Not so long ago, people were very excited about the ‘paperless office’ – a golden age where everything would be done on computer and all those lovely trees would be safe from the clutches of the mad axeman or Chainsaw Clive.
Well, they got it half right.
Offices everywhere would grind to an unbearable halt without computers these days. I experienced a form of that horror this week, when a laptop I was working on decided it was going to freeze for a full half an hour, no matter how much I pleaded with it or reset it. (It was fine after that, probably because by then I had the expression of the mad axeman from the previous paragraph, and the laptop feared its imminent demise). Our work all relies on technology. It’s a rare state of affairs indeed when anything has to be handwritten. Even forms to fill in are now often supplied as editable PDF documents that can be submitted online, with a (sometimes) helpful check feature that won’t let you advance to the next page until you get the previous one right.
But despite the fact that we do so much on computer and online, and keep everything on servers (Word files, Excel files, databases, etc. etc.), we’re using more paper than ever. In my office, the client files are full of countless statements from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, copies of tax returns, accounts calculations and so much more, held onto not for posterity but because there are legal requirements to keep this data for a number of years. Clients also have files for sales invoices, purchase invoices, bank statements, credit card receipts, petty cash receipts, and receipts for the receipt of a receipt. And don’t even get me started on payroll – it’d sap the strength of any trees reading (sap the strength! Sap the… oh, never mind.)
The digital revolution has led to a world where anyone can produce massive documents and send them without needing to rely on the cost and unreliability of post. So what do people do when receiving such email attachments? They print them out in full, file them somewhere, lose them, and then print them again! Barmy stuff.
Do you want to know the ugly truth? The sheer easiness of making stuff that used to be laboriously handwritten means that bureaucracy is forever on the increase. More forms, more paper, more annoyance. The technological advances that were meant to prevent wasting paper have, in fact, made the problem even worse.
So, the paperless office shows no more signs of happening now than when I first got a job. And do you know what that first job was? You guessed it: Paperboy.