Technology correspondent Jon Wilcox takes a look at the ‘Holy Grail’ for offices and asks whether it will ever be realistically attained.
The subject of the paperless office concept is almost as perennial as conversations about the weather. For the past 40 years since it was dreamt up, the notion of a paper-free office space has persisted, but even in 2009 the goal seems as far away as ever. But why is this the case?
In recent years there’s been a leap forward in the way companies utilise technology and the web within their business. Increasing broadband penetration, technology convergence, affordable hardware, and the gathering of the Cloud, all point towards a future where paper becomes redundant in an office space. And yet, the sheets of dried tree pulp remain the mainstay of offices and HR departments around the world: for hard copy staff records, flexibility, and convenience.
Switching to a paperless office should of course mean both hard and soft cost-savings; in fact the concept is full of benefits, especially in HR. "Cutting costs is one of the big drivers [towards the paperless office]," says Richard Abraham of Version One. "Focusing specifically on the cost side of things, there are probably two elements – the hard costs associated with actually storing paper, which in an office environment may be office space, filing cabinets; those sorts of physical items in the office.
"The other piece of hard-cost savings related to HR is people having to use off-site storage, which may be another office they own somewhere else, but it may also be outsourcing the storage to a warehouse company. There are quite significant costs associated with paying somebody to store that information; and if you need to retrieve that document typically there are handling fees."
In theory, implementing a paperless office environment can be a fairly smooth – if busy – process. Setting up an effective production line of scanning documents into the system, saving them with OCR software and ‘filing’ them into a database, all sounds remarkably utopian.
Outsourcing some of the processes involved can streamline the paperless office further. At the start of 2009, Swiss-based insurance company Zurich signed a decade-long deal with Swiss Post, processing the 400k documents sent to Zurich every day. The planned efficiencies involved proved attractive to the company. Commenting in a case study with ComputerWeekly, Brian Cosgrove, Zurich’s pan-European programming manager, said: "The company has said it aims to reduce its operating costs by 20%."
According to Cosgrove, all of the savings made are hard costed, utilising systems already in place at Swiss Post. To date, Zurich has implemented the system across several European countries to date, including the UK, with more to follow.
Of course, digitising the paper archives already locked in office cellars and storage rooms will prove something of an inconvenience during the initial transition. However, careful planning can overcome the bulk of the matter. So if technology isn’t an issue, what is?
"Some of the obvious obstacles are around actually having physical signatures on pieces of paper," says Abraham. "There’s still a huge comfort factor associated in having what I term ‘the wet signature’ on a piece of paper. There’s isn’t specific HR legislation in the same way you can deliver an invoice electronically and HMRC puts their guidelines up. The same sorts of things don’t necessarily exist within the HR environment, so I think there is an element of nervousness around that. The other thing is very much around flexibility; as a media, paper is very flexible. It does have huge drawbacks [too], but there is still a flexible factor in that."
Abraham adds: “I also think part of it is attitude.”
The question of attitude within the hallowed personnel halls of HR departments around the world is perhaps one of the key stumbling blocks. After all, much of the infrastructure is likely to be already in place. A second stumbling block is data security, and the maintaining of confidentiality. Stories of hackers breaking into high-level US government IT networks no doubt sends a shiver down many spines, together with data access rights issues.
Therefore ensuring the paperless office system is as robust as possible has to be a priority, especially in the HR department. It’s a warning raised by the US-based HumanResourceBlog
, which issued this sage advice: "When a company converts to a paperless HR system it should insure that confidential information is accessible only to a small group of people – just as the paper files are. Managers and supervisors without a need to see them should not have access."
Whilst totally paperless offices may remain something of an unachievable goal, even Abraham admits, "I don’t think there’s probably a reality where there’ll be no paper in the office, certainly not in the foreseeable future."
A more tangible objective is to become a less paper-obsessed office. Companies are already looking to cut the amount of paper used in offices, including HR departments. It’s a trend Abraham and Version One is seeing before their eyes: "We’re starting to see a lot more interest from the HR side of companies, rather than just the financial side of the business. When we run document management seminars for financial professionals, 18 months ago we introduced a section for HR professionals because it was getting prevalent. The concept of creating an electronic personnel file is something they’re looking for."
There are companies of all sizes making the leap towards paperless office implementation, and they’re far from shy about announcing it either. Run a search on the paperless office from any search engine of choice, and there’ll be pages of PDFs and web links from companies both large and small charting their migration away from a paper-tied office. For every small accountancy firm or legal outfit, there’s a major international financial corporation.
But it’s still not enough. Some no doubt feel that HR professionals are just fearful of stepping into the world of digital records, something Abraham rejects: "I don’t think HR professionals fear the paperless office, I think they welcome it in principle. I think it’s an area many of them don’t quite understand in terms of what they can do with it. It’s not, ‘oh no, we can’t go paperless because we have to keep hold of our paper records’, it’s more, ‘we’d like to do this, but we’re not really sure how we would do it’. It’s a little bit of an educational process really."
Whether the widespread adoption of paperless office environments within HR is down to fear or not, the shift may depend on another factor: the environment. Abraham prophecies: "As the green legislation becomes tighter and tighter, by moving towards a paperless office companies can aid in some environmental actions that organisations are – I suspect – going to be legislated towards."
Despite environmental concerns and legislation never far from the news headlines, it’s perhaps a surprise to learn that in 2006 the European Commission
(EC) still regarded the use of paper a resilient trend – at least in the mid-term. In a section on the forestry industry, the EC website states: "This trend is expected to continue, using more converted paper and board goods rather than the ‘paperless office’ becoming a reality." Perhaps a change in attitude is needed at higher levels too.