I like to travel light. I have absolute dislike of waiting for my luggage to be found and off loaded from the plane. On more than one occasion in the past I’ve had my luggage go missing and had to deal with all the hassle that involves. So for a number of years now, I’ve used a small rucksack that is capable of carrying all my mobile devices, an overnight toiletries bag, a change of clothes and the occasional present and/or bottle of wine and M&S sandwiches. Usually this system works well and only becomes a problem when I have to carry paper versions of reports, minutes and so on. Then the rucksack can become very heavy – or I end up having to take two bags – which obviously defeats the objective of traveling light.
Experience has taught me that one needs to take care with such a system. Last week I came across a very grey looking Robert, clearly in pain and in need of some attention. Robert had worked most of his life for BT (there are other telephone services providers available). He had for years carried a computer bag, with what would have been a chunky and heavy lap-top. Robert favoured one side when carrying his case. Over many years this had resulted in problems in his shoulder, neck and back requiring physiotherapy. I saw him immediately after he had received one of his treatments, which had been painful, very uncomfortable and left him in a great deal of pain.
Whilst it was going to be a busy day of meetings to get through, it was clear that Robert wasn’t going to be able to take part in any of them. We got someone to take him home, and as I write this he is well and on the mend. The second meeting of my day was the Quality and Safety Committee, a committee I chair. Although electronic versions of the meeting papers are available, I do take paper based copies as I make comments on these, which I find easier to refer too in the meeting rather than reading ‘track changed comments’ on the computer screen.
So this means my rucksack gets temporarily filled with a massive sheaf of papers. I say temporarily as I have long used my car as an office. I am able to ‘file’ paper work there, unlike my bricks and mortar office. I’m into week 2 of my new job and already my new office resolution of becoming a paperless worker is beginning to waver. It’s proving difficult to steer clear of using paper to record, track, or capture information. My new (recycled desk) is already displaying a growing mountain of paper. I am going to have to try harder as I refused to have a new (recycled) filing cabinet, and apart from my car, I actually have nowhere to ‘hide’ the growing mound of papers.
The trouble is that paper based information is just so seductive and even without considering the content of the words, it is hugely reassuring to print off a report, paper or whatever. As in the example above, sometimes it’s easier to use a version than an ‘on screen’ format. Paper is a tangible artefact, and for my generation, certainly provides a high degree of ontological security and of course can often be visually pleasing to look at.
However, it’s estimated that the average office worker generates nearly a kilogram of paper each day (about the weight of a cheap bottle of wine). That much paper cost industry dearly. So it’s not surprising that organisations have long looked at ways of reducing this cost. 30 years ago it was a software company ‘Micronet’ that first used the term ‘the paperless office’, but as late as last year research suggested that only 50% of small/medium sized business believed they could go paperless by the end of 2015.
The Department of Health and NHS England obviously know something different. Last week they pledged funding to create a paper-free NHS. £1.8bn to get rid of ‘old technology’ (which could include folk like me); £1bn on cyber security and data consent; £750m to transform out-of-hospital care, medicines and digitise social care and emergency care; and nearly £400m to build a new website – NHS-UK - aiming to develop apps and ensure wi-fi is provided free. 14 years ago, the then Labour government spent some £10bn on developing electronic patient records – but the programme was eventually scrapped after it proved impossible to make any progress.
Creating a paper free office? Actually, it may well already be a redundant aspiration. The 20-something generation (the so called millennial's) is already influencing the way the world turns. They would rather go on a good holiday than save money for their pension. Instability is at the core of the millennial psyche – they don’t want to own stuff (most can’t afford to anyway). More importantly perhaps for the office of the future, is the notion that the millennial are ‘digital natives’ – people who grew up on the internet and want to be able to do anything and everything online, and on demand. And maybe in such a world there is no longer a place for rucksacks, whether these are large of small. However, on Valentines Day it is still lovely to get a proper card (or 2) rather than an e-card pinging into your phone or computer.