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World Paper Free Day – are you a hoarder or a purger?

Phil Greenwood, Country Managing Director at Iron Mountain, urges paper hoarders and purgers alike to look at how they can manage digital and paper-based documents better this World Paper Free Day

Could you go paper free?

‘Paper free’ has been a buzz word for around thirty years now[1]. It’s a phrase that conjures up images of decluttered and contemporary offices and people living minimalistic and entirely modern lives – lives where all files are digital, where in-trays are banned and where bank statements, bills and other personal paperwork doesn’t bring chaos to home offices and desk drawers.

World Paper Free Day (4 November, 2016) is fast approaching, so perhaps it’s time to reflect on our relationship with paper and how we manage our documents. For some, the concept of going paper free is aspirational, for others it sends shivers up the spine.

We have an attachment to paper that makes it hard for some to even contemplate the idea of going paper free. Paper is useful; it gives us a physical record of a document, event or piece of information. We can read it, mark it up, proof it and share it with others. We can file it with similar documents and, according to some reports[2], the tactile experience of reading on paper can help us navigate long texts in an intuitive and effective way – something that is difficult to replicate on a screen.

Many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper[3], so people have a tendency to print out electronic documents too. Back in 2003 Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, authors of The Myth of the Paperless Office, found that when an organisation used email, it experienced a 40% increase in paper consumption.[4] Perhaps that’s no surprise. Sometimes we print documents to digest before we dispose of them; sometimes we keep them neatly filed as a ‘safety net’ for future use.

Despite the clear benefits of digesting information in paper form, we can have too much of a good thing. Our love of paper can result in document mismanagement, with people hoarding paper documents ‘just in case’ they need them again. If we’re honest, there are plenty of old bank statements, out of date warranties and receipts at home that we don’t need any more. It just feels wrong to get rid of them.

Apply this ‘hoarding’ mentality to the corporate environment, and the results can be alarming. Strict regulations exist about how businesses should store information and how long files such as contracts, HR records and account details should be retained. But truth be told, many of us have been guilty of carrying a candidate’s CV around for too long, or storing customer records in more than one place for our own convenience. However, with data privacy rules constantly evolving, the hoarding habits of staff could find them on the wrong side of the law.

Diametrically opposed to paper hoarders are the paper purgers – people who are comfortably able to live a paper-free life. These people use online tools, such as Evernote, to write their ‘to do’ lists; they balance family and work with an online calendar, and that calendar syncs across their multiple devices and apps. They don’t need paper. It weighs them down. Everything they could possibly need, they can access via a screen.

Don’t be fooled. Just because they live paper-free lives, doesn’t mean paper purgers are document management experts. Like anyone else, they will store personal documents on their desktop instead of in the correct, secure central location, or lose sight of how many times they’ve shared a CV with colleagues.

Considering the tactile nature of paper, perhaps going completely paper free is something that only the emotionally robust can handle. Yes, there are environmental benefits and measurable energy saving advantages to paperless working,[5] but storing and managing documents paper free isn’t without its hurdles. The same data protection rules apply, so even if it’s digital, storing information on your laptop instead of a central repository, or keeping personal records on email instead of in a protected archive can still get your company into trouble if you’re breaching regulations. Processes must be put in place to keep information under control if businesses are to remain compliant.

Whether at work or at home, there’s no need to cut all paper ties if you’re not ready to do so. For those that want to strike a balance between hoarding and purging, Iron Mountain advocates ‘paper light’ as a viable alternative, especially for organisations with large numbers of documents that have to be kept on paper until they are no longer needed or until retention rules allow secure destruction.

It might be tempting to digitise all the paper as a fast track to paper free. However, digitising everything is simply too expense for most organisations with a legacy of paper. Taking a ‘paper light’ approach, businesses can think about digitising documents as they are required. Not only will this approach be cost-effective, it will reduce the risk of error.

Whatever path you take, all information must be handled with care and in line with the appropriate legal requirements.  So, why not make this World Paper Free Day the day that you take a good look at the documents you store. Ask yourself, whether you’re a hoarder or a purger, how you might manage your digitised and paper-based information better, and how you can help others do the same.


[4] A Sellen and R Harper, The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press), 2003
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