Since the early 1940s, when the notion of what an ‘office space’ actually looked like became somewhat standardised (thanks in part to the mass production of office supplies), many great minds have spent hours idling at their desks, imagining what the ‘office of the future’ might look like. In 1975 an article appeared in the popular weekly business magazine, Business Week; an article that transformed the way in which we thought of this hard-to-visualise ‘future office’. This article proposed that increased office automation would mean that the menial and routine record-keeping tasks would soon be redundant, and with the implementation of the personal computer just short of two decades later, this ‘paperless office’ idea was once more brought to the fore.
Computing and paperless offices
Unfortunately, while the Business Week article may have ruminated on the drop off in paper-based tasks with the invention of more sophisticated automation, the reality has been somewhat different. In fact, since the invention and implementation of office computers and printers on a mass scale, use of paper-based material has more than doubled since the 1980s. Rather than the sharp decline these early hopefuls had predicted, we’ve somehow managed to end up in a state where companies’ paper-based frivolity during the 80s, 90s and early 00s means they’re now locked in a very serious struggle to lessening their environmental impact, with waste paper and ink cartridges from manufacturers like Canon and Brother cutting into tight budgets and filling the country’s overwhelmed landfills.
The present office – just where are we now?
Despite recent big pushes to bring an air of credibility to the now-old concept of the paperless office (by Microsoft and notably by the NHS), most companies aren’t asking ‘what can we do to reduce our paper consumption?’, instead they’re asking ‘where can I find cheaper printer ink?’. The problem with office printing is that it’s extremely convenient. We have a document on our screen and we need to share this document – what do we do? Without thinking the Print Page icon has been clicked, and within a couple of seconds 10 pleasantly-warm copies are awaiting our collection in the out-tray of the office laser printer. We talk about ‘technological advancement’ all the time, but it’s interesting to note that what we really mean is ‘technological convenience’ – and this is a mistake many of those who contemplated the ‘office of the future’ in the 40s and 50s seemed to make. They looked at what technology they thought might be available, and they designed office equipment around it, giving little thought to the processes involved in operating them. Offices are walled by boxes of spare printer paper for one simple reason – printing is still the most convenient method we have of sharing information.
Interestingly, there have been some big breakthroughs in recent years which have done much to stem this crippling reliance on paper and lessen our chronic ink cartridge dependency – and it’s come, unsurprisingly, in a technology that provides even more convenience than print. Cloud storage is an online, wireless digital data storage ‘pool’, wherein companies can share, modify, store and exchange data immediately at the click of a button. Blurring the line between the email and the printed page, cloud storage is quickly gaining acceptance amongst companies looking to reduce their ecological footprints – and has even allowed companies to optimise their efficiency, saving time when it comes to backup, replication and availability. Still in its infancy, cloud storage does have a few potential concerns (the biggest being online security), but its convenience can’t, and won’t , be ignored for much longer.