Call It What You Want — Just Don’t Call It the Paperless Office

The technology driving whatever you want to call “the paperless office” is changing how businesses function. It has connected people, processes and information like never before. We’re seeing intelligent and automated solutions that save time and money. We’re seeing new technologies like voice recognition change the way we interact with people and technology. We’re watching data become one of the world’s most valuable resources — so valuable that criminals will go to great lengths to steal it.

All of these forces are shaping the world around us. Let’s explore.

Digital transformation

Every year, more and more businesses are converting their paper processes to digital form. The accounting department might purchase a solution to process invoices and purchase orders; the HR department might buy something to handle onboarding and offboarding employees or managing schedules; the sales team might have their own CRM system. But most of the time, they’re only taking half measures, going paperless over here but doing things the same old way over there.

Deploying and managing disparate systems in this fashion can create a lot of problems. Just like when it was in paper form, information becomes less accessible because it’s locked away in different repositories or indexed differently between departments. This creates bottlenecks and hampers collaborative processes, since employees spend too much time trying to get on the same page. It also puts a strain on your IT department. Every system you deploy means another physical or virtual server has to be purchased maintained and protected, creating more chores for IT. Too many systems can be unwieldy to manage, making for a chaotic environment.

But as technology evolves, businesses no longer need to deal with those problems anymore. Cloud-based content management systems are enabling businesses to deploy unified document management and collaboration services across the entire organization, increasing productivity while eliminating costly servers and reducing IT workload. And since these solutions can be accessed over the web or from a mobile device, contents can move with users throughout the day and they can intuitively access and collaborate wherever they are, using a large interactive display in a meeting room or hallway, for example – all by simply tapping a Near Field Communication (NFC) tag with their mobile device.

We’re also seeing improvements in how we digitize information in paper documents. Processes are being relegated to multifunction printers (MFPs) and computers, so users can spend more time on the work that matters. Now it is possible to capture documents, extract specific information from them, and integrate them directly into a variety of sources including cloud services, email, line-of-business applications, and other core systems that drive businesses — all by touching one button on the MFP’s control panel or tapping a NFC tag with a mobile device.

Security and compliance

Given all the high-profile cybersecurity breaches in the last few years and the ongoing discussion about data privacy, it’s not shocking that businesses are nervous about security and compliance. They don’t want to be breached. They don’t want employees leaking information. They don’t want to be fined. They don’t want to be embarrassed. They definitely don’t want to be on the front page of every newspaper or be summoned to testify before a Senate sub-committee.

Of course, there is no such thing as 100% secure or 100% compliant. You’re only secure until you’re not, and you’re only complying with regulations until you’re not. But with that being said, content management systems (CMS) continue to add layered security, and coupled with IT security best practices, they help prevent business owners from making their first C-SPAN appearance. They can protect sensitive information and automatically comply with regulations from the moment the data is received until the moment it is destroyed.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the movies, and office paper isn’t programmed to self-destruct. Should your documents fall into the wrong hands, you can’t prevent the assailants from seeing what’s on those pages (or prevent them from sharing it). But in the real world, you do have a lot of tools that can be used to protect private information. You can control which employees can access which information, and limit what they can do with it. This prevents rogue employees or hackers from stealing sensitive data (or an honest employee from accidentally disclosing it).

Document files can be encrypted or protected via policy-based security management, protecting sensitive data in the aftermath of a breach or leak. In some cases, you can go as far as wiping the memory from lost or stolen mobile devices remotely to protect the sensitive information therein. Organizations often adopt data loss prevention (DLP) that controls endpoint activities, and CMS solutions also automate lifecycle management of documents, so information isn’t destroyed prematurely, shared or stored improperly, or held longer than necessary. In addition, compliance reports can be created automatically, saving employees a ton of time every year, and preventing mistakes that can lead to fines.

