Paper/Economist: The Paperless Office - In praise of clutter, Economist, Dec. 19th, London 2002.

THEMES: Paper\Efficiencies | Economist
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YEAR: 2002
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LABEL: Paperless Office
PEOPLE: Harper, Richard | Malone, Tom | Sellen, Abigail
THINGS: Human Behaviour | Office Systeme

The paperless office

In praise of clutter
Dec 19th 2002
From The Economist print edition

Leave my desk alone. It works

ON THE six square feet next to the computer on which this article is being written, a complex ecology has developed. There are approximately (it is impossible to be precise without disturbing the natural order) 100 assorted print-outs (e-mails, web pages, newspaper articles), 12 books, ten academic articles, six pamphlets, five notebooks, three newspapers, two magazines, two faxes, two telephone books, one file containing further faxes and print-outs, six pens, one box of matches, one key (origin unknown) and one handheld organiser. Some of this is being used in the writing of this article. Some of it will be used in the writing of future articles. Some of it will never be used at all, but will eventually, when the reason why this correspondent originally thought it so interesting has faded, be thrown in the bin.

This desk is not unusual in The Economist's editorial offices—just one particular sort of habitat in a rich and varied landscape. The deputy editor's office, for example, contains roughly 700 books (he just got rid of another 400). The defence correspondent has a charming mural patchwork of telephone numbers, e-mail print-outs, press releases and religious iconography. The economics correspondent's in-tray is two-and-a-half feet (76 centimetres) high—in two piles, for stability.

The inhabitants of these offices seem perfectly happy in their surroundings, and are mostly left alone to adapt the environment to their convenience. The editorial floors of The Economist's offices are treated somewhat like a nature reserve, where strange beasts roam and browse at will, undisturbed by the fads and fancies that sweep through the rest of business life. Others are not so lucky.


Many companies these days—United Parcel Service and General Motors in America, for instance, and Asda, a supermarket chain in Britain—run “clean desk” policies, requiring employees to remove all evidence of work from their desks by the end of the day. The reason given is usually security—that burglars will be less likely to find anything interesting if it is put away—but that is a poor excuse. Any self-respecting burglar can pick the lock of a filing cabinet, and will be far more likely to find what he is looking for in a methodical office than in one whose logic is comprehensible only to its creator.

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*“The Myth of the Paperless Office”, ( By Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper. MIT; 242 pages; $24.95.