In a COVID-19-afflicted business world, the office printer gathers dust as most workers truck on from home. Of the few paper-based business processes that remained, many were thrust into the digital realm with help from software platforms.
At home, employees make occasional use of desktop printer units for personal use, but the nature of decentralized work is likely to do away with the need for physical copies of documents wherever it can.
Despite the decline in use, the total eradication of the printer from office life is too drastic an outcome. Industries such as healthcare, logistics and financial services still require physical documentation. Whether it's company culture or legal requirements, paper still rules certain processes.
In the context of the pandemic, businesses are beginning to reimagine what their operations look like without the use of printers.
Data from IDC reveals "pretty significant declines" in the use of printers, as well as revenue from some of the large equipment manufacturers, according to Keith Kmetz, program VP of imaging, printing and document solutions at IDC.
As a response, printer-makers are diversifying. Atop the managed printing services bundle, a product line that's quickly changing, vendors introduce cybersecurity and document management solutions as needs change.
A look at the numbers
When assessing the impact of the global remote work on printer use, printing shrunk by 40% in the first half of 2020, according to Gartner data.
More telling is the long-term contraction in printer use. By 2022, just 80% of printing activities will return to pre-pandemic levels, Gartner projects. The firm also expects demand for home printers will see a short-term bump, rising by 3.3% in 2020.
Vendors might have already seen most of the growth in unit sales the at-home pivot was going to cause, said Kmetz. As the pandemic sent workers home mid- to long-term, a push to outfit home offices began. Most of those units were paid directly by employees, but next year employers will foot the bill for 25% of printers purchased for work from home purposes, up from 10% in 2020, according to Gartner.
Prior to the pandemic, IDC projected printing units sold in 2020 would reach 17 million units in the U.S. Now, the data shows just 15.3 million printing units sold this year.
"This is a market that's been gradually maturing and declining over a number of years and now we're going to see this big drop-off in 2020 as enterprise weren't making any buying decisions," said Kmetz. "That equipment is pretty much dormant throughout much of this year."
Not only will businesses require less equipment in 2020 but those units operating will be pumping out less paper. Print volume is set to decline 18% in 2020, rebounding 9% in 2021 as some workforces are expected to return to the office.
Where printing subsists
Though many industries have pushed forward while printers laid dormant in the office, essential businesses and industries needed to keep equipment operational — and safe for staffers still in the office — as the pandemic plays out.
"It's kind of a tale of two cities," said Bob Burnett, director of B2B Solutions Deployment and Planning at printing equipment manufacturer Brother International Corp. "For the companies that were essential and needed to stay open, it was about rebalancing their fleet. In the past you may have had one large centralized device ... now they kind of had to rethink that."
Commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield introduced a concept called the 6 Feet Office, a framework for office reopenings that it says say can help companies adhere to social distancing best practices. The framework includes adapting and equipping offices in a way that lets users work safely.
Laying out smaller machines more frequently throughout the office, instead of having one central, shared printing hub, will allow companies to reduce the possibilities of on-site viral spread. To minimize the need to interact with high-touch surfaces, like printer buttons or trays, managers can let employees operate machines through their mobile devices.
Printers still subsist in areas where paper is the ideal medium to get a message universally across.
In industries like healthcare, physical copies of documents serve as an "equalizer," Kmetz said. Instructions help patients or people without internet access have access to critical instructions.
Regulatory guidelines call for certain processes to be executed on paper. In financial services, some transactions still require wet signatures.
"When we've asked the question 'Why do you still print or copy?' one of the responses we get is 'I'm still mandated to,'" said Kmetz.
The printer death knell?
For Paul Barresi, IT manager at accounting firm Drucker and Scaccetti, the pandemic simply accelerated a process years in the making before the first stay-at-home orders.
"It's basically how things were going in the industry in general," said Barresi. "Everyone's been focusing on the paperless office for years, and it's going there." Even prior to the pandemic, clients uploaded their documents to document management platform ShareFile. "We download their ShareFile and then we take it from there."
The same narrative repeats across organizations, which helps explains the steady decline of printing at the office. Driven by the rise of HR technology, a slew of back office work turned to the digital realm.
But the reality of the printer once offices return features smaller machines, more frequently distributed throughout the office floor plan, Burnett said. Large central hubs may become impractical in the short term.
"My personal feeling is that there's going to be a little less printing on the larger devices but probably the smaller devices are still going to stay pretty close to the same levels," said Burnett.