The pandemic significant altered work patterns. One result has been a surge of work-related research, particularly about the contribution of remote meetings to business productivity. Surprisingly, less attention has been trained on another work-related activity, namely, how reading and working with documents has changed during the move to remote work. Without access to the office printer, are we finally making the long-predicted move to the "paperless office?"

Paper's Enduring Hold on the Workplace

The idea of the paperless office is nothing new. Perhaps the first milestone was F.W. Lancaster’s "Toward Paperless Information Systems," published in 1978. At that time, the concept was futuristic. But with the rise of local area networks and adoption of the internet by business in the 1990s, the idea gathered steam. The idea seemed so obvious by 2002, that Abigail Sellen’s and Richard Harper’s "The Myth of a Paperless Office" didn't need to explain the rationale for a paperless office, but rather why the paperless office had not yet arrived.

The authors’ analysis focused on the unique properties of paper. Specifically, they credited paper’s staying power on its ability to afford human actions, “such as grasping, carrying, manipulating, folding, and in combination with a marking tool, writing on.”

Based on a series of ethnographic studies, the authors’ concluded that “paper will continue to predominate in activities that involve showing knowledge work, including browsing through information; reading to make sense of information; organizing, structuring, and reminding of ideas.”

The authors’ end the book with the following prediction:

the paperless office is a myth … because they know too well that their goals cannot be achieved without paper. This held true over 30 years ago when the idea of a paperless office first gained some prominence, and it holds true today at the start of the 21st century. We hope to have shown that it will hold true for many years to come.”

When I interviewed Sellen in 2014 for an article about the renaissance of paper in the form of Post-It notes (“How The Post-It Note Could Become The Latest Innovation Technology”), her opinion about the paperless office had changed — but she was still unwilling to predict how long it would take to finally ‘scrap’ paper.

Related Article: The Paperless Office? Dream On

Business Experiences a ‘Paper Cut’

The move to digital documents has been slow and steady. According to the 2019 McKinsey report, “Pulp, Paper and Packaging in the Next Decade: Transformational Change,” the use of graphic paper, the type used in office printers to print documents, continued to grow through 2007. Then, it reached a tipping point, and experienced a downturn through 2018 (see the following graph).

McKinsey and Company, 2019
McKinsey and Company, 2019

What happened?

During the period of reduction in paper usage, improvements in digital technologies made it much easier to edit, comment and share collaborative documents like contracts, proposals and reports. Examples of such technologies include text editors that enable concurrent document editing, as well as enterprise content management systems, cloud document storage, bigger and sharper computer screens, and faster networks, to name just a few.

Adoption of these technologies didn’t occur overnight, because as with most innovations, resistance to adoption was a behavioral issue, not a technological one. However, over time, the benefits of simultaneously sharing and editing documents with many people became apparent, so digital adoption increased steadily.  The days of paper documents being shuffled through physical mailboxes using routing slips was becoming a thing of the past.

And then COVID-19 hit. The sudden migration to the home office is what really moved the needle on digital adoption. As early as April 2020, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella noted that, "we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months ...."

As business moved to home offices, employees lost access to the office printer and graphic paper stocks provided by their employers. When provided with no other option, most of us quit printing documents cold turkey, leading to what a 2020 McKinsey report called a "drastic reduction in office-paper consumption." The same McKinsey report observed that limited access to paper media led to a shift “to digital and online consumption of media … and an accelerated increase in the availability and consumption of e-books, podcasts and audiobooks.”

Learning Opportunities

Another industry report pins the downturn in paper consumption on “a massive reduction in printing at offices, for conferences and other business purposes, and at schools and universities.”

The scope of this revolution can be gauged by the reduction in paper orders. For example, since the lockdown, graphic paper manufacturer Paperwise reports “a 50% drop in turnover for photocopying paper.”

While the drop in office printing may be good for the environment, the move to digital consumption may have other benefits as well.

Related Article: Reboot Knowledge Management for the Post-Pandemic Workplace

Less Paper, Less Clutter

An unexpected benefit of printing fewer documents is less clutter in our home offices. The number one source of clutter in home offices is business-related paper, such as “note pads, post-it notes, files, copy paper, and binders” according to a recent study from DePaul University researchers. (Trash like used food containers and coffee cups was a distant third.) This is significant, because companion research found a positive correlation between workplace clutter and indecision, procrastination, and even stress and emotional exhaustion.

The implications are clear. Even with reduced printing at home, paper documents remain a major source of distraction. The study infers that if we further reduce paper clutter, we will improve focus and attention.

No 'Papering Over' Missed Predictions

Sellen and Harper are not the first researchers to miss the mark on predictions about technology adoption. As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

My own prediction about the staying power of Post-It notes may be wrong as they may be largely replaced by digital equivalents, provided through ideation platforms such as Miro and others.

The Bottom Line

The workplace in clearly still in flux. The move to work from home has upset well-established work practices. And as the pandemic wanes, many workers are unwilling to turn back the clock, as witnessed by the many employees quitting their jobs rather than returning to the office. At the same time, businesses like Google are doubling down on additional office space to bring increasing numbers of workers back to a central office.

The currently popular hybrid work model is still in its infancy, so it is unclear how it will pan out. What is clear is that one size does not fit all when it comes to future work models, which leads me to suggest that current predictions of future work trends “aren’t worth the paper they are written on …” or, the screen they are displayed on. 

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