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The paperless office is no nearer to reality than it was 30 years ago

Posted on December 5, 2013 by Charles Marks

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The first paperless office opened in the Spring of 1979. Designed by a management consultant as a model of the office of the future, the building in Washington DC was filled with the first generation of electronic scanners, microfiche readers and other products. A computer expert who was present at the launch recalls that the demonstration was going extremely well until a phone rang. The tour guide sat down to answer the call, listened to the person on the other end and then sheepishly asked if anyone had a piece of paper.

It was a sign of things to come. A quarter of a century later we are no nearer to realising the paperless ideal of those early pioneers. In fact, we are further away than ever before. Today, the average UK desk is weighed down by almost a stone of clutter – with over a fifth of office workers losing important documents at least once a week, according to research from office equipment manufacturer Brother. Recent research by the EDM Group echoed these findings, estimating that employees wasted one and a half hours a week looking for misplaced documents and information.

One of the causes is the sheer amount of information and data employees now receive, with over half (56 percent) in the EDM poll claiming that they receive more information at work than they did three years ago

A quick walk through any office reveals the paper hot spots that spring up around printers, copiers, faxes and scanners. Far from replacing paper, it’s the machines that let us use even more of it. As is so often the case, technology has an unintended consequence as the people who use the systems subvert the manufacturers’ best intentions.

Even e-mail has failed to stem this wave of paper. E-mail may have cut down on the number of letters we send and receive, but it has also led to an exponential increase in the amount of paper we all use. In the past, memo writing was time-consuming and the numbers of copies limited by the difficulties associated with cumbersome typewriters, awkward typists and messy carbon paper. Filing was often centralized with just one or two copies available. Then came photocopiers and it became possible to communicate with larger numbers of people. Now we have e-mail and networks and the memo writer doesn’t even have to print anything out.

But guess what? Many of the recipients end up printing the e-mails out for their own files anyway. The storage of individual pieces of information is decentralized and duplicated dozens, sometimes hundreds of times.

This situation has to be managed for lots of reasons and office design has an important role to play. For individuals, dealing with the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming and time consuming; for organisations, it means allocating valuable floorspace to filing what may be duplicates of the same information, and of having a workforce that spends too much time dealing with information rather than using it. Add in the ecological implications of paper usage and there is a real need for the more enlightened management of this deepening morass of information.

This is a complex problem that needs a sophisticated solution. That is why an increasing number of organisations are taking a holistic approach to the issue. They are using design as a way of encouraging people to communicate without paper. They are using storage and archives in an intelligent way to control both the amount of paper they consume and the space it takes up. They are training people to better understand the way information works, when to print something off, when to send, delete or respond to an e-mail (preferably immediately), what to file and where and how. They are encouraging people to talk to each other for a change, sometimes by enforcing e-mail free days. And they are raising awareness of the environmental problems caused by the indiscriminate proliferation of paper.

None of this will result in a paperless office for most of us. We clearly love paper far too much for that to ever become a reality. But these measures might just be the first steps in learning how to better manage the knowledge that technology generates and dissipates on our behalf.