Want a paperless office? Let people work remotely.

The General Services Administration is getting serious about cutting paper use in federal offices, with its PrintWise program outlining steps for more efficient use of printers and toner. Of course, the government has gotten serious before about reducing paper use and overall wound up with more printing. So what’s different this time?

GSA aims to save up to $330 million a year through steps such as setting printer defaults to black-and-white, draft-quality, double-sided printing; using toner-efficient fonts; and getting rid of unnecessary personal printers and not buying new ones.

All sound ideas, and part of GSA’s plan to change what it calls “print/copy behavior.” The Census Bureau has already netted savings with that approach.

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But changing behavior means changing personal, as well as institutional, behavior, and that’s always an uphill battle.

A recent study by CompTIA found that, even though a majority of businesses want to reduce paper use, about half expect to print more than they do now. A 2009 study of federal agencies commissioned by Lexmark and conducted by O’Keefe & Co., found that 92 percent of federal employees surveyed said their agencies don’t need all the documents they print — and that 35 percent of printed documents get thrown out the same day they are printed. In all, the survey concluded that nearly $450 million worth of federal employee printing goes to waste.

Part of the problem is that printing something out is just too easy, double-sided and toner-friendly or not. Printing out a list, schedule or report makes for a handy reference right at your fingertips. And sometimes it’s just force of habit — the Lexmark survey found that a lot of what gets printed sits in a printer basket without ever getting picked up. If you work in an office, you’ve probably seen the truth of this.

Getting rid of personal printers would no doubt curb the problem somewhat, but employees might need a little more incentive to break their habits. Fortunately, a couple of other trends in government work in favor of reducing printing: telework and mobile computing.

Telework presents a win-win strategy when it comes to printing. People working from home could have a government laptop or desktop, but let them use their own printer. It can have a revelatory effect on personal printing behavior.

When I worked primarily in the office, I, too, was a serial printer. I was not as bad as some, but I always found that printing out production schedules, calendars and the occasional report was the easy way to do things. But when I started telecommuting, I looked at my personal inkjet printer, added up the cost of those easily exhausted cartridges and, presto, I became Dr. Digital. All of my handy references suddenly lived on my laptop.

And it turned out that I wasn’t really sacrificing convenience for the cost of a printer cartridge. Once you get used to working with electronic, rather than paper, references, it becomes just as easy, even preferable. And developing that new habit at home can carry over to the workplace. Now, even in the office, with access to the company’s printers, I don’t hit “Print.”

That’s just one example, of course, and circumstances vary, but it could be a start for some employees. Add a secure way to introduce tablets and other mobile devices, as the Veterans Affairs Department is doing, and this paperless thing might really catch on. GSA’s PrintWise effort is laudable. Continuing to develop a mobile, teleworking mindset can only help.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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