By Ronan Lavelle
March 20 2014 - HR is an area beset by processes, workflows, procedures, compliance and legal requirements. These are traditionally all very much paper-based, which could at least partially explain why HR departments are such a long way from embracing the 'paperless office'. Yet the technology is in place to solve these issues, the process improvements are obvious, and the environmental and cost benefits are hard to dispute, so isn't it time that HR managers took a serious look at eliminating - or at least reducing - paper?
Before we go any further, let me stress that HR is not alone. Despite conversations around the 'paperless office' that have been going on for at least two decades, only around one per cent of European organisations have achieved this goal, according to recent research by Iron Mountain. Worldwide, information industry organisation AIIM found that only 24 per cent of organisations have any programmes in place towards a paperless office. In the UK, 8 out of 10 organisation (private and public sectors) print out documents just to get them signed (YouGov, November 2013).
Does it really matter? A closer look at the real impact of using paper suggests that it does. Environmental concerns are a given, but there are also some tangible cost and efficiency issues to consider here. Let's start with the cost issues.
The average UK worker uses up to 45 sheets of paper per day and printing paper accounts for around 10 per cent of all Internet Communications Technology (ICT) energy consumption in UK organisations. Apart from the cost of buying paper and then printing, the paper then has to be shipped (calculate how much money is spent on posting and couriering paper documents, stored (think about the cost of floor-space or offsite storage) and/or disposed of (consider the expense of secure shredding services). When organisations do implement paperless offices, information industry association AIIM estimates that return-on-investment is typically 18 months or less.
Reducing paper increases efficiency
However, while the cost consideration is a big one, the potential gains in improved efficiency and saved time will surely have a very beneficial impact on HR departments and consultancies. For instance, think about how many HR-related documents require an official signature or seal of approval. The volume of templates and documents that are involved, such as on-boarding, employee appraisals, holiday and sickness management, NDAs, CRB checksand employment contracts, makes for a long list.
HR's dependence on 'ink and print' signatures takes time and causes delays (on average obtaining a signature adds on average 3.1 days per process, according to AIIM research). This makes sense when looking at it in context: take for example a document that needs to be sent to a candidate for signing. One HR organisation has estimated that in a paper-centric process, the required steps add three days to the document's turnaround time. At the very least these steps include printing the document, signing it at one end, sending it to the candidate, counter-signing it, and returning it to the office. On top of that, there is usually a 20 per cent margin of error if, for instance, the candidate does not complete the form correctly, which adds on even more time.
Taking a paperless view, digital signatures can reduce this process down to just hours (assuming that the candidate responds to his or her email quickly). Just as importantly, digital signatures are secure and tamper-proof, meeting compliance requirements around the world as presented by country-based legislation and specific industry regulations.
"Forms are now completed online and electronically signed by both the employee (new hire) and the employer (client manager) using standard electronic signatures. In addition to the cost and time savings for MAXIMUS and our clients, this solution gives us a competitive advantage in our increasingly competitive marketplace" says Nancy Kim, Vice President, MAXIMUS (a US-based HR organisation).
Another area of efficiency is that by avoiding 'breaking out' into paper, processes can remain digital end-to-end, which is an important consideration for HR departments and organisations that have invested in document management, enterprise content manager, business process management and workflow systems. Indeed, one of the benefits of all these systems is that they automate so much of the process and ensure seamless handover of information from one step to the next: printing on to paper, then relying on print, fax, scan and postage, not to mention manual signatures, is a recipe for manual error.
Paper is not the best medium for future retrieval either, which again, matters in the HR environment (for example, if a document signed by an employee needed to be involved in an internal dispute or external tribunal). These figures relate to the US, but I think most people will relate to these scenarios: 7.5% of documents are lost and 15% of documents are misplaced. eDiscovery and records and document management systems are a far more efficient way to locate documents in the future, but they obviously can't be used with paper-based documents.
Seven practical starting points
Adopting a complete paperless policy is a big task, but it does lend itself to being broken down into several simple steps.
- Implement systems that support a more efficient and paperless environment - in many organisations, these are already going to be in place, so it's a question of how to use them to their full advantage.
- Adopt digital signatures - these do not require major changes to the IT environment (in fact they are compatible with most document formats and document-related applications) so that users can be up and running in hours. Return on investment is typically less than one year, according to AIIM research.
- Eliminate faxing - if you really cannot avoid using faxes, simply install e-faxing technology.
- Discourage people from using printers and faxes, as well as from using the post room - in a large organisation, this might mean removing desktop printers so that colleagues have to walk further to collect a printed document (it may just make them think twice).
- Educate the team - WRAP's Green Office Guide has models that can be used to estimate the real financial costs of using paper in the office (and lots of other useful 'green' tips too).
One aspect we have not talked about is the cultural resistance to the paperless office. While most of us may like the idea in principle, the reality is that most UK office workers are such habitual consumers of paper that it has become second nature. But given the wider implications - the impact on efficiency, the cost and of course, the planet - isn't it time that HR managers start to challenge that thinking?
ARX YouGov research - http://www.arx.com/resources/white-papers/yougov-survey-on-digital-signatures
AIIM - http://www.aiim.org/
WRAP - http://www.wrap.org.uk/
Ronan Lavelle is UK Country Manager for ARX and brings 18 years' experience in information, document, content, contract and workflow management technologies. ARX is the provider of CoSign, the most widely-used digital signature solution in the world with millions of signers at security-minded businesses, governments and cloud services. CoSign was recognized by Forrester Research as the 'Strongest Digital Signature Solution' in the Forrester Wave: E-Signatures, Q2 2013 report. For more information - www.arx.com