Why the Paperless Office still hasn’t arrived

While we look at screens for most of our waking hours, paper is still around and doesn't show any signs of disappearance. Why?

People of my generation grew up with a bunch of tech-related visions of the future. Some of them turned into reality, like the computer on every desk. But another, closely related vision so far failed to materialise: our offices are still anything but paperless. Even a digital agency like SinnerSchrader moves an astonishing amount of paper. Heck, we are even publishing books (but that is another story).

New employees typically get two notebooks, one of them made out of paper. In the digital age, it still makes sense to take notes or scribble on paper. Nothing wrong with that. But why is the worldwide production and consumption of paper still growing? Why is office work still closely related to paper? Why is document management still largely paper-based, and not digital? What happened to the paperless office?

Part of the answer is that digital technology made the creation and copying of documents easier and more efficient. With typewriter and carbon paper, you could produce only a few (carbon) copies of a document. After the Xerox machine arrived, copying already went crazy. But with the dawn of PCs and cheap office printers, the number of documents per office employee exploded. All of a sudden, it was easy to type and print.

Word processing led to an explosion of paperwork

In the old office world, the number of secretaries and typists limited the number of documents an office could produce on any given day. In the PC era, everyone is able to create papers. Typing capabilities and distribution became the new bottlenecks. The internet basically removed both: people learned how to type, and the internet took care of distribution. With email, everyone can send around as many documents as desired.

Computer monitors needed quite a while to catch up with paper (and printers) when it comes to display quality. This led many people to print out things they needed to read, and it still does today. Even in this day and age, companies produce digital documents that are best suited to be printed out, and often hard to read on the screen. Silly, but true.

In summary, while word processing increased the efficiency of paperwork, this didn't lead to cost savings but to an explosion of paperwork – more paper for the same price, or still more, since cheaper paperwork allowed for the creation of documents that otherwise were prohibitively expensive to produce. The office is a peculiar world.

Digital document workflows are still broken

Did I already mention the fax machine? This was another culprit for the increase of paper usage. People printed out letters and sent them via fax to the recipient who got literally another copy on another sheet of paper. For a business letter via snail mail, only half the amount of paper would be needed (but hey, most of the time carbon copies were made anyway).

Like email, fax speeded up business communication, and this led to more messages. Email then further increased both speed and number of messages. And yes, people started to print out emails. In many footers, I still get the advice to consider the environment before printing out this message.

Many digital document workflows are still broken these days. At some point, printouts are necessary, or at least considered helpful. And the longer a workflow gets, the greater the chance of one or more of these breaks. This can lead to several printouts of the same document at different locations, and to more paper usage than in a pure-paper workflow, where only one piece of paper would be moved around physically.

Paper is the universal medium. Through letters, even people without phone or email can be reached. Paper is the classic example of old media that don't die after the appearance of new media. The emblematic office machine of the early 21st century is the combined printer, photocopier, scanner and fax. In a truly paperless office, it wouldn't be necessary.

Will the paperless office ever arrive? I doubt it.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash