I spent 12 months working for a local authority, the amount of paper we got through gave me nightmares, so I drafted a paperless proposal.
It all started on my first day in the office, I was introduced to the filing cabinet. By filing cabinet, I mean a 5 meter squared area of “Train Track Rail File Cabinets” overflowing with paper files and folders, I knew if no one else would that I needed to put forward a paperless proposal.
An alphabetic system was in use, but the decades-old cabinets were already overflowing, so when a file wouldn’t fit, it would be placed on the top of the cabinet or even in the wrong place.
The worst part of my job was the preparation for the weekly case review meetings. This required files for 10-15 cases, printed and stapled, and then sent out via post to all attendees of the meeting (sometimes 10-15 people). We even had wheeled baskets to help us move all the paper around.
Each envelope was about 2 inches thick and had to be sent recorded first class by royal mail. When the meeting was over, attendees left me with a pile of paper as long as my torso to be fed into a big blue recycling bin with a letterbox sized hole.
This quickly led to my frustration – as a staff member who was using the files the most – and thus led to a paperless proposal.
An Effort to Digitalise
The first stage was to tidy up the existing files, sending old ones off for archiving and leaving plenty of space in the racks for new files – this (of course) could not be as simple as scanning the files into a specific folder, because why make it that simple?
This opened another can of worms – not only were files in the wrong place, some had been mixed up, or even lazily stuffed into one file, meaning files were inaccurate and potentially worthless.
For the ease of my colleagues, emails and other online forms were saved onto a shared hard drive as well as being filed away as a paper hard copy (because storing electronic documents in an electronic file is confusing and unreliable…).
This meant replicating the paper file’s format into digital files for continuity, but also duplicating work whilst I set my main plan in motion of stopping using the paper files all together, which meant convincing my colleagues that they can trust technology to store their files safely.
After a conversation with my head of department, I was told that to progress this any further I needed to speak with the heads of service. I assume this was an attempt to stifle, or even thwart, my plans for new processes in my department.
Of course, arranging a meeting with the head of service took a while, but when it came to it I had a draft business plan to show cost savings, effect to the environment etc, and a can-do attitude to prove that this would not only work, but be more effective than the current process.
In actuality, I didn’t have to try that hard to convince any of the upper management that this was a good idea. In fact, they must have been glad that it had come from me and not from them, as they may have had a much harder time convincing staff to change their processes – and already had a reputation for not understanding the work the teams were doing and asking the impossible from them.
Convincing my colleagues that this paperless proposal was for the best, however, was a whole other ball game.
Stuck in Their Old Ways
The biggest obstacle for this project was the team itself. Digitalising the processes was time consuming, but since the department already had a working project to document the current processes (in the event of a change in personnel), most of the work had already been done.
This was “simply” a task of changing the destination of the files from a hard-copy file to a computer file.
Apparently, it is much easier to convince someone that a physical file, in one location, was a more secure way to store an important (legally binding) document than on a digital server backed up in several places.
The thought of a fire wiping out the documents, along with the proof I had uncovered of files being mixed up and stored in the wrong place and various other things, was enough of a catalyst to get my colleagues thinking perhaps digitalisation of their documents could be a good thing.
The easiest way to relax my colleague’s fears was to hold weekly meetings where anyone could drop by and voice their concerns, or suggestions.
This lead to many discussions about the safety of digital storage, and the apparently impossible task of reading from a computer monitor or tablet instead of a piece of paper (citing either poor eyesight or simply stating that they wouldn’t do it).
What’s the Solution?
With the existing digital database, and adobe reader, there was no software to procure. This paperless proposal was more of a change in culture, from print and read to read and save.
All staff members had laptops and department heads were happy to issue tablets, so the case review meetings I mentioned earlier should never have been allowed to continue with the mass of paper waste, probably visible from space within one year.
As I saw it, the benefits were immense, and undeniable. I would save time spent waiting for things to print. My colleagues would save time looking for files. My employer would save money on paper, printer servicing, staples, postage, recycling costs etc. passing those savings onto the tax payer in the form of an increased service.
We would also be reducing our collective carbon footprint by reducing the amount of paper waste, fuel from the postie’s van and so forth.
Not to mention the space that could be saved by removing the huge filing cabinets that could be turned into a new meeting room or an extension to the office.
The only catalyst needed to change the processes, save the local authority money, save the staff time, and save the planet from accelerated inevitable heat death, was one lowly assistant who handled so much paper he would dream of printers slowly feeding out reems of paper, and would be so used to the sound of a gigantic xerox that the rest of his life would seem quiet and placid.
Did it all go to Plan?
Regrettably, I never saw the outcome of my paperless proposal.
I had long decided that I would be better off in a more digital friendly work environment and had been offered a job at a company that promotes paperless, digital processes. (Yes, you guessed it, ITESOFT).
This further proves the statements made in our recent webinar “Finance Automation: Beyond Technology” that the younger generation of employees are not happy working in a paper-heavy office environment, and in-fact seek employment at digitally transformed, paperless, organisations.
I am still haunted to this day by the amount of paper I slotted into those blue recycling bins, however I stay positive and imagine my paperless proposal made it all the way to actualisation.
Although I am sure the minute I left the printers were being fired up again.
In late 2017, ITESOFT ran a survey looking at the key points any organisation will have whilst they are looking into business process automation (BPA).
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Survey Results: Business Process Automation Survey 2018