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Pen and paper: There isn't a good enough app to replace that… yet

This is a contributed piece by Rob Clark, MD of Epson UK & Ireland

With all the advances in workplace technology, debate continues over the future of the workplace and when offices will go completely digital. This conversation is amplified by recent research from CV-Library, which shows that 63% of British professionals believe that future generations won’t write on the job, eliminating handwriting from future workplaces.

With the UK in the midst of a start-up boom – more than 1,300 new businesses created each day since 2015 – we asked 500 entrepreneurs, new businesses and start-ups across the country about their work habits. Interestingly, despite all the digital tools available, British businesses and start-ups see pens, paper and whiteboards as the key to collaboration and creativity in their business. In fact, 82% said they relied on these tools on a daily basis. Perhaps most surprisingly, only 1% of the start-ups and entrepreneurs surveyed said they have gone completely digital.

These findings suggest that the paperless office is still not a reality, echoing more detailed research that we commissioned earlier in the year, which found that 82% of British employees saw the physical page as crucial and 86% of those said that a ban on printing would limit their productivity. As a result, modern workplaces need to provide a variety of tools to enable employees to work collaboratively and creatively. This could range from digital software or interactive technology such as interactive whiteboards and projectors, to printers, pens and paper – depending on the task and employee’s preference.

Epson’s research with start-ups found that they preferred physically writing things down because it’s quicker and easier than typing (73%), helps them better remember and process information (74%) and enables them to think more creatively (63%). Even so-called ‘digital natives’, those aged between 18-24 years old, admitted they like using pens, paper, whiteboards and writing tools to think creatively about tasks (73%). I certainly wasn’t surprised to hear this as I feel the same way. 

There is science behind why we naturally lean towards a handwritten brainstorming method when we want to gather and map out creative ideas. Cognitive tests show that pens and keyboards use entirely different parts of the brain, and challenge us in very different ways. Simply put, handwriting is a much more complex task, which takes years to master, and allows us to better retain, remember and recount information than using a keyboard. The brain is also better placed to digest information in a logical, linked way through techniques like mind mapping, rather than a linear list in a Word document. Several studies show that mind mapping is a more effective way of learning, and The Sussex Innovation Centre proved that office workers are 17% more productive and to use 20% less mental resources when information is displayed visually, rather than in traditional software.

While there is no doubt that computers have an important role in the workplace, these results suggest that the completely digital office is further away than many thought. Paper and pen are key to our success as individuals, and also to the creativity that fuels British business. So while there is probably an “app for that”, don’t assume that it is the best tool for the job. Sometimes the pen is still mightier than the keyboard.

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