Remember the promise of the paperless office? Anyone in front of a monitor can testify to just the opposite having taken hold. The ubiquity of the personal computer was supposed to have freed us from the sea of paperwork washing over our desks every day, and yet all it seems to have done is open the floodgates further.
Those of us who work from home are not immune—are at times worse, letting paper stack up in every corner. And even as technology aims for the paperless ideal, that still can only be part of the solution.
Paper will likely always be with us. Similar to radio in the wake of television, it will find a way to hold its value. Currently, paper is much more conducive to sketching ideas and to working out processes than is a blank word processing document. Paper is cheap and recyclable. It has no learning curve. And while Philips demonstrated an e-paper display at this year’s CES that comes exceptionally close to the real thing, the real stuff will never need tech support.
The key to the future of the digital home office is not so much a paper-free environment but rather one that is less paper-dependent. As technology grows more complex and intuitive, creating a digital office will increasingly rely on smartly managing paper with the technology at hand. Already, this is possible. Today, most important to the endeavor is a good document scanner.
Scanners with automatic feeders continue to get smaller, faster, and more efficient. The Fujitsu ScanSnap is a very popular device that allows you to scan up to 36 pages at a time. Combine it with good optical character recognition (OCR) software, and you get a searchable PDF for each sheet you send through. PDFs maintain the integrity of any imagery or scribbling you may have added in the margins, which is a big improvement over the old OCR programs that rendered most everything as a garbled text document.
The second critical component is a fast and easy off-site backup solution. If you’re digitizing all your paper (and finally removing it from your office), you’re going to want to be sure your documents are backed up—and not just on your external drive. Many online backup services—like Amazon’s S3—are already available and are will only offer more space for less money in the future as the cost of data storage continues to fall.
Those two elements in tandem are the real future of the “paperless” home office. They’re relatively affordable and are the technology is only going to get better. Already, they’ll instantly reduce your printing and storage costs. As PDFs, documents are searchable with nothing but a few keywords, saving you time from having to sift through cabinets of physical folders. And when your documents are all electronic and available online, you can access them anywhere you travel.
We can look forward to e-ink monitors that render text more pleasingly than current screens and hand-held devices that recognize even the most scrawled handwriting. But for the home office worker, they’ll be fancy accessories; the paperless office is already here. We need only embrace it.