29 Jul 2014 09:32am

Paperless office

Has the myth of the paperless office finally been debunked? David Adams considers how far we have come – and how much further we can go – in cutting down on physical documents

How much paper is wasted in your office every day? We all know there are many benefits if we use less paper, it saves money and time and is better for the environment, but most organisations are still using an awful lot of it. The concept of the ‘paperless office’ has been around for decades: the earliest reference to the term most experts cite is a 1975 Business Week article, in which one interviewee, Vincent E Giuliano of management consultancy Arthur D Little, predicted that use of paper for records and correspondence would be declining by 1980 and that “by 1990 most record-handling will be electronic”.

We have certainly made progress since 1975, yet the Green Office guide produced by recycling experts WRAP in 2013 suggested that the average office worker uses up to 45 sheets of paper per day, over half of which ends up as waste. So why, with so many cost-effective technologies available that could drastically reduce paper use in the workplace – from online and cloud applications to tablets, smartphones and document management systems – are most organisations still so far away from the paperless office?

For a lot of it’s the cost and complexity of those tools, but sometimes it’s the corporate culture

Karen Shegda, Gartner

Research published by AIIM in 2013 suggested that 74% of 562 organisations surveyed already had process improvement campaigns underway that would benefit from paper-free processes – but only 24% had a specific policy in place to eliminate paper from their processes. And although in 41% of the organisations surveyed the amount of paper flowing through the organisation was decreasing, in another 19% it was increasing.

“The paperless office is something organisations have aspired to because it conveys a sense of being oriented toward the future [and] the green agenda,” says Abigail Sellen, principal researcher at Microsoft Research at Cambridge and co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office. “In reality many organisations would struggle to achieve it. I think it’s better to think about appropriate use of paper.”

Sellen thinks paper is still useful as a temporary place to document plans, and a versatile and flexible way to collaborate. “For such knowledge work, paper is useful and hard to replace,” she says. “However, in more routine work where there are structured processes in place [and] work is embodied in systematic workflows, paper can and probably should disappear.”

Richard Anning, head of the IT Faculty at ICAEW, says the number of processes that could be entirely paperless is increasing all the time, citing electronic trading, invoicing and document management as examples. There is also no longer any need to circulate board reports in paper form, he continues, citing technologies like BoardPacks, an app for tablet computers that allows secure search and review of board agendas, meeting papers and other resources.

Anning thinks the principal obstacle in many organisations is “the change in behaviour and attitudes needed”. He points to the number of times that organisations print out invoices that have been emailed to them, then circulate them in paper form to collect signatures for authorisation. “What’s the point?” he asks. “There are lots of ways to digitally sign documents.” Research from YouGov has revealed that 80% of UK organisations print documents just to get them signed – up to 90% in the financial and public sectors. AIIM estimates that this adds an average of 3.1 days to 42% of organisational processes.

There is also a strong case for moving from paper to electronic record keeping. Paper records are expensive to maintain and error-prone: PwC estimates that around 7.5% of paper documents are lost and 3.5% mis-filed. Just over a third of the organisations surveyed by AIIM (34%) said the volume of paper records they kept was falling, but in 42% of organisations it was increasing.

One reason not to go paperless put forward by many organisations is that electronic record keeping and electronic signatures may not be compliant with legal or regulatory demands. But, with the exception of a few sector-specific record retention rules, this is generally no longer the case. “The majority of auditors now request electronic access to content,” says Miles.

Karen Shegda, research vice-president with Gartner and an expert in enterprise content management, concurs. “Most governments will recognise an electronic image in a court of law, as long as an organisation can show an audit trail for that document to prove it is unaltered,” she says.

Moving away from paper can be costly, but there are significant financial benefits. AIIM’s research revealed that two-thirds of organisations that have adopted paper-free processes reported payback within 18 months – 50% do so within a year. Storing paper can end up being expensive – in space, in the office or off-site – but, says Shegda, any automation of a paper-based process should improve efficiency, thereby cutting costs. Accelerating processes in this way can also pass gains on to business partners.

Electronic invoice processing is a good example. “You get paid faster, so do your clients and you also ensure compliance,” explains Shegda. In 2012 Islington Council announced that it was saving about £200,000 per year by using electronic invoicing. And earlier this year it was announced that NHS Supply Chain had achieved £15.6m in savings thanks to the adoption of so-called e-invoicing.

Indeed, there are a number of vocal supports pushing for a full shift to electronic invoicing, not only in accountancy firms but in the public sector too. One of these is Stephen McPartland, MP for Stevenage, who claims that implementing e-invoicing in government alone could achieve savings of £2 billion each year. “Electronic invoicing could open up new markets throughout the country and help drive innovation and economic growth,” says McPartland.

And customers benefit too: “People have reported to us that responses to customers could be speeded up by between four and ten times by getting rid of paper, by cutting out letter sending, or documents sitting in peoples’ in-trays,” says Miles.

Scanning, document management, optical character recognition software and intelligent workflow systems have all improved in recent years. Some software combines these functions, meaning they can scan invoices, pick out client or customer names and account numbers, then link the document directly into ERP/SAP systems to make payment if appropriate. Intelligent workflow means some documents, such as invoices above a certain value, can be routed through a customised process, for authorisation at a senior level or fast-track processing.

