Future Shock: 21st Century Work in the Paper-full Office - Next Action Associates


Yes, you read that correctly. The paper-less office has been talked about for decades, but few people are experiencing it as a reality yet – despite years of peering hopefully from between piles of paper looking for it (and its close cousin, reliable speech recognition software). In fact, all the time that we have been discussing the advent of the paperless office, printers have been getting better and faster, and printing costs have been dropping like a stone. So many of us are seeing more paper in our lives, not less.

To be clear, it is not the paper itself that is the problem, it’s the absence of a system for dealing with paper that is the problem. Going paper-less might make that problem less visible, as the mess will be confined to a hard-drive (and your brain, natch), but it doesn’t actually deal with the underlying issue.

If you want to get to grips with the real problem there are a few things to consider, and the first line of defence in handling paper is the humble inbox. Made of plastic, leather, wood or wire, open on one side (the long side is best for getting things in and out quickly) and stackable, this is the simplest of technologies.

Simple doesn’t mean dated; one of the first things we’ll do when working with a client is to make sure that there is at least one inbox somewhere in their workspace to handle incoming paper. Strangely, just like we have to show very smart people pictures of a functioning paper reference filing system because they might never have seen anything that basic, we often have to explain the functioning of the physical inbox.

Lesson number one: you need (at least) one.

Lesson number two: it is not a storage facility, or a hiding place for paper ‘stuff’.

Lesson number three: it is not an amusement arcade, or a place to go looking for quick and easy wins while leaving tough decisions to ‘cook’ over time.

So what is it?

It is a funnel, a way of concentrating bits of paper in one place, until you have time to think about what they mean for you. It is a place for everything to go, at least initially. I’ve found this functionality a real help; if it is in my hand, and I don’t know where to put it – it goes into the inbox until I’ve worked out what to do with it.

Despite the simplicity of this, there is a surprising amount of resistance to simply putting an inbox in place. There are many who want to go paperless, so have no paper systems in the hope that will force them to do without paper. ‘No’, they say, ‘I don’t want an inbox; it will only collect paper’, as if the inbox will conduct a malicious campaign of paper collection when its owner is not looking. But the paper is not created by the inbox, the paper simply is. It can get stuck in the inbox, but that is not the fault of the inbox.

Even companies sometimes pretend that they have no paper, by simply removing all possibility to process or store it. In a productivity killing flourish, this move is often accompanied by a shift to mobile working, and removing personal work stations (and any scanners on desks, which would be a pre-condition for (maybe) making it work).

Admittedly, with some effort you could get to a paperless office. There are good scanners on the market these days that make that an (almost viable) option. But there is a trade-off: you trade time (spent scanning things in) for paper-less-ness. Personally, I’d rather have the time, and deal with the paper in a simple paper management system.

This is not an antediluvian Luddite polemic in favour of paper; where it can be easily and productively replaced with digital it should be eliminated. But paper has served us for thousands of years in one form or another. It might just be the baby-boomer in me who posits that it is likely to serve us for a very long time to come, but even if you don’t buy that it will be around forever, you’ll want to have some strategy for dealing with it for the foreseeable future. Oh, and sticking your head in the sand it doesn’t count as a strategy unless you’re an ostrich.

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