Why the Paperless Office is a Busted Myth

They’ve been talking about this for more than a quarter century now, but the idea of an office going truly digital just isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

The paperless office: The rumbles of what many people thought was an “inevitable” result of digital communication started years ago. So how are we doing in achieving that outcome?

“As technology advances, some people have started to see paper as an outdated medium and predict that a paperless office is the likely outcome,” writes Ray Vernon in Gould’s blog. They’re dead wrong, he asserts.

“The idea for a paperless office it not a new thing – it was mentioned in a Business week article in 1975. But offices of today still use a lot of paper. In 2001 Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper published The Myth of a Paperless Office.

“Reading the reviews on Amazon, some dating from 2010 suggest that the book is outdated, and that paper was indeed being phased out,” he continues. “Yet here we are today, with even more ways to collect and distribute information, still relying on our handy friend, the piece of paper. Look around your office. Has paper disappeared? Does it look like it will?”

To be sure, the way paper is used has changed in the office. But for massive amounts of information, paper is still the method used. You just have to look at the amount of paperwork you needed to sign at your doctor’s office to comply with new medical billing regulations to see that.

Fortunately, according to Vernon, paper will always be a part of the modern office, at least for the foreseeable future. He gives three reasons why this is a good thing:

  1. Paper in environmentally responsible. From forest management to production and recycling, paper is more environmentally aware than ever. In fact, it helps save forests.
  2. There is a growing awareness of the environmental impact of digital’s carbon footprint and continued skepticism at greenwashing claims.
  3. People prefer paper for many uses in the office. “How many magazines and catalogues can you see? Has the marketing department shown you their latest brochure? Have the website designs been printed out for a meeting?”

Like most myths, there is some kernel of truth to it. We are more likely to forward an email than print out and copy a memo. The way we use paper at work has changed. But the myth of the truly paperless office is one we can put to bed.