Wider use of tablets is also having an impact, in the workplace and for staff working remotely, who can use them to collect or record information. “With tablets you can capture data there and then, with photo images stored next to documents where necessary – there’s no lag time for back office processing of paper,” says Brooks Duncan, a former certified management accountant based in Vancouver, who advises organisations trying to go paperless. The other enabling technology has been increased bandwidth on corporate networks, helping central servers manage electronic storage more effectively, moving material within internal networks or to cloud-based storage. A growing number of organisations also now use digital mailrooms, with paper post scanned and routed to recipients electronically.

Accountancy firms are well placed to take advantage of the business and cost benefits which can be gained by reducing paper-based processing and record keeping. Many already benefit from the extent to which both HMRC and Companies House have moved towards more use of digital channels. “Both now have more documents filed online than via paper,” points out Steve Cox, product director at IRIS Software. “Neither HMRC or Companies House has mandated this, yet adoption rates are increasing, because of the benefits. People can now complete a tax return, get it approved and send it to HMRC within a day or two, so turnaround times are dramatically improved.”

The accountancy firm Glover Stanbury is now “working as paperlessly as it possibly can in the majority of cases”, according to partner Kevin Salter. “We don’t have any paper client files any more: everything is stored electronically and as far as possible we use a client portal for secure transmission of documents to and from clients,” he says. “We’re filing online with HMRC, [apart from] the odd paper tax return for individuals who don’t have computers. We’ve made big steps this year to email payslips securely to the payroll bureau, rather than printing and posting them. And all internal documents have been created and filed electronically this year.”

Another important step has been a move to a hosted IT environment, run for the company by Hosted Desktop UK since 2011 and backed up in real time at another data centre. “Our systems are probably an awful lot more secure than before,” says Salter.

The changes have cut costs. “There’s the cost of filing cabinets avoided, but also we’ve seen a reduction in the use of printers, toner and paper,” says Salter. “We’ve saved something like 20,000 sheets of paper by filing tax returns electronically in the first year alone. Then there are time saving costs. Everything’s at our fingertips now: we don’t have to search for things physically.”

Myers & Co, a small accountancy practice with seven staff, based in Loughton, Essex, implemented the IRIS Docs integrated document management solution in early 2013 and staff and clients also now use IRIS’s OpenSpace, an online portal, which accountants and their clients use to share, view and approve documents. All the paper documents the company uses are scanned, then destroyed.
Company director and founder Clive Myers says staff usually still use paper when dealing with clients face to face, because it is easier than trying to work entirely on screen, “but as soon as those documents are approved they’re scanned electronically and shredded”.

“We still produce paper for about a tenth of our clients, but nothing is stored on paper for long,” he says. “And the search facilities on the new system mean it’s virtually impossible to lose documents.” The company is saving between £600 and £700 per year previously spent on storing paper documents off-site; and is making significant savings on postage, which used to cost around £2,000 per year. “We send very little post now: I used to send 20 or 30 letters a day; now it’s no more than five a week,” says Myers.

“We said clients could continue on paper if they preferred, but most are happy [to use the new system]. Electronic approval is used by almost all our clients. We’re also encouraging suppliers to email documents and invoices rather than posting them.”

IRIS’s Cox highlights the growing number of accountants using his company’s cloud-based services. In January 2013 1,942 accountancy practices were using IRIS in the cloud, but by March 2014 that had risen to 4,850. “Accountants and the general business world were a little bit nervous about putting data into the cloud, but I think those questions around security have now been answered,” he says.

But this bright new, digital, cloud-based, paperless, online world is almost certainly some distance from the daily experience of many economia readers, whether working in practice or in other organisations. Barriers still remain. “For a lot of it’s the cost and complexity of those tools, but sometimes it’s the corporate culture,” says Shegda. There are other barriers too: Cox points to government red tape that still generates paper. Another issue is the still variable availability and quality of broadband connections across the UK.

Even so, those keenest to encourage a move towards less use of paper are optimistic. “In future there may still be paper, because in some use cases it’s more transportable; and some people just prefer it,” says Shegda. “But the amount of printed documents is declining; and younger people are much more accustomed to dealing with multiple technologies, collaborating online and working with mobile devices.
“Use of paper is going to diminish. While the use case for paper may never fully disappear, I think we’re going to see less and less of it. I don’t think we’re ever going to get to that paperless office, but I think we’re going to get close.”

Cutting down the paper

Make sure you clearly understand the existing processes. “Often it makes sense to involve users in discussions about how to design the new systems so they will not disrupt or undermine the ways in which people work,” says Microsoft Research’s Abigail Sellen

Scan, don’t print – move away from filing cabinets towards cheaper electronic storage

Enable e-faxing

Use electronic signatures – you can now sign a PDF with your finger on a touchscreen, for example

Reduce or centralise printers so people have to walk further to get their printouts – it’s amazing what a difference this can make

Monitor and report on paper usage, by department or even by individual

Encourage double-sided printing

Use thinner paper

Use online collaboration or document storage/sharing technologies such as Google Docs, Microsoft Office 365 in the cloud, Basecamp and Dropbox

Don’t try to eliminate paper altogether – just try to reduce your consumption

David Adams


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