The (elusive) paperless office

Yesterday I began the process of upgrading my work laptop to Windows 7.  This was a necessary evil for various upcoming projects.  While in my younger days, virtually every piece of software on my computer was beta, these days I am resistant to upgrades because they are so intrusive.  It takes me nearly 2 days to get everything back to normal, and I usually don’t have the time to spare.

I look at these upgrades as major transition periods and good times to do other times of cleaning and organizing.  With my upgrade to Windows 7, I am embarking on a social experiment at work: the paperless office.

The paperless office has been talked about for decades and like Bigfoot and Nessie, is mostly myth. I have yet to see anyone who works fluidly in an entirely paperless realm.  Part of the reason, of course, is that everyone else in the world still uses paper.  But there are other difficulties most of which, it seems to me, are centered around finding the right set of tools to replace paper.

In my work environment, therefore, I had to ask myself: for what purposes do I use paper?

As it turns out, these days, it’s not many.  I still use paper to jot down notes or make rough sketches or diagrams.  I still tend to print out resumes or manuals so that I can read them off-screen.  And in meetings, I use paper for my note-taking.  But beyond these tasks, there is nothing in my job requiring the use of paper.  The question becomes, can I replace paper with some other tool in order to perform these tasks?  And I think the answer is yes.

There are plenty of tools for scribbling down notes and making rough diagrams.  Windows 7 appears to have a pretty good “Stickies” applet.  Windows 7 does not have a good sketching program for rough diagrams.  (For finalized diagrams I use Visio.)  However, Google Docs has done a pretty good job with their Drawing application and I think that would work for me.

When I print out resumes and other documentation, it is really not so much to avoid reading it on-screen as it is to mark it up with annotations.  (Having used a Kindle for well over a year now, I am quite comfortable reading on-screen.)  But the technology has been there for a while to do these markups.  Most of these documents are either in Word format for PDF files, both of which can be annotated and those annotations can be saved (and searched!) with the document.

In meetings, I tend to jot down notes on paper and have gone through a variety of systems of note-taking over the years.  But again, this is really unnecessary.  I can use SlickEdit on my Windows 7 machine to capture any and all notes, so long as I make the effort to bring my laptop to meetings with me.  I get the added bonus of making my notes searchable, and with a few simple perl scripts, I can pull extracts for various projects, subjects, dates, etc.

So I’m going to give it a try and see how it goes.  And if it works out well here in the office, maybe I will try it at home as well.  I have already cleaned my work office out of all the paper it was possible to get rid of.  It will be interesting to see how practical this exercise really is.


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