I am often asked about paper usage and printing in the “office of the future,” and my answer is always the same: There is no way in my lifetime that paper ever disappears in the workplace for good. Not only is the outlook secure for now, based on industry trends, printing is in no danger of ever losing its vital business role.

Paper usage in major, highly regulated industries, such as healthcare, financial services and education, remains robust simply because communicating important information to constituents is best done on a common platform. When was the last time you were in a hospital or K-12 school district and didn’t see paper? Each day, we read about the loss of electronic data to nefarious cybercriminals. Paper can be far easier to secure. Think about how simple it is to lock paper records up when one is attempting to comply with established laws that protect an individual’s right to privacy (e.g. HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley, and FERPA). In fact, the sentiment toward paper in these fields might actually be stronger in certain respects than it was in the past due to the aforementioned cybersecurity concerns. The inability to steal secured paper is finding renewed appreciation in the world’s most vital industries.

Within corporate settings, rather than paper and printing disappearing, the discussion is primarily focused on digital transformation, such as making paper-based documents and processes electronic. Office printers — and this includes multifunction printers (MFPs) that can scan, print, copy and fax — may be utilized as onramps to a company’s network. Typically, they come in one of two configurations: A4 machines, which support letter and legal document sizes to 8.5″ x 14″, and A3 machines, which support sizes of up to 11″ x 17″. Historically, high-volume A3 printing formed the bulk of paper needs for most businesses, such as for contracts. However, as print volumes decline, larger machines are being replaced by smaller A4 machines.

A4 machines are more suitable to the decentralized deployment preferred in modern offices, which brings me to the most important determinant of the future of paper: adaptability. Printing must cater to individual company needs and not the other way around. For instance, employees have increasingly become accustomed to a more mobile working environment. Even before the global pandemic, we were seeing a trend toward mobility as workforces adjusted to remote operations. Smaller devices more suited to these environments will thrive, and they will also satisfy a key employer requirement in being scalable to grow as quickly as the business does. And now, many companies are thinking about retrofitting their offices to comply with CDC guidelines (e.g., staying six feet apart). What does that mean for technology access? Simply, the ratio of employees to devices must now be considered. A post-coronavirus ratio may need to be 5:1 compared to the 25:1 ratio commonly found with larger copier usage. This can lead to more A4 devices around the office, or what we call “printer pods,” thus supporting social distancing guidelines.

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When it comes to adaptability, perhaps even more important than the hardware side is printing’s compatibility on the software side. The future of work will be driven by emerging technologies like cloud and big data. Paper outputs can and must be seamlessly integrated with them. Printers need to maintain the same integrations with these next-generation innovations just like any other device, such as an open product architecture to enable customization for software solutions. A software portfolio must be as inclusive of third-party apps as it is with its own in-house solutions, giving constant thought to ensuring a fleet of printers will function in the next generation of computing.

As new software is integrated, print vendors must maintain robust customer support programs for channel partners and end-user customers. The added complexity could be a challenge for businesses without expedient help. In particular, mobile and cloud support are no longer “nice to have” functions, but are required components to enable employee productivity. Indeed, market intelligence firm IDC reported that in 2019, over 262 million mobile computing devices shipped in North America last year alone. In addition, managed cloud services in North America are slated to grow to nearly $34.4 billion by 2023, according to IDC. Office workers and IT personnel rarely think about the print environment during the workday — until something goes wrong. When a problem arises, customers need assurance that the provider has an immediate course of action so that downtime is kept to a minimum.

In summary, if office-targeted printers and MFPs were to fail to adapt to changing innovations, I would see cause for concern. Fortunately, OEMs are stepping up to demonstrate their relevance beyond making simple prints, copies and scans. Today’s printers, MFPs and scanners are taking on the role of a document-processing tool that fits with the requirements of the “office of the future’s” vision and evolution.
Paper and printing will still play a vital role in business for the foreseeable future, but a changing workplace also necessitates changes in how paper is utilized. So long as business printers and MFPs adapt to evolving company needs (e.g. mobile and cloud), paper will remain an integral part of the workplace.

Dan Waldinger is Senior Director of B2B Strategy, Brother International Corporation.