In fact, you hardly recognize the place without all those pieces of paper peeking out at you. Don't panic. Your office hasn't been ransacked by the competition or the cleaning crew. You're just catching a glimpse of it in the future—maybe as few as two or three years from now.
It'll be a gradual transition—one that starts with some long-term planning. First, you need to understand the benefits of going paperless. Then, you need to see what it takes to automate a few of the processes you carry out on a regular basis: recruiting, maintaining employee records, sharing data with vendors and filling out employee performance appraisals. And last, you need to recognize the barriers you may run into.
Why do it?
If you haven't given much thought to making your department paperless, it could be that you haven't heard the persuasive arguments in favor of doing so. The interesting thing is there are quite a few good business reasons—on top of the obvious environmental issue.
In short, even making an attempt to move in the direction of paperlessness is going to not only save you storage problems, time and money, but also improve the accuracy and security of records and team communication. And it's not like it's as hard as it would have been a few years ago—before so much technology became available to do the work for you. And if all this doesn't convince you, there are always the rain forests to think of. (For an elaboration of paperless benefits, please see "Six Reasons for Going Paperless".)
Now you know why you should make the effort toward paperlessness. But where should you begin? Todd Edmondson has banished Post-it™ Notes and the pink "While You Were Out" message pads. Steve Zarate has adopted a philosophy of paper "birth control" (if you don't create it to begin with, you won't have to figure out what to do with it later). And Elisa Hides has learned to question the role of paper in every new project. These and other pioneers who've hiked off the paper trail in their quest to achieve a paperless office have already begun to chart a new course. All we need to do is follow along—keeping in mind that every piece of paper we eliminate is a step in the right direction. Let's start with recruiting.
Take the paper out of recruiting.
Recruitment traditionally has been laden with paper: from resumes that come in to the offer letter. But with today's technology, there's no reason paper has to bog things down.
You're off to a great start if you can get job candidates to submit their resumes electronically. There's a couple of ways to encourage this. If your company has a Web site, that's a natural place to begin. Use a prominent spot on your site to advertise job opportunities within your organization and to promote the benefits of working there. Then invite those who qualify to e-mail a resume to your HR department as an attached text file. And if you don't want to leave it to chance that candidates will find your site on their own, form an alliance with an online employment service such as E-SPAN, Monster Board, the Online Career Center or Career Mosaic.
But what about that even bigger stack of unsolicited paper resumes that always floods in? You need to turn them into electronic files. At this point you either can have someone key them in word for word or can scan them into your computer with a high quality optical scanner.
The goal is to take all of these electronic files and store them using a resume-tracking database. Once they're in the system and you have a position to fill, your recruiters and hiring managers simply need to identify a set of job requirements and then search the database for these qualities as key words. Then up pops a list of people who meet the criteria. Some of the resume-tracking software out there will maintain information about each prospect and even generate the offer letter.
Todd Edmondson, president of TVL Inc., a Vancouver, British Columbia-based software manufacturer with fewer than 100 employees, says his organization uses a program it developed internally to track and sort resumes. "Now when we're looking for new employees, we just go back to our prospect repository," he explains. "We keep a listing of all developers or designers and tech-support people who have submitted resumes—without having to go through file folders and do it all manually."
Reconsider how you handle employee information.
Once you've identified your best candidate and extended an offer, then you need to input his or her information into your employee database, right? Wrong. Let the new hire do it himself or herself.
Steve Zarate, CIO and champion of paperlessness at Pleasanton, California-based PeopleSoft, has automated this part of his hiring process by using a simple interactive voice response (IVR) system. In his offer letters he asks new hires to dial a toll-free number and respond to a series of general questions. The system prompts the employee to provide a Social Security number, the number of exemptions he or she would like to claim for tax purposes, Equal Employment Opportunity information and any other data routinely collected on the employee's first day of work. When the employee hangs up the phone, all the data loads directly into PeopleSoft's HR database. There are no additional forms to fill out and no data entry to do.
Once housed in the HR database, data collected through the IVR system are linked to any report that needs to reference them. Zarate explains: "One of my rules is never enter the same information more than once—and that's facilitated by being paperless. You can't do that if you're using paper."
Edmondson's company uses intranet technology to process employees' information more efficiently. This employee self-service approach ensures everyone has access to current information. The cross-platform software Edmondson uses to build the databases and his intranet—WorkWise Employee File and its add-on, Intranet Builder, both Seattle-based Paradigm products—enable his employees to view HR documents such as policies and procedures whenever they're interested.
One of the fundamental ideas behind employee self-service is that data should be maintained by whomever owns them. When an employee is responsible for updating his or her address information after moving, for example, there's a much greater chance of accuracy. It also empowers employees to handle simple administrative tasks without requiring the help of an HR person.
Transfer information to vendors electronically.
