paper airplane over a city
PHOTO: StockSnap

It's 2021. At this point, using paper, much less requiring paper for any process borders on the ridiculous. Digital and electronic signature solutions have been widely available and accepted for decades. Yet I still come across organizations, public and private, that require paper submissions. This is even more baffling when the process doesn't require a signature.

Those paper requirements were paused in most cases a year ago, as COVID-19 locked people away at home. With our year-long remote work experiment now coming to an end, it is time to take stock. The temporary processes that removed the requirement for paper need to become permanent.

Starting in Paper Doesn’t Mean it Ends in Paper

One of the biggest legitimate reasons for working with paper is that external parties, outside of your control, may still send paper. Not every person or organization is able to be fully digital or interface with others digitally. Organizations will continue to receive items from external parties in paper form for the foreseeable future.

While you and your organization may not fully control your paper destiny, that does not mean you have to keep processing paper.

Design your digital processes to take input from multiple sources. That means your website, phone app and scanning software should all call the same set of APIs to initiate any process. Everyone participating in the process will then process all items the same way. The only difference will be the format of the content. The content may be a scanned document, a PDF form, or a picture taken from a phone camera. The format won’t matter and the work will get done.

Related Article: The End of the Document? Not So Fast

Email Is a Viable Substitute for Paper-Based Processes

Email isn't going anywhere, at least not in our lifetimes. It does not matter if you are a Baby Boomer, Gen Z, or something in-between — leverage email. Some temporary COVID-19 processes used emails sent from a person as the equivalent of an electronic signature. While it may not be valid for legal contracts, it works well for approving reports, expenses and basic change requests.

Print, sign and scan was always painful before COVID-19. In the remote office, it is all but intolerable.

Organizations need to continue to use email for any process when more streamlined systems are unavailable. Everyone may hate email, but paper is worse. Anything you do to remove paper from processes is progress.

Related Article: Why Email Persists in the Workplace

Get Rid of Your Filing Cabinets

Scanning old documents is a lot of work. It can also be expensive. It is often easier to let those paper records grow old and die than to digitize them. That is understandable.

What organizations need to do is commit to never buying another filing cabinet. All new records should be digital. As organizations dispose of old records, they should gradually remove old filing cabinets.

The time is now for you to remove your paper requirements. Do not force people to take a step backwards as you return to the office because you haven't made your paper-free processes permanent. Look at the last 15 months if you need proof that a paperless office can work. Sustain those efforts, save some trees, and most importantly, make things easier on your people.

Forget the paper-free office. Work towards the filing cabinet-free office.