Smarter meetings

We’ve all been in one of those meetings that started 15 minutes late because someone couldn’t figure out how to connect their laptop to the monitor, or find the right slide deck, or because the dongle is missing (or the dongle is missing that one weird port), or you can’t find the right input on the monitor. Yet, even after you wasted 15 minutes before the meeting could start you’ve still got to deal with making sure it ends on time. You only have 45 minutes to present what was supposed to be an hour-long presentation or hold up the following meeting until you’re finished. There are no winners here. The technology that is supposed to make our lives easier turns on us and makes our lives more difficult.

A Verizon Conferencing study found that employees are in an average of 62 meetings a month. Our research shows that it takes 12 minutes for the average meeting to reach productivity because of technology issues. In other words, employees spend almost 12.5 hours a month twiddling their thumbs while someone works through technical difficulties. If you want some perspective, employees usually spend 10 hours a month between September and December working on their fantasy football team, which costs businesses $9 billion in lost productivity. Now consider that only a portion of your office plays fantasy football, while almost all of your employees attend meetings (or that Fantasy Football only affects employee productivity for four months a year.)

Having a meeting shouldn’t be difficult. Meetings shouldn’t be unproductive. Yet, here we are.

Meeting management tools can be used to ensure meetings start and end on time, while reducing support calls to the IT team. They allow businesses to automatically start and stop meetings with the press of a button, quickly access meeting materials from content management systems, automatically start a web conference session, and simplify screencasting and mirroring. Businesses can leverage a visual meeting timer so attendees are respectful of everyone’s time.

And meetings can be smarter. Bring IoT into the room. Technology exists today that allows for tracking of workspace utilization and environmental factors to help create a smarter, more comfortable workplace. By combining sensor data with office collaboration data, cloud solutions can provide actionable analytics for the modern workplace.

Lastly, whiteboards are now as interconnected with content management systems as any other office equipment. And just like our smart TVs at home, the whiteboard in your conference room is getting smarter, and is able to eliminate your meeting room woes. They’re internet connected, run their own applications and integrate with the applications you use every day — all through a big, bright, and beautiful touchscreen display. Users can draw on these boards or pull up video and audio files to illustrate their ideas and get the point across. Some can even support multiple users drawing on it at the same time. And the whiteboard discussion can be printed via a simple voice command.

Voice integration

If you ask Elon Musk, humans have a bandwidth problem. The speed at which our biological hardware can interact with our digital selves is limited, capping our productivity. According to Musk, the typical human typing on their smartphone or tablet can communicate at a rate of 10 bits per second. Computers, on the other hand, can communicate at a rate of 3 trillion bits per second. His solution is to weave machines into our brains. But we don’t need to undergo invasive surgery to integrate with machines so we can be more productive in the office. It turns out we already have some biological technology that can help us interact with the digital world more quickly: our voice.

In the same way we ask Alexa to play a song or turn off the lights or lower the thermostat, we can ask MFPs to scan or copy documents, or ask displays to advance slides during the meeting. In the same way that we started using smartphones and tablets at work, we’re starting to implement devices typically used in the home into the office. Currently, voice integration with devices is eliminating the need for users to drill down through multiple menus, and prevents silly mistakes because someone hit the wrong button.    

Paperless?

There will probably never be a paperless office by its literal definition. We can call it the “less-paper” office or the “paper-light” office or even the “significantly reduced-paper-usage office.” But after nearly half a century of waiting for it to be eliminated, I don’t think that “paperless” is an appropriate term. In our lifetimes, it’s safe to say that paper is always going to have a home in the office, albeit a smaller one.

What we can expect in the future is an interconnected office, where employees can access any information they need at any time from anywhere using whichever device they want. We won’t have to fuss around with temperamental technology or worry about thieves or government regulators. We will talk to machines just like we do to humans, and everything will be just fine.

Akisa Matsuda

Akisa Matsuda

Akisa Matsuda is Associate Director, Software Product Management at Sharp Electronics Corporation.