Unboxing the reality of a paperless office future

This article is sponsored by Adobe.

Since its invention around 2,000 years ago, paper has been a chronicler of historical events, a signifier of agreements made, and proof of significant milestones such as birth, marriage, and death. In a business deal, the process is not done until parties ink their names on paper. Hence, it seems unimaginable that enterprises will exist in a paperless world.

However, the pandemic has rearranged, reorganised, and restarted not only the working arrangement of employees, but the mindset of decision-makers as well, especially when it comes to the signing of documents. Old ways generally require signatories to come into the office and put pen to paper, but because of social-distancing measures and the increased adoption of hybrid work, the playing field is changing, albeit gradually.

In lieu of physical signatures, several enterprises have accepted e-signatures as valid and binding, considering that in Singapore, for example, there is legislation to support such. But why do a large number of companies have yet to follow suit?

Into the shredder

In a webinar organised by Jicara Media entitled “The Arrival of the Paperless Office,” several experts put the paperweight down on burning issues such as resistance to change, and why e-signatures can eventually weed out corruption and red tape.

For Bryan Tan, partner at international law firm Pinsent Masons, several preconditions must occur in order to instigate a revolutionary change from paper to paperless.

“One, there needs to be the kind of regulatory legal backing that is in place. Second, there needs to be felt, a real demand that needs to be addressed. And then third, there needs to be user adoption. There needs to be trust in that particular solution in order for people to get into that,” Tan enumerated.

Meanwhile, the slow adoption of e-signatures can be attributed to the comfort zone provided by paper, observed Chandra Sinnathamby, Head of Adobe Document Cloud- Asia-Pacific, Adobe.

“One of the biggest obstacles I used to find was ‘do nothing.’ People are happy to just go on the way it is, because (of) the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix (it).’ I’ve got something else to worry about— and paper just worked. But that all came to the forefront with the pandemic. Overnight, a lot of organisations found themselves working from home. And it really brought to the forefront, ‘How did I used to get this process done?” Sinnathamby said.

On a more structural level, the role of government is invaluable in the instigation and reproduction of business methodologies, noted Choo Wai Yee, Director of Networked Trade Platform Office, Singapore Customs.

“It’s really (the) government taking lead regulators like us saying, we no longer need a piece of paper, we are comfortable. And we are confident in carrying out our regulatory business, we are confident in interacting with businesses based on a digital transaction,” Choo said.

Singapore Customs, Choo shared, has been one of the agencies that has welcomed the paperless future, and it wasn’t an easy transition.

“We’ve also actually been able to move to a completely paperless, totally digital program for banker’s guarantees for a long time. I think financial instruments was one of those (classes) of documents that actually end up being a really sticking point, because there’s a lot of money involved, (and) there are obligations involved. And there were more than one party involved, usually, because with the financial institution being the intermediary. So we’ve been able to fully digitalise for ourselves the banker’s guarantee process. And it is not just in terms of collecting the banker’s guarantee or having the banker’s guarantee much in terms of the claims and discharge process as well,” she explained.

Transparent as a clearbook

Aside from simplifying processes and reducing cost and labour, the adoption of paperless technology – particularly e-signatures – minimised the risk of unscrupulous activities in government, as Tan had observed.

“Another effect that we see on the government side, is that now with an electronic system, with a signature that is verified, some of the issues involved in corruption start getting removed, because with an electronic system, it’s timestamped, and you know exactly when the document came in, you know exactly who is responsible to sign that,” he said.

Singapore Customs, for example, has inspired its counterparts to adopt transparency measures, and that allowed faster processing of documents, which are now online.

“So today, all the preferential Certificates of Origin between Singapore and China are also those issued by China coming into Singapore. And those are transmitted digitally 100% of the time. And with that, we and China Customs, we are absolutely certain that’s authentic, because our systems are sending it across. The traders relieve themselves of the need to pick up the documents, make sure that (document) gets cleared over, make sure documents catch up with the physical flow of goods— all that timeline has been taken out. The possibility of documentation being lost is taken out of the equation, (as well as) the possibility of the document’s authenticity being questioned. Therefore, authorities like us having to put in extra effort to verify its authenticity, that’s taken out. We can actually facilitate trade, facilitate business, (and) get out of the way of businesses trying to make money and trying to do business,” Choo pointed out.

She further detailed how instituting positive change within an organisation affects all of its stakeholders in the long run.

“You’re not just getting benefits in one area, you’re getting benefits in the adjacent areas, and it just creates an incredible positive ripple effect. I think the other thing that we often don’t think about as innovators, or as regulators, or even as a single company— when you take that first step, to go from a paper-based transaction to a digital transaction, what you are doing is creating a comfort zone for others to follow. You’re creating the confidence for others to do the same. So it may not necessarily be that next adopter or that next beneficiary. (It can be) someone who is transacting with you, and therefore directly benefiting from a move that you have made from paper to digital. It creates such an important catalytic effect for the rest of the ecosystem,” Choo said.

Turning the page

The key therefore, to convincing enterprises to consider the benefits of e-signatures and paperless offices, is to lead by example, Sinnathamby suggested.

“At Adobe globally, we take a very hybrid (work) approach. With a digital-first mentality, how do we enhance the employee experience and have them get the things they need to do easier, now that they’re going to be working two or three days from home, or two or three days from the office? So really it’s not just about electronic signature, but just more broadly, digital document workflows. How do we make those business processes, that every department within the organisation— whether you’re (in) procurement, HR, sales, marketing— how do I get a campaign signed off? How do I get a letter of offer out to a new employee? How do I get this quote completed, if I’m in procurement, while I’m working? And how do I ensure that I’m doing that in a workflow that is meeting all my governance (and) compliance requirements? So I think, in this new world that we live in, it’s even more relevant from an employee experience perspective, to give them the right tools, to allow them to get their work done, especially now that a lot of them are doing their work virtually and outside the office,” he said.

Moving beyond the organisation, Choo noted the unequal distribution of risk and benefits among parties adopting a digital-first mode of business – a predicament which must be immediately addressed.

“We notice from various engagements with our stakeholders that the benefits, and the burden of change isn’t always equitably distributed. I could be bearing more of the burden of change. At the end of the day, someone else could be getting a greater benefit out of it. That becomes a little bit tough. I think there needs to be something in it for everyone. And that makes change or breaking out of our current comfort zones a lot easier, she explained.

“What would help with adoption is actually choice. I think when there is a force, people feel compelled, and the human reaction is to resist, to fight back, because we all want autonomy,” she added.

“We always advise our customers, say ‘Hey, (we are) more than happy to keep both options open,’ and (then) allow that adoption to happen naturally,” Sinnathamby said.  “But very quickly, once people use it (the paperless technology), it’s quite apparent: ‘Wow, why don’t I do this for everything else?”

“I think that’s where trust and open standards do help with consortiums of people. With an open standard, people will feel confident that ‘Hey, look, they’re not trying to make this proprietary and shut everybody out, but really, they are trying to develop a solution that can be applied beyond us, beyond this particular group,’ and the power of networking, not physical networking, not electronic networking, but networking, when more members come together, that’s where you see the the effect of this really taking off,” Tan concluded.