More Than 40 Years After Print’s Predicted Demise, The Paperless Office Remains A Pipe Dream

It’s been more than forty years since we were first promised the paperless office – the idea that the use of paper in our working environments would be entirely eliminated, or at least greatly reduced. An article in BusinessWeek as early as 1975 predicted paper would be on its way out by 1980, and nearly dead by 1990.

By now we’re also supposed to have colonised Mars and fly to work on personal jetpacks!

Today, the reality is that the physical page continues to be a central part of daily office life. The forecast reduction in printing didn’t happen; in fact print use actually increased consistently throughout the early years of this millennium, although there has been a slight reduction in the past couple of years.

This recent drop can largely be explained by technological and digital innovations which have reduced our need to use paper. Computers, tablets, mobile phones, email, and more recently cloud storage have all improved business’ ability to digitise document production and record keeping.

Statistics show that a staggering 205 billion emails are sent every day, a figure that is expected to reach 246 billion by the end of 2019. Despite this incredible volume, email hasn’t yet usurped the ‘paper trail’ and truly paperless systems are few and far between.

Indeed, print is far from dead. Print’s tangibility and durability, its credibility and practicality can set it apart from the noisy, cluttered online landscape. Print is also relatively cheap, it can be read offline and it lasts the test of time. True, paper files can be lost, but a system crash or accidental deletion of a vital file is less likely with a paper document.

Office workers are also resistant to abandoning print. According to an independent study of over 3,600 European employees commissioned by Epson Europe, 64% indicated they’d prefer to read reports and brochures on printed paper. Respondents cited the ability to share documents with ease (53%), and read, edit and annotate pages (41%) as key factors in the continued prevalence of print. An overwhelming majority (83%) agreed that a ‘paperless office is unrealistic’.

Given this ringing endorsement for the continued importance of printed documents, is the paperless office a realistic goal for business? User preferences and behaviour are certainly important in maintaining our consumption of print. But there is also an inherent difficulty in achieving a “paperless” office; the bar is set unrealistically high. We’re not looking to “reduce paper consumption and use to a sustainable, practical and necessary level” (granted we’d need a catchier phrase for such a goal), but to remove its use from our offices altogether. Is that really an achievable ambition?

Change is happening, not least the innovations in cloud technology which now enable businesses to digitise their document workflow. This is particularly appealing to large corporations, which often use the internet to share information across time zones at the click of a button. These multi-nationals have the funds available to invest in technological change, not to mention corporate sustainability goals which place an emphasis on limiting their carbon footprint and reducing waste.

But what is the situation for SMEs? Certainly they appear to be slower to change and embrace the technologies that can deliver paperless working environments. For one thing, SMEs tend to have fewer funds available to overhaul their systems and often there is less of an imperative to transmit documents across multiple offices, not to mention multiple time zones. This may explain why paper continues to play an important role; it’s simply too costly to change and too convenient to abandon.

However, SMEs don’t need to radically overhaul their document systems in order to take a positive step towards reducing their paper consumption. After rent and staff wages, print costs often represent one of the highest areas of expenditure for businesses. With the latest generation of multi-functional devices, which print, copy, scan and fax documents from a single machine, it’s now very straightforward for companies to digitise elements of their document production.

We now have the ability to scan straight to pdf and email or save to the cloud directly from the printer, reducing the need to always click print. This has additional benefits in streamlining document workflows and improving productivity and efficiency. Coupled with mobile and cloud printing functions, which enable staff to print on-the-go, there are plenty of affordable ways businesses can reduce their paper consumption and improve their sustainability.

Print management software also enables businesses to get a handle on their print expenditure, tracking the printing habits of staff across the company to highlight unnecessary printing and change employees’ habits. This isn’t intended to facilitate a witch hunt, but as a sophisticated means to encourage the reduction in unnecessary printing.

We all want to see a reduction in unnecessary printing; by its very nature it’s ‘unnecessary’ after all.

But there are plenty of situations when printed documents are entirely practical, preferable and reasonable. For example, printed sales materials that allow a business to leave a tangible copy of vital information with a client or potential customer.  Certainly when engaging with customers, should we really be encouraged to neglect those without digital platforms on which to consume information, which will marginalise the elderly and poor especially? And in an age of increasing cyber threats and hacking, would we really trust an electronic signature, which can be replicated across multiple documents by any individual at the click of a button, over a handwritten signature.

Is the paperless office a possibility? Yes theoretically. The technology now exists to enable businesses to produce, edit, archive and disseminate documents without the need to print at all. Personal working preferences and office culture may be harder to change, at least in the short to medium term. Perhaps the current reliance on print is generational; in the future a perfect blend of innovative technologies and tech-savvy ‘millennials’ in the work place may downgrade the role of print. But personally I can’t see a future where nothing is printed.

Colin Griffin is the Managing Director of Blackbox Solutions, a leading office technology supplier based in Maidstone, Kent

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