Back to the Future With the Paper-Less OfficeJanuary 04, 18
I am sure most readers will recall the promise of a paper-less office. The concept was enthusiastically thrown around in the early1990s. With the advent of computers, we would stop wasting huge amounts of paper in the future.
We would write everything on our computers and send that information over the Internet. No need to print anymore. Take a look around your office: if there are no old newspapers, pamphlets, flyers, business cards, diaries, folders, piles of paper for the printer and endless other pieces of paper, then welcome to the future, 1993-style. I'm not there yet.
The idea of the paper-less office came back to me this week when I interviewed the head of a diamond industry company – in a café. The last time I interviewed him was in his office – admittedly it's been a while, but it was only about four years ago.
What happened to the company's offices? Closed them down several years ago in order to save money. What about the workers? They all work from home. Any disadvantages? The workers love it, but he has noticed that the sharing of ideas, helping each other to build up knowledge of the firm's products and brainstorming have all suffered because they almost never get together. That clearly has an effect on business, but lower sales are assumed to be canceled out by savings in rent, utility bills and all the other associated costs.
I then visited a colleague who provides services to the diamond industry. How's business, I asked. Not very good, he replied. Why not close the office then and work from home? Because potential clients won't think that he's serious. If you don't have a physical presence, you make a very poor impression on clients, was the argument.
That's odd, I thought, because people are holding meetings in almost every single café and restaurant near the Israeli diamond bourse – and the same applies to the other large diamond exchanges too.
Briefcases and laptops open, papers and forms spilling out, signatures being dashed off all over the place.
This is happening in just about every other line of business. In the diamond industry, the same changes are taking place although to a more limited extent. The need for security is clearly somewhat more acute than it is for most other businesses, after all.
Some people may well think that you need an office otherwise a client won't take you on. I am not so sure. Are we heading for an office-less future? The benefits are huge – not just lower costs, but a global footprint and the ability to take on staff from across the globe and integrate them and all that over the Internet.
Who says you can't brainstorm via Skype? Meanwhile, cloud computing lets us work in real-time on documents and issues and progress them just as efficiently as when we were all sitting in different cubicles and offices in the same building.
Does it matter that we almost never meet our colleagues? We email and WhatsApp them and sometimes even speak to them on the phone. But that's about as human an interaction as we get.
Will this bring about a rise in the quality of life and a decline in environmental damage? Will city centers be returned to the people, for the people? Instead of emptying out every evening, a decline in demand for offices means those buildings can be used for other activities, especially leisure. No more ghost towns in our cities from sunset to sunrise.
Having worked from home for more than a decade, I understand all the benefits and all the disadvantages, and yet I am still not convinced that one way is better than the other. It seems to me that, for the time being, at least, only smaller businesses are able to take advantage of the office-less approach to work.