A Place for Papers

The office is a fantastically complex institution, so it is surprising to discover the extent to which it is ultimately just a place for papers to sit. The “paperless office” we started to imagine a quarter century ago turns out to be an oxymoron. We might as well have been talking about the “officeless office.” As the use of paper has declined, the whole institution of the office is changing in unexpected ways.

You can see the extent of the changes when you look at the decline in office supply stores and office software suites. Staples, the largest U.S. office supply retailer, is closing 100 stores in the next few months, with more closings to follow. Stores have to close because sales of ink and toner, the high-volume high-markup items that pay to keep the lights on, are declining as people print out fewer and fewer computer documents. Sales of paper are declining too, of course, but this is less of a concern in itself because paper is often a loss leader at office supply stores. The $17 case of paper makes a profit for the store only because you may use $500 in ink as you print documents on all those sheets of paper. Computer printing is partly a victim of cost-cutting, but it is also a hassle people avoid because when push comes to shove, it turns out to be unnecessary.

Look around an office supply store and you see the supremacy of paper. There are pens to write on paper, staples to fasten them, envelopes and folders to contain paper documents, scales to weigh them, cabinets to store them, and so on. As we use less paper, we use less of all of these things.

As paper declines, so does Microsoft Office and all the other business productivity suites. Like the office itself, the “Office” software is more connected to the need for paper than it appears on the surface. The finer points of the word processing program go to waste if you end up not printing the document — you might as well use a simpler program. The spreadsheet program is likewise overkill if you do not need to print the results on a sheet of paper. Even the presentation software, which would seem to have little to do with paper, can be replaced with a simple slideshow if you don’t have the need to print out the slides, four or six per page, as handouts.

Of course, it is not just the productivity software that is affected here. Microsoft Office is at the core of the appeal of Microsoft Windows, which in turn is the software box that drives the design of the business PC. Take away the paper and you might as well take away everything that is Microsoft. The future PC may be changed beyond recognition.

And so may the office. It is hard to say what the office might look like in the post-paper era, but it clear already that without papers, any table can serve as a desk, and the office itself becomes more expendable than ever before. In established businesses, if workers are at home or on the road, it scarcely matters. For startups, setting up an office is no longer #1 on the to-do list, but may be put off until the second or third year of operation — or until the financial backers insist on an office as a sign of order and stability in the business. But if the office exists mainly for show, then perhaps it isn’t needed at all. What will the “officeless office” of the future look like? As with almost everything else in the transition from physical to digital artifacts, we will probably find out in the end that that was not even the right question to ask.

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