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The history and evolution of the paperless office

From the advent of word processors to full-time remote work, the history of paperless offices reflects major technological innovations across the past four decades.

First commercialized in the mid-1980s, the paperless office uses digital technologies to automate office work.

A paperless office means software replaces paper in written reports, budget calculations, messages and document storage, among other routine tasks. However, the term is relative: How technology can digitize work and extract business value continuously changes. An office is no longer just a physical place but anywhere that work gets done. The history and evolution of the paperless office reveal what it means to make an office work paperless.

The paperless office across four eras

The paperless office spans four computing eras: integrated office systems, client-server networks, enterprise web servers and cloud platforms. Each era includes specific hardware, software and networking technologies that automate certain tasks and solve specific problems.

Paper's importance as a physical object changed from an information storage and display medium to just a display device. The future of the paperless office depends on how these underlying technologies continue to evolve. Each era takes advantage of prior capabilities to help employees and teams communicate, coordinate and collaborate more efficiently.

Before the paperless office

Until the late 1970s, paper powered business. Salespeople and contract specialists -- supported by subject matter experts, lawyers and others -- drafted business proposals. Other employees edited paper drafts or added new sections. One or more people retyped drafts, handled revisions and produced final versions, which were then printed and delivered to the recipients.

Three inventions in this decade began to digitize paper processes:

  1. Word processors. Emerging in the mid-1970s, word processing automated document production, as typists could edit text electronically without retyping entire pages.
  2. Electronic spreadsheets. These spreadsheets, developed in 1979, automated budget calculations and other accounting tasks.
  3. The IBM PC. Launched in 1981, this PC offered affordable hardware for word processing and spreadsheets and enabled these apps to spread rapidly across large and midsize organizations.

While workers saved time and effort developing proposals and calculating budgets online, they still exchanged draft proposals as hard copies and stored the final versions in physical file cabinets.

Integrated office systems

Integrated office systems were popular within large organizations from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s and began to reduce the reliance on paper. Teams that developed proposals and contracts often worked in several locations and relied on minicomputers and proprietary -- or privately owned -- WANs to connect global operations. 

Paper-based office work became the exception, not the expectation.

Integrated office systems also introduced digital files and email. Teams stored and managed proposal drafts online, which often mimicked the naming conventions of physical file cabinets. With email, workers easily exchanged proposal drafts before printing and sending the final versions.

Workers no longer needed to file or exchange hard copies. With everyone connected to the same proprietary network, integrated office systems simplified communication and information sharing within an organization. But this step toward paperless operations required upfront investment.

Client-server networks

Client-server networks came about in the late 1980s and were popular from the mid-1990s through the late 2000s. These networks supported digital filing and email at a fraction of the cost of integrated office systems. With PCs, industry-standard software and LANs, SMBs gained the same paperless efficiency as large organizations.

Teams that developed proposals could scan paper documents, convert them into digital files and add them to file-sharing systems. If they knew their email addresses, workers could easily email drafts to colleagues on their own LANs or related networks. Also, the advent of Windows and Mac GUIs introduced WYSIWYG editing and desktop publishing. Workers could create and edit proposals as compound documents, which combined images and tables with formatted text.

Client-server networks accelerated paperless internal operations. New workflow capabilities helped teams identify certain review and approval steps to develop proposals and automate predefined processes. Still, teams approved proposals and signed contracts as paper documents, and official records remained in physical filing cabinets.

A timeline depicting the history of paperless offices from the 1980s through the present
This timeline explores the history of paperless offices starting in the 1980s.

Enterprise web servers

During the 1990s, organizations worldwide adopted the internet as the global networking protocol, enabling individuals and teams to connect and exchange messages regardless of location. In 1994, the World Wide Web emerged to help publish information on websites. These innovations increased how many and how quickly business documents traversed corporate networks. But the paperless office hadn't fulfilled its potential yet. Someone or something still needed to manage information.

By the early 2000s, organizations began to adopt enterprise web servers to streamline internal operations. Web browsers ran on industry-standard PCs, and teams could store drafts in a shared repository accessed through the web. Enterprise content management and digital asset management servers became increasingly popular.

Workers -- no longer limited by a predefined file plan -- could use multiple content categories and other metadata to organize drafts. Other workers could search for and access drafts if they knew the relevant index terms, then update content. Teams could also save approved business documents in web-based records management systems instead of printing them out.

Moreover, the paperless office enabled organizations to interact with customers and other external stakeholders digitally. Organizations could deliver contracts through a business portal, collect customer comments in a single repository and organize information online without email.

But operations were not entirely paperless, as customers still needed to print and sign physical documents.

Cloud platforms

Since the early 2010s, cloud-based content platforms have increasingly digitized business operations. Organizations routinely store and manage business documents online, relying on mobile and tethered devices. Paper-based office work became the exception, not the expectation.

Digital work has led to end-to-end paperless operations. Teams can work and collaborate from anywhere and assemble and organize information from disparate sources. Work transitioned from a specific location -- like an office building -- to something teams do, enabled by technology. When a team completes a proposal, the buyer and seller can sign their contracts electronically and formalize the agreement in a traceable way.

The future of the paperless office

Digital collections and repositories led to new opportunities, yet the paperless office still has challenges ahead. While proposals and contracts record commercial activities, teams can struggle to recall what the documents contain.

Organizations need automatic ways to understand the content within contracts and assess risk exposure when business situations suddenly change. Different approaches to AI and machine learning could help unlock information stored within proposals and contracts and give business decision-makers actionable insights about the next steps.

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