The paperless office is a concept as old as desktop computers. Older folks will remember that even as the very first Macintosh made its way into the consumer market, the idea that one day every office related task will be electronic was already presented in various ways.

Unfortunately, we all eventually knew how it would turn out. Technology limitations were of course part of the reason why it never happened. But more importantly, paper just seems to… find its way.

Today, the paperless office is still as elusive of an idea as it was before. Only now it’s different, and it’s no longer directly contending with the same electronic counterparts as before.

Why paper would simply persist
Paper persists due to one main reason alone: familiarity, or in more technical terms, 'the system'. The ubiquity of paper when it comes to information exchange is still utterly universal.

In fact, many institutional paperwork systems are simply too well established at this point to completely go electronic. For instance according to Xerox, about 38% of its surveyed medical industries in the Unites States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France still waste a huge amount of time processing tasks traditionally done on paper.

As weird as this sounds from our mobile device-centric lives, this is still quite understandable. After stone, paper was the default information medium for several millennia. The surviving establishments of centuries old adapted to the same system, and is thus struggling today to completely phase out what has and always been its most convenient form of writing.

That, and several other simpler reasons directly aid to paper’s persistence, such as:

  • Low initial cost. Paper itself is relatively cheap.
  • Just write and send. No setup, no start-up required.
  • Distribution is straightforward and simple.
  • Power is not strictly required.
  • Usually the better option when other electronic alternatives are unspecified.

For us modern desk warriors, the biggest enemy is billing and invoice. According to the same report, this comprises of about 56% of all the major paper related processes still in use today. Yes, that includes those piling letters of physical subscriptions, unwanted updates and invitations, as well as those unattended paperwork sent by your kid’s school. These are the types of paperwork that, when done on a pure electronic infrastructure, would not be as economically feasible simply due to the inherently higher amount of smaller hardware required.

So do we expect that paper will continue to be this way forever? Most likely, yes. Until other data media and verification systems such as mobile devices and NFC technology become cheap to the lowest common denominator, papers will still survive one way or another.

How paper could (inevitably) not persist
That being said, one easy route to the realization of a true paperless office is the establishment of an institution not dependent on it in the first place.

Virtual offices for example, make wide use of PDFs, e-forms, digital signage solutions, and other electronic form automation options. You know, the very types of files that are usually transcribed into paper on more traditional office environments. Taking your financial report to the next desk is often not an option because your partners are usually several hundreds of miles apart from each other.

There is also the convenient fact that many software developers today have already tapped on this potential market, and have built apps that can cater specifically to these needs. If Evernote, Trello, or even Kami sound familiar to you, then your desk may potentially be a component of the long sought after paperless office.

Of course, this can also be largely dependent on the type of work done on these virtual spaces. Marketing firms for instance, would inevitably lean back on paper as it is still a baseline medium for advertisements. However a modern app development company for example, could go completely electronic.

Most work assets for such a business entity are digital anyway, and any supposed paperwork can be transferred over to any of its integrated systems (such as workstations, terminals, smartphones, etc.).

Besides, even if paper bills and reports do crop up occasionally for startups with actual office spaces, the current trend towards digitization shows us a direction where the use of paper is going to be less and less relevant. The upcoming 5G network protocols for instance, will provide almost negligible latency, and ubiquitous local connectivity to all devices, further reducing the efficiency of paperwork.

Lastly, there may be an actual security risk to using paper in an office. In late July 2018, HP announced a special bug bounty for those who are capable of hacking into the company’s latest line of printers. This headline alone is a stark reminder that printers, specifically multi-function printers (MFPs), can potentially be one of the most vulnerable devices when it comes to hardware network security. In such situations, paper based productivity for the sake of the established systems may just no longer be worth it.