Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Open, Configurable Workspace and the “paperless office”

Our recent class reading about the “Myth of the Paperless Office” and the case of DanTech reminded me of the recently-built CalIT2 building I used to worked in at UC San Diego.

The layout of the building is very similar to the description of DanTech’s new venue given by Sellen & Harper. It has wide, open spaces with highly mobile furniture that allow people to reconfigure their working environment. Each wheeled desk is equipped with a computer, along with a small, wheeled storage unit to hold documents and office supplies. Hallways around the perimeter are lined with large whiteboards and chairs, encouraging impromptu meetings and contributions.

I did not realize the minimal use of paper in my workplace until I reread this piece. As the authors point out, reducing the amount of paper stored at a desk “[breaks] the shackles” or anchors that tie a user to a bounded physical space. In the case of my former workplace, the open spaces and minimal storage areas, along with the work processes, facilitated the reduction in paper use. However, like the DanTech case, paper is not completely absent from the workplace. As the authors point out, there are many affordances that paper lends to users. In my case, paper was used as reminders of recent tasks or upcoming events, and to take specific meeting notes.

I think paper is too useful to disappear completely from the work environment. Unless technology produces something that can provide/emulate the almost-innumerable affordances and uses of paper, I believe it is safe to bet that paper is here to stay.

-Michael Lee

On a related note, here are links to descriptions of my Interactive Cognition Laboratory colleagues’ works on similar topics:

Studying how layout affects work

Context Aware Office

Many of the calls for a "paperless office" are blaming paper for problems with work practices or business priorities. And I bet the bathrooms in even the most "paperless" office won't ever go paperless..

bob glushko
Paperless office solutions are not intended to alter business workflow. In fact, good paperless solutions are supposed to change your office workflow as little as possible. In most cases, you just have to direct new files to the scanner instead of the filing cabinet. And once a week, have an employee take the backup discs home with them.
Indeed, I did not notice any change in my working style or the limited use of paper in the office. Well, at least not until reflecting back after doing the readings.

I noticed a sharp increase my usage of paper since becoming a student. Even though many readings are provided as PDFs, my fellow students and I tend to print them out as hardcopies. There are just too many affordances that paper provides that current technology doesn't provide.
Adding on to the scenario described by Mike, one of the clients that I consulted for, USAA, recently moved to what they call the 'futurist workspace'. Associates are given 'thin laptops'--laptops that have all the works except the harddisk. Folks carry their thin laptops anywhere in the office and remotely login to their personlized workspace. The bandwidth is good enough to support even developing code remotely. This does have its distinct advantages. Normally an associate works on 2-3 projects and can thus carry their 'mobile workspace' to be in close proximity to their team members. If there be a time when an associate wants no disturbance from the open office space, he can go to one of the closed cubicles. Printouts are still taken for in-progress activities; but once the project is over, they are shredded and the relevant online information archived. The usage of version control systems by everybody was also improved alongwith this move. USAA, having strict export control laws, could not allow the use of laptops, due to the security risk involved with having their information move outside the office premises.

I personally cannot even 'think' without paper, but I believe this is a good move. Having worked in the industry, I know that being mobile enough to maximise the proximity to one's teammates synergises the efforts and improves the efficiency of a project/product. Having personal file cabinets does anchor one to a specific location. Similarly, managing workflows online and getting rid of the 'get this document signed by 5 levels before getting the approval' leads to huge savings in time and cost.
@Michael: I fully agree with your post. Thanks for sharing your view with us. I'd like to add: the use of paper has changed. Relating to "The Myth" book it says: "We are no headed towards offices that use less paper but rather towards offices that keep less paper." Paper is use to read, make notes and throw it away.
@Bob: Very funny!
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Very well written post! What I think it's a cool idea. While IT has been a tool to enhance the performance of other business functions, there have few efforts to improve IT itself.
Such an interesting article to read. Good work and good point about the concept of a paperless office. More worthwhile posts please.
Home Offices and Workspaces

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