Philip Luizo, president of Boston-based AccuFacts, a pre-employment screening firm, understands the importance of paperless communication. By reducing paper on his end, he has been able to speed up the screening process for his HR clients. Using old paper based systems, his quickest turn-around time for a Social Security check and credit report was 25 to 30 minutes. Since eliminating paper from the process with a specially developed Comtex Information Systems database, client companies now place their orders by computer and transmit them over the phone lines. Then AccuFacts responds in the same way. This has reduced the screening procedure to between five and 10 minutes. Luizo explains: "The old-fashioned way of hooking up with AccuFacts was through the fax. You would send over your order by fax—creating a lot of paperwork on both sides and not allowing orders to get processed fast enough." After 18 months of experience with the new system, Luizo says his operation is running at an increased efficiency of 40 percent.
PeopleSoft's Zarate explains that his employees communicate on a regular basis with their 401(k) vendor, Coopers & Lybrand. PeopleSoft employees can change the allocation of their investments through an IVR system. The changes are made automatically and verification is sent to the employee's computer through Lotus Notes.
And on a quarterly basis, statements arrive electronically—directly from New York City-based Coopers and Lybrand. "All employees have to do is click on an icon and it opens up. And there they'll see their 401(k) statement portrayed graphically—with pie charts and bar graphs for fund performance," Zarate says. There are even Web links built in, to provide Morningstar financial reports for specific funds. Other links take employees to the summary plan description or an interactive module that lets visitors view hypothetical scenarios to help them evaluate their own financial readiness for retirement. And all of this happens right at their work stations.
Of course you can only accomplish electronic transfer of data to your vendors if the vendors are online. John Nail, president of Williamstown, Massachusetts-based benefits consulting firm Employease Inc., says: "The insurance carriers, for example, aren't in the mode to be receiving files... We know long-term that we'll get these kind of connections set up as a standard modus operandi—but it doesn't exist now except for the very largest clients and major insurance providers."
Put performance appraisals online, too.
Philip Altschuler decided it was time to revamp HOST MARRIOTT's performance-appraisal system for hourly employees. As the company's team human resources manager for employees at several airports and travel plazas, his main goal was to simplify the process. When the dust settled, Bethesda, Maryland-based HOST MARRIOTT had a system that—although it's primarily still paper-based—has taken the first steps toward being paperless. The process now includes an IVR component. Reviewers follow a printed set of questions and punch their responses into the telephone. The information is then zapped straight into the company's HR management system, designed by Employers Resource Corp. based in Norwalk, Connecticut.
So what's keeping Altschuler from making the system completely electronic? Two things. First, because of the nature of the work environment, not all employees have access to a PC. And second, there's a matter of security. At this point, HOST MARRIOTT is more comfortable issuing a paper draft of the document to collect and file a hard-copy version of the employee's signature.
But at least Altschuler has cut back on the paper shuffling related to chasing down missing or late reviews. The new IVR database tells him which respondents have entered their evaluations on time and which have not. And the tabulation of results is automated as well. He explains: "This process is on the road to becoming paperless. It doesn't eliminate paper—so far what it eliminates is the routing, the paper flow."
A few digital barriers remain.
HOST MARRIOTT's reluctance to forgo the traditional employee sign-off on a review is not at all unusual. In fact, this issue is quite a stumbling block for many companies. Technology is likely to take care of the problem with digital signatures, but as of yet they're legally binding only in California and Utah. Once digital signatures are more widely accepted, or something else emerges instead, then companies will be able to store signed documents in internal HR systems.
Other barriers to paperless automation include worries about start-up costs, interim loss of system performance and a shortage of MIS staff members to manage the changes. And sometimes it's just a matter of resistance to change—either throughout the organization or among senior managers.
It may be that some organizations aren't moving forward simply because there are too many initiatives in line ahead of this one. If this applies in your organization, remember that although you may not have time for sweeping changes, you should at least begin to mull over paperless options. Make a habit of observing your department's workflow patterns with paper reduction in mind.
The office of the future will be paperless.
Everyone's vision of the future depends on where his or her company is now. Some companies, such as TVL, are keen on reaching the point at which they can track every document as it moves through the organization. Others, such as PeopleSoft, are eager to get their intranets up and running. And AccuFacts would like to see county criminal records available online. Regardless of your specific goal, eliminating or reducing paper has the power to deliver what everyone wants: better, faster and cheaper results.
So, chances are the office of the future is going to look very different from what you're used to. And getting there certainly will be a big project. But at the same time, don't let the size of it scare you away. Remember that this is as much of a strategic issue as any you'll face in the year ahead. Just make a commitment to start somewhere—even with your phone message pads—and soon you'll experience the benefits yourself.
Personnel Journal, November 1996, Vol. 75, No. 11, pp. 68-76.