Back in 1975 Business Week published an article predicting the rise of the paperless office. Automation would replace manual tasks and jobs like book keepers and record keepers would disappear. This prediction was made at the very beginning of the personal computer revolution with companies like Microsoft and Apple in their infancy. The spreadsheet was yet to be invented and Microsoft Word 1.0 was still a decade away. Business computing meant mainframes only large corporations and governments could afford.
Since that time, the idea of the paperless office has a nirvana many people have attempted to reach but few have truly achieved. The rise of digital technologies in the workplace has helped move us in that direction, but for many the technology, processes and work culture barriers can seem like mountains. In some cases moving to a digital workplace has increase the use of paper!
I recall a photocopier sales person visiting our office unannounced several years ago armed with an offer we couldn’t refuse on a new photocopier lease. He had obviously excelled in the training on how to position the product and had rehearsed answers to any question I could throw at him. All this however didn’t prepare him for what I said next. “We don’t have a photocopier”. He was stunned for a moment and then the training kicked in. “Can we schedule a demo for you sometime in the next couple of weeks?”
That was possibly the first time I had really thought hard about trying to minimise the paper usage in our business. Before then we had been largely paper free, more through luck than a conscious decisions. We still had some paper-based processes, a paper filing system in and a regular monthly printer paper purchase.
Creating a paperless office requires several things:
- Paperless business processes
- Paperless team culture
Technology is required end to end, the person filling in a form, capturing field data, getting order details etc all the way through to the person completing the various actions that happen once the “submit” button is clicked. Depending on who the initiator of the process is, this could be a web site, mobile app, another computer system or an external trigger of some sort e.g. an environmental sensor.
I’ve been a Microsoft Surface user for many years and in my experience it is a great enabler of paperless with good touch and pen technology. Teaming up this hardware with OneNote and other Office 365 applications and services works very well for me.
Paperless Business Process
A true paperless business process allows the initiation and all actions in the process to be carried out without paper. This includes the collection of signatures electronically. You don’t want a “do it online” process that relies on a printer. How many times have you needed to do an “online” process, that requires you to download a PDF form, complete and return a signed copy?
Perhaps the most important part of creating a paperless office is culture. We can only achieve a paperless Throw the challenge to our teams, try running paperless meetings, turn printers off, contact suppliers and request that they send electronic invoices, sales orders etc. Tell people you are going paperless and ask them to help you achieve the goal.
I spent part of my career working in local government and to this day I am still astounded by how much paper they generated. Committee meetings bring joy to anyone who makes a living from photocopier or printer sales.
Eating our own dog food
As consultants helping clients implement digital workplace technologies, it’s important that we follow our own advice. What does this look like at Stratos and what is the impact?
Choosing the right technologies is has been very important for us. The applications we use to manage jobs, capture time, run sales processes, collaborate on documents, financial systems and the integration between systems are key to enabling paperless processes.
Our business processes are almost entirely paperless. Everything from work planning, timesheet approval, leave requests, accounts receivable and payables, payroll, contract management, quotes and tender responses are done entirely electronically.
We have built a company culture that means we are very light on paper usage. We have one HP Laserjet printer and replace toner cartridges only once a year. We use printers so little, that when I upgraded my laptop ten months ago the only printer driver I have installed allows PDF file printouts only. The last time I printed something on paper was April 2018 as part of a year-end process.
One of the biggest benefits I find from having a paperless workplace, is the ability to work from anywhere. I can get my hands on any document related to any client in our system from my laptop or phone. I can approve leave requests instantly using the Microsoft Flow Approvals app, I can see our project pipeline, view the backlog of jobs on a client project, check our current financial position and almost any other task where ever I am.
As we near our eight year in business, Stratos still doesn’t own or lease a photocopier. I think that’s a win!
Where to next?
Office 365 provides us with a great set of tools to build a paperless workplace. Starting simple perhaps automating document templates and using SharePoint’s out of the box features. As your abilities grow, use PowerApps and Flow to help automate more complex processes.
Paperless doesn’t end with your office productivity tools however. You need to also look at interactions between systems; both internal and external. Think about what you receive and send to people in hard copy. Create an inventory of paper in your business and record everything you receive from invoices to consignment notes, approvals, receipts, reports and everything in between.
Once you have a list create a plan for switching to a paperless alternative. A fun way to do this is think about which printers and photocopiers you would no longer need. Track your paper and toner usage as an indicator of progress but remember the biggest benefits are process visibility, reliability and efficiency.
Some things are surprisingly simple to do but others may be much more difficult. Do a cost benefit analysis to help stay focused on the areas where the greatest gains can be made. The pareto principle is useful here.
My personal challenge to you
Uninstall the printer drivers on your work computer. How long can you go without printing? Asking someone else to print something for you is cheating!