What happened to the paperless office?

There isn’t much paper on my desk. But there is some.

Which is strange, because like many people, I once thought that paper would’ve pretty much disappeared from the workplace by now.

It was back in the 1970s that futurists first predicted the paperless office. A vision of clean minimalist workspaces, where things were neat, tidy and lean.

Computers would replace typewriters, ushering in a new age of digital communication.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Almost, but not quite.

We’ve got the computers, but step into any office and you’ll probably find paper still hanging in there.

Which is hard to explain.

displaced, not replaced?

The basis for predictions about the paperless office was technology.

People could see how networked computers would provide new ways to communicate and record information. And maybe save money in the process.

It was a case of old replaced by new.

And environmental benefits (paper costs trees) boosted the argument.

But despite email, social media and all the other technology integral to how we now work, there’s still paper on my desk.

Nowhere near the amount you would see if it was 20 or 30 years ago, but it is still there.

And while paper usage will continue to fall, I don’t think it’s going to completely disappear. Not for a long time.

Organisations don’t use paper for many of the things they used to – especially tasks that require it in quantity – and that makes perfect sense.

At Wrexham Council for example, we don’t provide paper copies of committee reports and agendas anymore.

Our residents’ newsletter is published online, instead of being printed.

We have fewer printers and photo-copiers in our offices.

And we’re making more of our services available online, reducing the use of paper forms and administration in the process.

But the fact is, people still prefer paper for certain things.

getting your thoughts down

When you go to a meeting, you’ll see two types of people – those tapping on tablets or phones, and those scribbling on notepads.

Many (most?) of the people with the notepads probably have a phone or tablet too, but they choose paper.

For many, scribbling down thoughts, ideas and info is part of their thinking process. Their creative process.

And the effortless freedom that a pen and paper gives you – you can write and sketch anything you want, however you want – is hard to match.

Technology is evolving all the time, but when it comes to getting those first thoughts and ideas down, paper is still the preferred tool for the job for many people.

will we ever work in a paperless office?

We’ve reduced our paper usage massively at Wrexham Council over the past decade, and we’re still reducing it.

The shift from print to digital continues, enabled by technology and driven by the need to increase productivity and save money.

But why is it taking so long to reach the paperless utopia that people envisaged in the 1970s?

Why is paper still hanging on in the workplace?

I don’t know.

Sometimes, new technology doesn’t replace old technology. Rather it displaces it, pushing it into a lesser role.

And there’s something else about pen and paper that might explain its endurance in the workplace.

Unlike other technologies, it rarely breaks.