests that people who take notes using pen and paper remember conceptual information better over the long term, compared to those taking notes on a laptop or tablet.
3. The way we focus
When using computers, it’s not easy to shield ourselves from distractions like emails, chat messages or pop-up notifications (not even talking about computer malfunctions); but what’s even worse, most of us ‘choose’ to frequently distract ourselves. Whenever we hit a wall or feel bored and therefore want to abandon a task, we can too easily give in to the temptation and switch tasks or find entertainment at a click. On the flipside, when working with physical materials, it’s easier to stay focused on what we do and to fully immerse ourselves into our work. For example, when we sit down with a blank piece of paper, we don’t have many other things to do apart from filling it with our thoughts.
4. The way we collaborate
In a digitally focused environment we are more likely to communicate with our team mates through electronic means, even when face-to-face communication is a viable and better option. Chatting with our colleagues allows us to express subtle messages, such as emotions, through our body language and to get instant feedback. In contrast, technology-driven communication is less subtle and responsive, and so some of the meaning gets lost in translation. Studies show that in face-to-face teamwork members tend to be more actively involved and more creative compared to interacting through digital media, in which case they are more likely to adopt critical thinking or absorb knowledge passively rather than contribute to it. Face-to-face interaction also has a very important role in learning and skill-building, along with developing trusting relationships, which is the foundation of fruitful collaboration.
5. The way we innovate
Brendan Boyle (Professor at Stanford d.school and Partner at IDEO) makes a point that if you incorporate play in the innovation process, your team will not only enjoy it more but will produce better results. Boyle identifies three phases of play to support innovation: ‘Role play’ involves having a good time while engaging new experiences, just like when we played as kids. ‘Encourage the ridiculous’ is about exploring different possibilities, including some really wild, seemingly unrealistic ideas. ‘Think with your hands’ involves people feeling and experiencing an idea through experiments, constructive play and implementation (such as building quick prototypes). While the digital world certainly offers many opportunities for play, these types of innovative play are best done unplugged, engaging our own body and voice, and using real life materials. (You might want to Google images of Stanford d.school or IDEO’s office, which are some of the most innovative environments. These spaces are far from paperless!)
Media intelligence in the workplace
For these reasons, I firmly believe that some aspects of our work will always remain non-digital. To successfully adopt paperless practices, you need to make electronic communication seamless, but it might be a mistake to completely eliminate paper or other physical representations of data.
So make sure that your workplace offers the option of using paper when it is really useful. Never jeopardise the quality of knowledge created in favour of easier data transfer and storage; it simply makes no sense. Instead, help your people acquire ‘media intelligence’ – the ability to choose their work tools wisely.
Before picking a suite of tools and jumping into a task, your team members should first ask themselves: Which tool promotes the right sort of thinking? Which tool offers the freedom to explore all worthwhile options? Which tool supports optimal learning? Which tool makes it easier to get into the zone and to maintain focus? Which tool promotes full participation and allows everyone to express themselves authentically? And how will the ideas then be captured, documented and shared?