Will we ever see a truly paperless office?
The concept of a ‘paperless office’ has been with us since the heady days of the 1960s, when computers were still enormous machines found only in large offices and university campuses. Programmes like Tomorrow’s World excitedly heralded the digital future of communications, while America’s Business Week magazine claimed in 1975 that paperless offices would be with us by the mid-1990s. Technology continues to accelerate exponentially, however the paperless office still seems out of reach. We’ve migrated from records and CDs to digital, and gradually are moving away from live TV to on demand, so why the reluctance to go paperless?
Although companies are increasingly adopting a clean-desk policy for their employees, it’s still rare to find a workstation that doesn’t have mounds of paper buried in drawers or filling in-trays. From memos and minutes to payslips and phone lists, the reliance on the printed word hasn’t yet been rendered obsolete by laptops and smartphones. Indeed, global paper consumption has risen by almost 50 per cent since 1980 – the same year The Economist recommended the paperless office as a way of improving productivity.
So what happened? Why do today’s office workers still handle reams of paper on a daily basis? In part, we continue to use paper simply because it’s tangible – reading often seems easier and more rewarding when it involves printed materials. Some people find it easier to digest the contents of written documents compared to reading them off a screen, while others are reassured by the permanence of a physical printout. An A4 sheet of paper is far less likely to get corrupted or deleted than a Word file, although it is considerably more prone to coffee stains.
Another reason the paperless office hasn’t caught on is that people often feel uncomfortable staring at a screen while in company. We’re all familiar with skimming through printed notes or minutes at a meeting, but few of us would feel comfortable sitting at a boardroom table studying an iPad (perhaps because we may suspect colleagues are actually looking at Facebook). However, it’s likely that future generations will lack these inhibitions, with the increasing use of laptops during university lectures combined with today’s always-on culture.
People are also wary of becoming too dependent on technology in case of data loss or security breaches. Sensitive personal information is particularly susceptible to hackers when stored digitally, whereas secure paper files can only be accessed by physical theft. If a company’s entire documentation is stored online, any downtime could be catastrophic for productivity, while ensuring staff have uninterrupted access usually requires expensive backup storage and IT support.
Despite all this, modern technology has helped to reduce paper consumption in British offices quite markedly. The days of memos being sent round by the office internal mail should now be gone, with most documents being distributed electronically. Cloud-hosted packages like Google Docs allow comments and corrections to be applied digitally, and emails provide a permanent electronic record of correspondence. Electronic signatures are now commonplace thanks to packages like Adobe Echosign, while the high-security DocuSign platform provides legally binding signatures that comply with the Electronic Communications Act 2000.
There are also practical advantages to the paperless office. Large volumes of documentation require costly storage solutions like filing cabinets, often filling rooms and space that could otherwise be used more productively. Some companies have had to resort to storing archived documents off-site at considerable expense due to the cost of space where their offices are. Other firms have had to pay for the secure disposal and destruction of redundant (yet sensitive) data. Quite apart from the obvious environmental benefits, there are also time savings to digitising documentation – searches conducted on a computer will be far faster and more comprehensive than physically trawling through archives.
With hot-desking and home-working growing in popularity, the gradual shift towards a paperless workspace is likely to continue, albeit slowly. After all, handwritten documents can’t be accessed from the cloud, and most people can type more quickly than they can write. Nonetheless, it seems likely that paperclips and hole-punches will remain part of every office’s stationery cupboard for some time yet.