Are Filing Cabinets & Office Cupboards finally things of the past?

traditional 3 drawer document filing cabinet in 2-tone coffee and cream colourBack in the mid 1980s I worked as a sales representative for a company that manufactured motorised rotating carousel shelving machines for storing files and documentation. They saved on floor space by maximising the vertical space high up above normal reach height. The higher the ceiling, the greater the potential for space saving. These same machines are still used extensively today in manufacturing and distribution for storing small parts in factories or depots but I suspect are seldom used any more in offices for documentation. Back when I was selling them they cost upwards of £6,000 which was a lot of money considering it was the 80’s, but businesses around the country still relied heavily on quickly accessible paper documentation for day to day work, and finding a way of storing it locally whilst having it easily accessible was a real challenge.  In Central London where I worked, the big Banks, Accountancy Firms, Insurance Companies and Law Firms in particular were all extensive users of these things, not least I remember that even then the cost of the most expensive office space was approaching £40 per sq foot!  Hospitals and medical clinics were also big users.

The job of us sales representatives included calculating how many machines would be required to store all of the customer’s existing filing, how much space they would take up and whether they would fit. One of my colleagues, Mike, sold a machine to a doctors surgery based on a space saving justification but he completely miscalculated the filing capacity.  This didn’t come to light until after the customer had cleared their filing room, disposed of all their existing filing cabinets and the new machine had been installed. It turned out that not only was a second machine was needed, but also a small extension had to be built onto the side of the surgery to accommodate it!  I’m not entirely sure of the outcome because it was a great embarrassment and our bosses kept fairly quiet about it,  but my understanding was that under the threat of legal action and bad publicity the company had to supply a second machine free-of-charge and pay for (or at least contribute towards considerably) the building of the extension.  We all found this hilarious – but not our bosses.    Mike left the company shortly afterwards but still made attempts to claim his commission on the sale –  unsuccessfully of course!

This was back in 1985 when we still had a typing pool and we would have to wait our turn for up to 2 weeks to have our quotations and contracts typed up on the Wang word processor, and then printed off on a printer that was about the size of Heathrow Airport and encased within a sound-proofed cabinet because it was so noisy.  But how things changed.  Within about 7 years we all started to get our own PCs and we didn’t need the typing pool or secretaries any more.

But still the paper kept on mounting up in greater and greater quantities, mainly because it was becoming increasingly easier to produce and then print off multiple pages at the click of a button. So rather than computers creating the paperless office as we had all been lead to believe a few years earlier, it simply made the situation far worse.  Apart from being incredibly wasteful and bad for the environment, we needed more and more storage cabinets to keep everything from printed documents to the boxes upon boxes of fresh packs of paper and stationery needed to print off the next batch.   

This trend seemed to continue into the early noughties and the office furniture industry did very well out of the sale of filing cabinets and cupboards of all shapes and sizes, most of which were still being used primarily for paper document storage. As a general rule of thumb, we used to reckon that for every two office staff members, one full height (2m high by 1m wide) storage cabinet would be required. We weren’t dictating this – this is what the customers were asking for.  The amount of office space occupied by these things was immense and although they sometimes had added benefits such as a means of space division and sound reduction in an open plan area, the additional foot print required, particularly at London rates, was considerable. 

But finally the change came about, slowly at first but then very rapidly.  Customers started ordering far fewer storage cupboards and began discussing with us their move towards a paperless office.  I observed that this trend began not long after the introduction of smart phones and iPads and the availability of reliable and cheap broadband and mobile data. I was amazed that business professionals far younger than I would attend meetings with just their smart phones in hand, and seemed adept at looking up and carrying out all of their work on just the one device without the need even for pen and paper!  At the time, being an oldie, that was just too much for me –  I found it too fiddly to view or look up information on my smart phone so I would attend meetings with a printed paper version of my sales proposal  because and it would be hit or miss as to whether my laptop would boot within a reasonable amount of time or go into a 15 minute update just at the point I’m trying to have a professional conversation with my customer.  All that changed when I got my first laptop with a solid state drive and I could go in with confidence knowing it would boot instantly and I could view everything I needed with ease.   

Previously it had became acceptable to send only a PDF version of documentation and gone, finally, were the days when a paper copy had to be handed over or sent in the post.  Likewise, it is now increasingly acceptable to sign documents with an e-signature, banks no longer send paper statements, insurance companies file your policy on-line and invoices are e-mailed. So yes, we have finally reached that point where we are, to the greater extent, paperless,  and it in my industry it is shows by the dramatically reduced sales of paper storage cabinets.

But wait, is office storage making a comeback?  Yes, it seems, to a certain extent, that it is. Here we are in 2023 and the office furniture manufacturers are coming up with all manner of different types of storage units for the office and customers are buying into it.  Whether the manufacturers are inventing new needs that we don’t really need for, or whether they are reacting to genuine needs that have not until now had a physical solution for is up for debate, but I can confidently say that office storage is thriving, albeit with very little to do with paper or document storage.   

Today’s office users might not have paper files and documents to store, but they do need somewhere to keep their personal belongings and work items.  With a growing trend towards office and homeworking combination, some workers need a place to store – and perhaps lock away – items they need whilst working in the office but which they don’t want to have to keep bringing into the office and then taking them home again after work.   For many, getting to the office means cycling or running, and whilst there perhaps a visit to the gym at lunchtime, so a place to keep cycle helmets and clothing, running shoes and a change of clothing is needed.  One example of the ways the furniture manufacturers have addressed this need is the introduction of a wide variety of locker-style cabinets for personable storage.

Personal storage lockers in different sizes designed for use within main office space, seen here lining walls and acting as space dividers.

Another area where storage is becoming more relevant is in it’s use for space division.  The pandemic and the shift towards greater  homeworking has changed companies perception about the office, with many uncertain about how everything is going to unfold in the future with questions such as ‘do we need an office at all?.. should the office be smaller?.. how should we use the office?.. how should it be laid out?’  As a result, flexible space  is even more pertinent and keeping the office as open-plan as possible (with minimal fixed/permanent floor to ceiling partition walls) seems to be the way things are going.  But the resulting open-plan space still needs to be zoned, and workers still need privacy and quiet so that they can focus on the task at hand without distractions. This has given rise to the return of storage cabinets, some with acoustic sound reduction properties, to act as space dividers. Furthermore, multi-configurable workstations with fully integrated medium-height and tall storage has proven very effective at addressing such needs. 

'Storage Workstations' used to separate space in open plan offices and provide visual and audible privacy  

Flexible multi-configurable workstations combining desking and soft seating with integrated storage


© Octopus Interiors 2023