The ever-elusive paperless office

October 08, 2007

October 08, 2007
Anonymous Writer
Contributor, The Economist Intelligence Unit


The paperless office as a concept has been around since the mid-1980s but is arguably even further away from being realised today than when it first appeared. “There are two phases in its development. Firstly when computers started becoming useful, people started talking about the paperless office but it was not actually viable.Then in the more recent second phase with the advent of the internet it really looked as if the concept could happen. In retrospect, this was also blue-sky thinking,” says Braden Allenby, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University.
One major US corporation agrees. “We never got as far as the paperless office. Between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, the question for us was, “If we buy recycled paper and if we recycle this paper, then who cares how much we use?” The answer is paper costs money,” says Michele Blazek, a director for AT&T environment, health and safety compliance.
Cost-cutting at the US phone giant was a main driver in reducing paper consumption, according to Ms Blazek. Exact figures on its progress are hard to calculate since the US telecoms giant acquired or shed a number of businesses over the last ten years, making comparisons difficult. Most recently, it was itself acquired by regional Bell carrier SBC. The move to make information such as engineering manuals and human resources material such as pay cheques available online was also aided by a high degree of tele-working and a large number of field staff, particularly telecoms engineers. For both groups, accessing services from a central electronic source was more convenient.

Anecdotally, Ms Blazek reckons that less paper is used today by AT&T staff. “I think individual paper usage has gone down, including the consumption of mail such as periodicals. Back in 1994, our global real estate business found that their average employee used 2.5 lb of paper a day. We don’t have the same problem anymore. A clean desk is not that hard anymore. It’s really a behavioural issue.”

Of course, some take longer than others to change. Ms Blazek admits to one errant colleague who a decade ago routinely printed out each of his e-mails each morning promptly at 11 am before reading them.She claims such antics are now in the past. But other observers are more sceptical that the advent of e-mail has actually increased paper consumption in offices. Overall, however, as far as anyone can tell, the paperless office remains elusive.

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