Whatever Happened to the Paperless Office?

Even with such technological advances as the desktop workstation, the tablet and Internet, the paperless office seems to be moving farther out of reach.

by Harold Clinton / September 19, 2013

Since its prediction in a 1975 BusinessWeek article, the paperless office has proven to be the stuff of fantasy. In the last 10 years, office paper consumption has barely dipped in North America and has increased globally, according to industry groups. Even with such technological advances as the desktop workstation, the tablet and Internet, the paperless office seems to be moving farther out of reach. Computer scientists and ergonomic specialists have found that the obstacles are not technological. We have all of the machinery to completely remove paper products from the workspace. It is the human factor that has stopped us from obtaining a truly digital organization.

Paperless Beginnings

The task is no longer the elimination of paper from an office workspace. It is about creating a psychological process, individually and culturally, that utilizes data to its highest potential. Just moving data from point A to point B is not enough. The information needs to be accessible anywhere and over multiple platforms.

To see how office processes are evolving, start with the Xerox Corporation, circa 1970. The company assembled a team of information and physical scientists and created the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) to design innovations in data technology. One of the first significant developments to come out of PARC was the laser printer. This substantially changed the office workplace by allowing users the ability to render digital copies of their work.

As computers gained power, the technology for transmitting the data increased. By 1973, PARC offices included personal computing workstations and an Ethernet file-sharing system. This was a significant cultural shift. At this time, there was no environmental concern that required paper reduction, and tablet technology was something of science fiction stories. PARC’s goal was to create the office of the future. PARC would go on to introduce the graphical user interface (GUI), with widespread applications across the technology industry.

In trying to create the office of the future, PARC changed the way the world communicates. It produced a data management environment in which paper was just one of the information storage and transmittal devices.

Virtualization Defined

In an article for the journal Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age, computer scientist J.M. Kizza defined virtualization as a process through which something can be created, that is there in effect and performance, but not in reality. It is in this new reality that the goal of a paperless office has gone awry. The removal of paper from a company is too simplistic a goal. The new office requires processes that integrate the workers into the system, effectively making them part of the data analysis mechanism.

Forbes lays out five relatively straightforward technological processes that can be used to get closer to a paperless office.

1. Create internal document-sharing.

2. Use paperless statements and electronic bill pay.

3. Utilize electronic file-sharing and storage.

4. Deliver meeting handouts electronically.

5. Use scanning and faxing instead of snail mail.

These are all practical and useful suggestions for creating a paperless office, but they take on a more significant meaning when looked at as social and ergonomic functions. Each of these steps creates a digital, global relationship between workers. Using electronic data-sharing means there is a nearly instantaneous exchange of information between co-workers anywhere in the world. This creates a de facto virtual office, whether the workers recognize it or not. This can be difficult if you're a worker who lives in a culture of identity theft, continually trying to protect your identity in a virtual world.

The paperless office has not become practical, because society has not evolved its processes enough to step into this virtual new world. With pun fully intended, take a page from the digital publishing industry. A graph of sales versus time for the last 10 years resembles the letter U. The left side of the graph shows a high point in sales, as the technophiles purchase books in digital media, and schools begin offering textbooks in this format. There is a rapid decline in sales that correspond to the introduction of commercial e-readers, such as the Kindle and Nook. One of the major criticisms of this format is that it did not feel right in the hand. It did not feel like a book. Over the next five years, consumers became accustomed to the design of the e-readers, which is reflected by the consistent sales growth of digital books. It is this kind of cultural shift that proponents of paperless environments are hoping for.

Gateways to Being Paper-Free

Technological changes can have profound cultural effects — the launch of Google Glass is an example. During the launch, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said smartphones are emasculating, because texting or Internet searching on a phone requires the user to maintain a head-down position -- a subservient posture. This is one example of technology creating a cultural shift. It is not unforeseeable for an office worker to be equipped with a work version of Google Glass, possibly replacing the traditional workstation. A person could type in mid-air and, with a flick of the wrist, send a document anywhere in the world.

Tablets may be the next great hope for shifting the culture to a digital one. Gavin Whatrup, group IT director at the marketing services company Creston, says the paperless office will not be realized until paper can be replaced with something that has the same dimensions and general feel. With tablets having the same approximate reading dimensions and becoming increasingly slimmer, they may finally be able to replace a sheet of paper in the office.

The question is not what happened to the paperless office, as much as whether we want to enter this new virtual world. Like splitting the atom, the search for the paperless office means altering the world as we know it. Wearing glasses with digital technology and carrying around a tablet would give the office a science fiction feel that would profoundly change the way we work on a daily basis.

Harold Clinton works as a business adviser at a large marketing firm in Phoenix.