Return on Investment: Becoming a Paperless HR Department (and Business)

“Going paperless” sounds like an HR buzz-term, but the benefits are as real as the return on investment.

Key Points:

  • Paper and paper-related products represent a significant cost for businesses.
  • Despite the historical predictions of “paperless offices,” paper consumption has continued to increase.
  • Using paper to manage the administrative tasks associated with Human Resources is time-consuming and inefficient.
  • The ROI of adopting digital tools for HR document management is substantial.

The HR department handles more data and manages more administrative tasks than nearly all other business functions. These tasks often come with a lot of paper.

Did you know that just one filing cabinet can:

  • Contain up to 20,000 sheets of paper.
  • Cost anywhere from $150 to $2,000.
  • Cost around $160 to fill – where a standard case of copy paper costs $40 and you fill the filing cabinet to capacity (20,000 sheets).
  • Take up 17 square feet of office space – this includes the size of the filing cabinet itself and the amount of space required to access the files.

Keep in mind, these numbers are specific to just one filing cabinet. The average office has at least four, while most have more. As you can see, the hard costs of paper are high, but the indirect expenses are even higher.

A brief history of the paperless office.

The notion of a “paperless office” entered the business lexicon in 1975 after the Bloomberg Businessweek published an article called ‘The Office of the Future.’ In the piece, Vincent E. Giuliano predicted the decline and eventual elimination of paper from offices, saying that “by 1990, most record-handling will be electronic.”

Well, Giuliano’s prediction didn’t exactly pan out.

A 2012 study revealed that for the first time in history, paper consumption had exceeded 400 million tons. The findings came as a shock when placed against the backdrop of an expanding technological landscape and a culture increasingly concerned with sustainability. Advancements in technology were supposed to rid us of paper.

A decade earlier, MIT published their book, “The Myth of the Paperless Office,” an “examination of why paper continues to fill our offices and a proposal for better coordination of the paper and digital worlds.” MIT’s study used human nature and the increased availability of improved printing technologies to rationalize our attraction to paper.

“In the last decade, new technologies have provided the means by which we can produce low-cost, high-quality, personalized paper documents. It is no surprise, then that we are all taking advantage of this and are consuming more paper than ever.”—Abigal J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper,The Myth of the Paperless Office

In addition, office workers interacted with paper documents in ways that were not supported by screens, computers, and software. For many tasks, it just made more sense to use paper. It didn’t help that the machines of that time were unreliable and printing was cheap.

Fortunately, technology has improved and today there is almost no reason to visit the printer.

And again, paper is expensive.

The lesser-known costs of office paper use.

It’s simple to understand the tangible costs of paper – filing cabinets, square footage, printers, ink, reams of paper, etc.. However, what’s often overlooked are the significant indirect costs.


Completing tasks in the workplace takes time. And as we all know… time is always in short supply.

According to Gartner, workers spend between 20 and 30% of their workweek managing documents or document-based information. That’s about 12 hours of a 40-hour workweek. Consider what else might be accomplished if this time wasn’t spent managing paper.

In a study from 2015, Software Advice found that during the average workweek, employees spend at least six hours just looking for paper documents. In contrast, employees who work in digital environments spent virtually no time searching for physical records.

Workplace design and enhanced productivity

Companies don’t often consider workplace design when they are making the decision to go paperless, but interior spaces impact employee productivity significantly and office design directly relates to becoming paper-free.

Today’s cloud-based devices and platforms eliminate the need for expensive filing cabinets and paper. As a result, the modern workplace can be cleaner, brighter, and less cluttered. Contemporary workspaces have more in common with a trendy cafe than the offices most workers are accustomed to.

And while employees may not be aware of it, office design significantly impacts their productivity. A well-designed workspace makes it easier for employees to collaborate, complete tasks, and can even have a positive impact on engagement, culture, happiness, and wellbeing.

Eliminating paper removes the need for physical document storage and the concept of what the workplace is (and can be) begins to transform.

Stats related to office design and productivity:

  • 85% of employees are dissatisfied with their physical workspace.
  • 58% of high-achieving employees say they need quieter workspaces and 54% find their office “too distracting.”
  • 10 times fewer sick days are taken by employees who report being happy at work.
  • Happy employees experience 31% higher productivity.

We live in a digital age where innovations in technology continuously bring fresh ideas and techniques to the workplace. Going paperless allows businesses to harness these new capabilities in a way that inspires engagement among employees. This helps HR build an outstanding culture while also having a positive impact on the bottom line.

Increased productivity, improved employee engagement, and lower turnover equate to a higher return on investment. It’s that simple.

Here are a few more points to consider:

  • 1 out of every 20 paper documents is lost.
  • Companies misfile 20% of their paper documents, rendering them essentially lost.
  • The average employee spends 4 weeks each year looking for paper records, equating to roughly 400 hours of lost productivity.
  • According to Accenture, 59% of middle managers say they miss important information each day. The files exist, but they can’t be found because they are on paper.
  • The average cost in labor to file one document is $20.

“Those 10,000 sheets of paper each office worker uses cost more than $500. Multiply that by all the people in your workplace and add in the cost of printers, copiers, toner, fax machines, and other devices that can be all but eliminated. The numbers get a little frightening. Then add on the cost of filing cabinets and people to maintain them. The paperless project estimates that every 12 filing cabinets require one full-time employee to maintain them. Now consider that the information in those 12 cabinets can today be stored in a device that fits in the palm of your hand. That’s one reasonthe Association for Information and Image Managementsays the ROI of going paperless is usually counted in months.”—Iron Mountain

It’s time for your HR department (and business) to go paperless.

When you finally go paperless, you’ll eliminate the cost of paper and paper-related expenses, your employees will gain more time to focus on productivity and goal achievement, they’ll have access to digital tools that make work more simple, you will create opportunities to reimagine your workplace design, and you’ll see increased revenue.

Vincent Giuliano’s predictions in 1975 weren’t wrong – he was just decades ahead.

Click here to download our eBook and learn how to go 100% paperless this year.

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