Why The Paperless Office Hasn’t Happened Yet

Why The Paperless Office Hasn’t Happened Yet

In 1975, George Pake, head of the famous Xerox PARC felt that the paperless office was an inevitability. He imagined that by 1995 the world would be using computers to read documents and that this revolution in the office would inevitably lead to it becoming paperless.

Paperless picture from Shutterstock

With the ubiquity of tablet-wielding executives in the office of today, it would be easy to think that Pake essentially got it right but just misjudged the timing by 20 years. But even today, a recent report found that only 1 per cent of European businesses had achieved the goal of a paperless office. In fact, the mantra of going paperless has now been downsized to what is perceived to be the more achievable goal of “paper light”.

The incentives to reduce paper use in the workplace are still significant. From an environmental point of view, it has been estimated that the US spends $25-35 billion a year filing, storing and retrieving paper.

Far from going paperless, we are actually accelerating in our use of paper with the annual growth rate of the amount of paper produced by the average company standing at 25 per cent . Each day, an estimated 1 billion photocopies are made.

So why have we found it so hard to break the addiction to paper?

One explanation for the continuing consumption of paper is summarised by the so-called “Jevons paradox” which came from the English economist William Jevons, who in 1865 noted that improvements in the efficiency of coal use led not to a reduction but to an increase in consumption. The Jevons paradox is definitely at work in the use of paper as our exposure and access to documents has increased massively as has the ease in printing and photocopying those documents.

Behind this of course is an industry that has little incentive in seeing less paper used. The forestry and paper industry in the US alone accounts for 4.5 per cent of its total GDP and manufacturing $200 billion of products of which office paper is a large part.

Another element is that although technology has improved to the point where reading a document on a device is almost the same as reading it on paper, it hasn’t improved to the point where it completely replicates what Microsoft researcher Abigail Sellen calls the “affordances” of paper. Affordances of an object was an idea first proposed by the psychologist James Gibson in 1977 who described affordances as the properties of an object that determine what actions an individual can use it for. In her book on the paperless office, Sellen argues that it is the affordances of paper that have determined its use within the workplace which have dictated work practises to incorporate those properties. To change workflows so as to not use paper requires people to change work practises as a whole rather than simply substitute a computer screen for paper. This poses the biggest challenge in moving from one technology to another as there exists a hybrid stage in which both forms of a technology have to be accommodated which sometimes provides insurmountable obstacles to the full adoption of the new technology.

One of the best examples of how workflow has been largely responsible for delaying the move away from paper has been the form in all of its different incarnations. Although online forms seem common enough, they have not made it through to many government and corporate environments. Where they do appear in these situations, they are normally presented as PDF or Word document files that require printing, signing and then faxing or scanning to send by email. There is still a pervasive belief that this is necessary because a signature is required even though in Australia as in other countries, electronic alternatives to paper signatures now exist.

There is nothing stopping an organisation from becoming largely paperless other than the institutional inertia that is the breaks of all progress. It is clear that for change to occur, simply having technology that can replace paper is not enough. Work practises need to change to accommodate the differences that the use of technology allows and this needs to come from an institution-wide effort rather than the practises of individuals.

David Glance is the Director of the Centre for Software Practice at the University of Western Australia. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • The paperless office will be a dream until the laws are modified to accept electronic signatures too …
    I have migrated in Australia and had to provide originals documents of everything, I have bought a house and everything had to be on paper, very few things were accepted electronically.
    Also, to enroll my daughter at school, I have sent them the pdf of the utility bill (use bpay view, so no more paper bill), and they refused it because it was not the original!!! There’s some work to do on that space, maybe when there is a standard of electronic signatures, then we’ll get there …

  • My office is completely paperless. Even when signing stuff, I am able to use my wacom to sign it, and most businesses accept that, probably because they can’t tell the difference …

  • You’re never going to get paperless offices when the “replacement” is a tablet costing several hundreds of dollars. No-one want to buy that for their low level employees, especially when you consider what else you can do on them these days. They appear far too much like a toy to execs (but only when considering them for the low level people, to the C level people they’re seen as essential).

    Basically there isn’t an alternative right now. I go to a meeting, I need to print off a report and write notes on that report, there is no other way.

    And, yes, there is still a major problem with companies and government agencies not accepting digital information; paper or person only.

  • We still have corporations and government creating completely naff websites – they are so far away from making usable paperless environments, we may as well be having this discussion in 1994.

    Computer technology has enabled the most rapid advances firstly in document creation (with word processors etc), and then with document review and annotation (ditto, but later generations), with actual reading being a more difficult target, because as Abigail Sellen correctly points out. paper has so many useful affordances.

    At present we’re in a long transition period between computer display and an effective electronic paper implementation. When we do have that, I suggest that we will probably still want to have a variety of epaper surfaces to consult at one time because our eyes, brains and hands work those very well.

    In the meantime we need a local IT sensibility that cares more for appropriate user-centred design so that the right experiences will be available when the presentation technology improves. History suggests that the latter will move much faster than the former.

  • Paperless I don’t think will ever happen with Government departments such as ATO, ASIC etc all requiring paper. I prefer to subscribe to “Less Paper” office. Cut down what you can to save money so you can add that to somewhere else within the company.

    • You can provide everything to the ATO in scanned form and submit digitally. No paper requirement there.

      • The customer-facing aspects may have no paper requirement, but internally our departments (Qld gov) are required to keep everything in a paper record on file for seven years for internal audit purposes. The truly absurd thing about it is that even when our vendors are producing their bills electronically, we still have to print them and have them sighted and signed so that a physical paper copy can be stored.
        It’s the most absurdly archaic thing in the government that I can think of.

        That requirement hasn’t changed and isn’t changing, and we’re generating more work than ever, resulting in a truly lucrative business in murdering trees and imprisoning their corpses.

      • I don’t think that’s 100% correct, last time I checked there were certain things that had to be posted out to the ATO in paper form with signed documents. While I was working at an accounting firm, this was a must by the ATO. However, this might have changed since I checked last year though so I could be wrong.

  • I could theoretically go paperless but it’s really hard trying to review and mark up documents with multiple media formats (pictures, etc.) with a mouse. If our company invested in something like wacom tablets then that would help shift things. But when the system is more about what’s easy instead of what’s more efficient and logical, then good luck. Basically, the way computers are today don’t fit in with the way people work best. So we’re still stuck in that in between stage where computers are finally being made to suit us instead of us having to change to work with them.

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