A paperless office is not a new concept. The idea took root in the ‘70s, when the environmental movement became in vogue along with such popular messaging as “back to nature” and “a living tree must be felled to produce only so much paper.”

With the advent of digital technology, it’s fair to say that the push for a paperless organization has come urgently to the fore. Amid the global climate change, some observers argue that a paperless operation could contribute considerably to forestall the adverse impacts of environmental changes.

In fact, there’s the argument that these times of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) offer an opportunity to move earnestly toward a paperless organization by using less paper.

In an exclusive conversation with The Manila Times, Kaushik Bagchi, vice president for Information Management Asia Pacific of ASG Technologies, said, “I think one of the changes after Covid-19 would be how organizations work with paper. Paperless has been the holy grail of automation and digitization for a long time now, with only limited success. But now, the time has come for this paperless trend to experience a major acceleration, and maybe even reach the tipping point.”

The ASG Technology executive then raised the question why despite scanning and DMS — document management systems — technologies having been available for a long time, the primal dependency on paper continues. He broke down the issues and the shift to paperless, as follows:

Mindset. As per the late 2018 “Paperless Survey,” 44 percent of employees still use paper despite having access to paperless options. It’s a hard-to-kill habit, when the times may be changing but aren’t changing fast enough. A disruption like Covid-19 is expected to accelerate that change dramatically. The need to increase distance, not just between people but also from objects that pass through multiple hands, is very real today. There may even be a natural shift toward avoiding contact with paper unless absolutely necessary.

Regulation. The preparation and retention of regulatory documents is a major contributor toward keeping these documents in physical forms. Comments, annotations and signed copies are still required in paper for a lot of regulatory processes and legal compliances.

Over time, however, a lot of filing and documentation is becoming electronic, and e-signatures are gaining acceptance in the business world. We could expect a major reduction in paper requirements for regulatory purposes in the coming days. Presentation, retention and legal acceptance of digital documents with e-signatures would move the needle significantly toward using less paper.

Ecosystem. Most companies use digital collaboration technologies for internal communication and document needs. However, when they look at their extended business networks, they still face a lot of paper usage. The trail of paper flows between them, their partners, suppliers and customers. This creates a problem of maintaining two different systems for managing the process flow of work: the digital one to drive productivity, which is used inside the enterprise, and the physical one for ecosystem usage.

Lack of technology adoption. Companies have implemented different generations of digital technologies that do not have the ability to cover today’s end-to-end processes. They cannot manage the entire process of capturing unstructured documents, creating seamless workflows and driving automation to reduce human steps accurately. This, in effect, fails to create a seamless omnichannel experience for all stakeholders. With most customers, the process is distributed across technology stacks and has been implemented in different times with different goals in mind. The experience isn’t smooth, and paper still stays in between the processes.

The tide is turning toward paperless, especially in the wake of Covid-19. Kaushik Bagchi said, “Digital automation platforms are needed to provide the required technology capabilities to make this change with speed and flexibility. The unification of services to facilitate this transition should all be pre-integrated in the platform, to help customers move their paper-based processes to rich digital experiences at half the time and cost.”

One example he’s looking forward to is the faster shift to cloud-based content management and process automation technologies to provide great omnichannel experience. There are also industry-specific trade exchanges and platforms, which would accelerate this change, he added.

End-to-end ecosystems are going to be digitized, with all participating parties contributing and consuming documents in the digital form. The post-Covid-19 business environment is going to act as a trigger to make this change, and most companies are expected to take strong initiatives to work out a roadmap of slowly phasing out physical document exchange in the ecosystem.

Paper has always been bulky and space consuming, and has limited the number of simultaneous users to one. Industry has always been trying to reduce paper and drive digitization to increase productivity and collaboration. Sharing knowledge is so much easier when it is digital, and today’s environment should demand less paper usage. The reasons to make the change are all compelling and Covid-19-led disruption should provide the tipping point to take intelligent organizations in using less paper on their way to become paperless.