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In 1975, Business Week published a now famous article discussing the future of the office.

The persistence of paper in offices


In 1975, Business Week published a now famous article discussing the future of the office. It noted that this place of work was "the last corporate holdout to the automation tide that has swept through the factory and the accounting department".

The office world, so to speak, was on the precipice of a radical transformation that could not have been better timed. It was still labour-intensive, unproductive and out of sync with the modern world. Technology offered the answer.

Speaking to the publication at the time, George E. Pake, a renowned physicist and one of the founders of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, and Vincent E. Giuliano, a senior researcher at Arthur D. Little Inc, both agreed that by the 1990s, we'd very much be living in a paperless world.

Much has changed since then but, if you fast forward to today, the other side of the millennium, you'll notice that we're still very much "paper heavy". Any decline in the generation and dissemination of paper has been slight and so it is that the predictions of both Mr Pake and Mr Giuliano have not quite materialised as they imagined it would.

It's quite surprising, given that the ongoing digital revolution is now some 30 years old and we're now rather settled in the distinct rhythm of the information age. Yet, despite the prevalence of technology – tablets, smartphones – and new ways of working – unified communications – we've been unable to give up our love affair with paper.

And it is to our detriment, as new research from Adobe has outlined. Entitled Paperless Jam: Why Documents Are Dragging Us Down, the study highlights the challenges organisations face because of anachronistic ways of working. In short, productivity, efficiency and workplace morale all suffer.

There is a desire for change, for more modern, smarter and ultimately tech-focused ways of running an office. Polling the thoughts of more than 5,000 professionals all over the world – UK, France, Germany, Australia and the US – researchers found that the overwhelming majority (83 per cent) are of the opinion that "outdated ways of working with documents" hinders their ability to be truly successful.

Interestingly, a decided number of individuals (61 per cent) said that so bad are their antiquated ways of working that they've even considered changing jobs for "for the sake of dramatically less paperwork". Document-driven tasks are a "bottleneck to getting real work done".

"Other content types like music and photos – and the ways we interact with them – have moved forward. Why not documents?" asks Kevin Lynch, vice president and general manager of document services at Adobe. "The rise of mobile will exacerbate this document gap even more. This should be a wake-up call to businesses that their productivity is taking a hit and they need to do something about it."

Employees want to go digital. As Mr Lynch notes, in our personal lives we've than embraced technology with enthusiasm. Consider, for example, how central smartphones have become – from banking to shopping to socialising, these devices offer ample solutions.

This disconnect, between people's personal and professional lives, is therefore curious. We're paper-lite in the former, but not in the latter, "clinging" on as Adobe puts it, to traditional paper at work. While there is evidently a lot of enthusiasm for going digital, there are still a lot of office workers who still have an affinity for paper, with 52 per cent stating that they are "emotionally attached" to paper documents.

Still, change is coming and now, more than ever before, we're in a better position to let go of paper. With technology offering so many better approaches to work and a digital culture very much the order of the day, it's only a matter of time.


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