A “paperless office” is hyperbole of course. There is no expectation that a business will be able to conduct its affairs without ever using or encountering paper. So really the paperless office, which people have been predicting since at least as far back as the 1960s, is an office in which paper use is drastically diminished, generally with technology filling in the gaps. Mostly that means computers-for storing data, duplicating data, transmitting data to others, etc.-but it can include telephones or telegraph or smoke signals for that matter, just anything that doesn’t make use of paper.
A paperless office has clear environmental benefits. The paper industry generates massive amounts of pollution, adds greatly to greenhouse gases, and contributes to the ecological damage of deforestation.
Beyond that, it costs money to do everything on paper. If you print up a memo to distribute to each of the 30 employees in your office, there’s a cost in material and labor that could have been avoided had you sent the same message to everyone to read on their computer monitor. Computerizing an office tends to increase efficiency and lower costs.
So why aren’t more offices going paperless to a greater degree? What is holding back the paperless office?
Really most of the reasons things haven’t moved farther and faster in the direction of the paperless office fall under the general category of inertia or habit. However people are used to doing something, that always has a huge head start over any alternative.
Is it an insurmountable head start? Of course not. Otherwise nothing would ever change. If the resistance to change were absolute, people would have never gotten used to residing outside of caves, living in a democracy, eating heavily processed foods, wearing ties, or having their customer service calls routed to India.
But is it a head start that’s difficult to surmount? Certainly. If you notice, we’re still using the QWERTY keyboard and not speaking Esperanto. The fact that A makes more sense or would be more efficient than B in the abstract doesn’t guarantee that people will choose A over B, if B is what they’re used to. Look at the way the United States has had to be dragged kicking and screaming to even partially accept the metric system.
So a lot of it really is that people are used to using paper for a lot of things where there are alternatives that are as good or better. Heck, I like getting bank statements and such in the mail, and filing them away so I have a physical, permanent record that I can refer to in the future if needed. Why? No good reason I suppose, beyond just that I’ve always kept records that way. I’m used to it. Even though I could achieve the same end by receiving bank statements by e-mail or looking them up on the bank’s website, and then saving the records electronically on my computer, that isn’t how I’m used to doing it.
But really inertia just slows progress rather than stops it. Most of us are more open to doing things in a paperless way now than we were ten years ago. And more important than the change that occurs on an individual level, the difference between people of different ages can be dramatic. A typical 60 year old is less comfortable doing everything by computer than is the typical 40 year old, who in turn is less comfortable doing everything by computer than is the average 20 year old (or 8 year old for that matter). As younger people enter the work force and older people depart the work force, the paperless office becomes less and less forbidding, and requires less and less habit breaking.
2. Short term versus long term costs
Even if a largely paperless office would be more efficient and cheaper to run than a traditional heavily paper-dependent office, for most businesses going paperless requires taking one step back in order to take two steps forward.
Going paperless may require purchasing a lot more computer equipment. It may require spending time and money on employee training.
Going paperless likely means an increase in spending and a decrease in efficiency tomorrow and next week. It also likely means a decrease in spending and an increase in efficiency next year and in ten years. Not every business has the resources and the willingness to hurt their bottom line short term in order to help it long term.
But that’s the nature of an investment, which is really what we’re talking about. Switching to a paperless office requires spending a certain amount in money, time, effort, psychological discomfort, etc. now, in order to hopefully reap a greater benefit later.
In conclusion, as long as we don’t interpret the term overly literally, the paperless office is not a pipe dream. It’s the natural direction in which businesses move as a result of generational shifts in the workplace. It’s not being put off or held back in any absolute or permanent way; it’s slowly and steadily coming closer.