Is the future paperless?

An early prediction of the paperless office came in a Business Week article in 1975, describing the office of the future. The idea was that with the introduction of PCs on every desk, paper would become redundant for routine tasks such as record-keeping and book-keeping.

Nearly 40 years later, technology has far exceeded our expectations, with tablets, smartphones, laptops and wifi, yet demand for paper is at an all-time high. Finnish paper provider FOEX predicted that the global market in 2012 would reach a record of 400m tons. It seems that paper remains at the heart of our culture, despite all the advances in technology.

Advocates of going paperless claim that it can save money, boost productivity, save space, make documentation and information sharing easier, keep personal information more secure and help the environment. Many companies have tried, but being genuinely paperless is an expensive thing to even attempt to do. The National Archives, the official archive of the UK government, have predicted a cost of £295m to reduce the number of boxes being produced in the reading room by just 20%. For them, and for many companies in today’s economic climate where budgets are being stretched in all directions, going paperless is not the main concern, and will not see the required return on investment that other activities may provide. In short, it’s a question of priorities.

For historians and researchers, paper is still important and something that they are keen to preserve. The British Library is looking for ways to reduce reliance on paper, and its newspaper library, which has been built up over three centuries and consists of 750m pages, is now being moved to digital. However, the originals are still being secured and placed in storage. As a result of this, the actual library will close.

Retaining important documents is not just imperative for historic purposes, but many papers need to be kept to meet legal requirements, with the retention period varying from three months to permanently. Microsoft advise that companies want to become paperless, but admits that in practice this simply means ‘less paper’. Certainly there are savings to be made by switching some tasks to online, such as invoicing, especially if the time saved on paper-associated admin tasks is included.

There seems to be no doubt of the benefits of reducing paper in the office, but going completely paperless still seems as far away as when it was first predicted. Our love of paper shows no sign of abating.