It’s one of those office design trends that pops up every few years, and then mercifully fades away again: the Paperless Office. In theory, it should save money, space, heck, even the planet. In reality, it saved a lot of employees the need to go looking for things to complain about. That’s because no matter how advanced mobile technology gets, it’s really, really hard to go entirely paper-free. Here’s why.
We don’t blame the company in this story for wanting to be anonymous. Their attempt to achieve a paperless office was particularly poignant, because they tried to force the issue via their choice in office furniture. It seems like a plan that might work, too: If you don’t want people to use paper, why not build an office entirely without filing cabinets? After all, if people have no place to put paper, what are they going to do? I mean, it’s not like they’ll just stack it up all over the office, right?
Wrong. That’s exactly what they did.
Not, as you might think, an episode of “Star Trek,” the Jevons Paradox states that as a resource becomes more efficient, it becomes cheaper, which then inspires people to use it more. (Sort of like how fuel-efficient cars inspire people to drive more, not less.)
It might seem like this would make people more willing to give the paperless office a try. After all, it’s cheaper not to use paper, right? But in this case, the factor to look at is increased computer memory. It’s cheap to create lots and lots of documents, which then beg to be printed out.
Social scientists Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper wrote the book on the failure of the paperless office — literally. “The Myth of Paperless Office” begins with an anecdote from their time at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. Their work there, which was largely writing economic reports, should have been perfectly suited for a digital-only environment. Instead, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it, they found an office “awash in paper.” Why? Because it turns out that writing reports is collaborative, and paper made it easier to trade opinions and revisions among coworkers.
Sellen and Harper concluded, “The paperless office is a myth not because people fail to achieve their goals, but because they know too well that their goals cannot be achieved without paper. This held true over thirty years ago when the idea of the paperless office first gained some prominence, and it holds true today at the start of the twenty-first century.”