… or what to do when your company launches a ‘paper amnesty’ and spends £26,000 attempting to create the much-vaunted paperless office. Caroline Stocks, armed with reporters’ notepad, had a look around at one fit-out contractor that has done just that

The future office will be paperless. Yeah, right. It’s been 20 years since that idea was first promoted as the way forward for companies wanting to save trees, boost their business efficiency and improve communication. And did it work? Did it heck. Just take a look around you.

And yet, step into fit-out contractor Forcia’s office and you immeditately realise that something is missing. There are no filing cabinets filled with building plans, no in-trays overflowing with letters. And when a giant fan by a group of desks is switched on, its near gale-force draught does not cause a single rustle of paper. Instead, the office’s desks are almost empty. This is not a sign that the £8m turnover company is struggling for work. Instead it is the result of what one director, Terry Crawford, describes as a “paper amnesty”, undertaken as part of a novel plan for Forcia’s office to become paperless.

It is only when you approach Crawford’s desk that you get some idea of what the office was like before the firm began to free themselves of paper a month ago.

Behind his chair is a pile of papers half-hidden by a hard hat, while he has attempted to disguise another pile of documents on his desk underneath a folder. Despite being responsible for some of the only clutter in the office, it was actually Crawford who came up with the idea to be paper-free. “I was the worst example of dealing with paper,” he says. “I used myself as a case study and came up with the idea of a paperless office.”

Crawford says that along with Forcia’s other directors, Bernard Roccia and Lance Bonner, and the firm’s 12 management staff, they thought about how paper was generated in the office and how they could work without using it.

As well as being environmentally friendly, the directors realised that becoming paperless could save them money and allow them to take on more work. The firm calculated they spent £6500 on printing each year, while they wasted days that could have been used tendering for other projects waiting for documents to be printed, posted and received by clients.

“We looked at how well emails work, and thought if we could turn all letters and documents into scanned things we could use an email approach and get documents to clients within minutes,” Crawford says. “Technology has caught up with the idea so it has become possible to do.”

The firm spent £25,000 on hardware and computer programmes so they could scan all the paper that enters the office and convert it into electronic files (see box below). They bought a printer so that plans could be done in-house to save on time and printing costs. Letters, faxes and plans are all scanned, given reference numbers and put into electronic folders on the company’s virtual private network for everyone to access. They are recruiting a part-time member of staff to take charge of the scanning.

Stephen Morris, a QS at Forcia, says scanning documents has made the office more efficient and improved the way they work. “We don’t have to send out to get things printed or wait to send things by post,” he says. “You can just get your disk and pull off what you need for each subcontractor. By being more efficient we can cut costs and get more tenders in.”

Having electronic copies of a project’s documents online also means files can be accessed anywhere at any time, a further boost to efficiency. “Every site will have a dedicated broadband linked to a network between the site and the office,” Bonner says. “This allows people to work remotely. If I want to work at the weekends or in the evening I don’t have to come into the office. I could work from Barbados, sitting there in my flip-flops not needing to move.”

Bonner says he expects working electronically to become a normal practice and says it is something more development companies should get used to. “Most construction companies seem a bit backward compared with other sectors,” he says. “We picked up on it because we deal with a lot of consultants who prefer doing things electronically. We thought: ‘If they’re doing it, why don’t we?’ It’s definitely the way things are going.”

Despite Bonner claiming the idea is still in its infancy, the company’s staff and 100-strong direct labour force have noticed the impact of the project already. Todd Hyland, contracts manager for Forcia’s commercial fit-out team, says disposing of paper and making documents available electronically has made his job far easier. “I can work on sites or in cafes using a wireless connection, and can link all my information to the office and project managers straight away,” he says. “I don’t have to go to the office to collect copies of drawings, write letters or send them out. I save a massive amount of time. It’s excellent.”

Although Forcia’s staff seem keen to try working without paper, Bonner admits the scheme has had some teething problems.

“We haven’t got over the learning curve,” he says. “We are all reasonably computer literate in the office but we have got to educate the site managers.”

However Bonner says the main problem the company faces is subcontractors who do not have the capabilities to work electronically. “We will have to send hard copies to some contractors, but we may start saying that if they want to work with us, they have to be willing to work our way.”

“You’re always going to get one form of paper – the man building it still needs a hard copy of the plan,” he adds. “But it’s going to make things quicker for us. We’re not going to become paperless overnight, but it’s definitely the way we want to be heading and it’s the way offices will be working in the future.”

A paperless office for £26,000 – what Forcia bought

Océ TCS 400 scanner/printer - £20,000

Means they can copy, scan and print wide format in colour or black and white.
Includes TCS 400 printer, TCS 400 scanner, power logic controller, Adobe Postcript level 3, controller cabinet, 17” monitor

Konica Minolta bizhub C250 machine - £6,200

Narrow format printing, scanning, copying and faxing

PDF writing software £600

Total cost £26,800