A teacher once told me this story about a top PSU officer who got an earful from the company’s managing director for working out of a pig sty of an office. This fellow had papers, reports, files and circulars piled all around the room in tall man-sized heaps. The managing director, meanwhile, had just returned from a study tour to Europe buzzing with radical western management ideas such as keeping the office clean, addressing each other on a first-name basis, sitting in office chairs without towels draped over them, and not using the board room for family functions such as jayamaala or arundhati darshanam.
The MD took one look at this underling’s office and exploded into a rage. Clean up immediately, he commanded, or he’d simply throw everything out the next morning.
The underling, in panic, summoned his man Friday, the office peon. “Sir! I can throw out these papers immediately. But what if you need something later?” the peon asked.
The underling thought for a while. And then came up with a perfect solution. He turned to his peon and said: “Ramu, you take photocopies of everything and destroy the originals.”
(And here you are sitting and wondering why a PSU like Air India is losing money. For all you know just handing over the Air India offices to a good kabaadiwallah might make enough money to turn around the airline. I am willing to give this idea to the ministry of civil aviation in return for a generous consulting fee.)
I was reminded of this story, and this general propensity among cubiclists to hoard paper, when I read a recent chart in The Economist titled “I’m a lumberjack”. The chart showed how much paper was being consumed per capita in various countries. This consumption was represented in the form of 40-foot trees. So, for example, Belgium that tops the chart consumes 8.51 40-foot trees worth of paper each year. (This is because in Brussels they need to print all those official EU documents in half-a-dozen languages.)
“Whatever happened to the paperless office?” starts the brief paragraph of text accompanying the chart in The Economist.
The paperless office was one of those mythical things I was promised as a child by television science programmes. Along with tasty food in tubes, cheap electric cars, virtual reality, domestic robots and housing complexes on the moon, the paperless-digital-electronic-fully-computerized-office was supposed to revolutionize our lives.
I recall watching a show about Bluetooth devices, as recently as eight or maybe 10 years ago, that promised an office with no paper or printouts. Employees would sit in front of their computers zapping documents back and forth via beams of beautiful Bluetooth.
Things haven’t really turned out that way. In fact I can think of only one solid application of Bluetooth technology. (Note this technique carefully: If you ever need someone to help you in the office, or need some sympathetic company, seek out the people in office who wear those bluetooth headsets. And avoid them. They are all psychopaths.)
Why, then, are our workplaces still so enamoured of paper products? Why despite all the sophistication of modern computers—some of which are even capable of updating their anti-virus software automatically without any provocation during critical board meeting presentations—do we still take so many printouts?
Partly, I think it is the sense of security that paper gives us. Imagine Pranab Mukherjee holding up an iPad outside Parliament, instead of that briefcase containing a printed copy of the budget. What would that remind you of? Income tax rates? Or Sunny Leone?
Paper is very, very safe for work.
Secondly, the only thing people trust less than their IT infrastructure is the guy who maintains the IT infrastructure. If you really want to keep a safe archive of something, a print-out filed away in a cupboard is the best way to make sure nothing will happen to it and that you will never find it again. Indeed, instead of making paper less necessary, our cubicles have made printing even easier. Thanks to powerful machines that can churn out hundreds of pages without jamming more than 30 or 40 times per hour, people print things willy-nilly.
A few years ago, on a business trip to a branch office in New Delhi, I kept firing print-outs to the local printer without any success. I tried dozens of times. Not one page came out. And then I got a phone call from a bewildered Mumbai office. Thanks to the wonders of modern computer networking, I was sending prints, over the corporate network, to my machine in Mumbai. “Stop doing this,” a colleague begged over the phone. “There is only one sheet left. I need to use it to put in a requisition form for more A4 paper.”
But hey, a newspaper journalist should be the last person complaining about printing. You cubiclists, on the other hand, really need to do something about your wastefulness.
Please consider the environment before printing this column.
Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Sidin Vadukut’s earlier columns