The paperless office is a concept that was originally tossed around in the mid-1970s. The idea was that, as technology assumed an increasingly large role in in daily business operations, the need for paper products would slowly begin to fizzle and die out. In the place of physical documents, reports, notepads, memos, spreadsheets and other office necessities would be software that serves the same function, rendering the traditional versions obsolete.
It has been roughly 40 years since the initial claims of print's irrelevance in the workplace were first made, and very little progress has been made in making the paperless office a standard practice. All of the aforementioned developments have occurred – digital alternatives exist for most paper products, and the invention of the Internet and subsequent creation of cloud computing have opened doors that were previously thought to be sealed shut.
And yet, print documents are still in high demand and electronic systems have yet to eradicate them.
Contrary to what you might have been told, you still need paper
Business 2 Community contributor Jared Jacobs referenced a study conducted by Nitro that found that an incredible 99 percent of employees still review paper documents at least some of the time. That's essentially the entire workforce. So what are some of the reasons behind this systematic failure to implement paperless initiatives?
For one thing, Jacobs noted, people like to take notes. Little scribbles in the margins of documents, sticky notes left on a computer screen, quick edits made to text with a pen, underlining and highlighting important information, doodles to keep oneself preoccupied during a particularly mundane meeting – all of these are just easier and more fun to do on paper. Yes, he admitted, tablets and touch screens have helped to alleviate some of this concern, but the fact remains that paper is just better for the brain.
Jacobs asserted that reading from a screen is tiring and bad for your eyes. People tend to blink less when doing so, which causes strain that would not exist as a result of reading print material. And constant scrolling allows the eyes to remain focused on a single area for extended amounts of time, which is also not good for them.
Another advantage of paper is that it's cheap and easy. Jacobs stated that the amount of time and money it takes for companies to research the best document management strategies, calculate return on investment, contact providers and actually implement the system is exhausting, both mentally and monetarily. Conversely, paper is easy to order, easy to use, and does not require any maintenance or upkeep in order to ensure it is up to date.
Paperless is a nice little fantasy, but it's not plausible
TechWhirl's Dan Goldstein wrote an article denouncing the feasibility of the paperless office. While he recognized the efficiency standpoint of the concept, he deemed it to be foolish in nature, as it overlooked various details and logistics.
And, as it turns out, the overall public interest in paperless offices is on the decline. Goldstein cited data compiled in Google's NGram viewer, which records the frequency of words used in books and other published texts, that saw usage of the term rise steadily during the growth of micro computing and invention of the Internet before peaking around the turn of the century. Since then, the term has been used less often each year; by 2008 it had fallen to a rate previously unseen since the mid-to-late 1980s.
So, what, exactly has spawned this decline in interest in what was expected to be the new way to do business? Goldstein said it's very simple: People realized it doesn't work.
Software, he said, is rarely affordable, and even more rarely designed to be customizable based on individual needs. Rather, he remarked, developers create it the way they think it should work, which might differ from what you intend to do with it. An argument can be made that purchasing paper in bulk over long periods of time actually costs more than buying software, but this overlooks the fact that the tech industry moves at such a hectic and lightning-quick pace that if you invest in a new system, it could – read: probably will – be outdated within a year. Constantly purchasing new updates to keep up with the competition is not exactly thrifty.
It has been four decades since paperless offices were initially conceived. Though the rise of the Internet and the Digital Era gave brief hope to prognosticators that the concept would finally grab a hold of offices worldwide, the transition has never actually occurred en masse. Instead, businesses are finding paper to still be useful in a variety of workplace functions, despite the prevalence of technology in most workplaces. It has become clear that although it isn't cutting-edge, paper has staying power. Predictions to the contrary are, in a word, just clueless.