For the Love of Paper: A Little Bit of Digital Goes a Long Way

The other day, I got an alert from my bank inviting me to enroll in paperless billing. I’d switched to paperless billing years ago, but the alert made me wonder just how many of my fellow consumers are still getting statements in the mail.

We’ve been hearing about a paperless society since the personal computer came on the scene in the 1970s, yet most homes and businesses are awash in paper — 420 tons of paper and cardboard are produced annually, which translates to roughly two pieces per person every hour. Yes, every hour.

Clearly, our demand for paper has not disappeared despite the fact that digital technology has made the use of paper largely unnecessary. Our continued reliance on paper in the face of better technology makes it unique. After all, people aren’t still sending telegrams or cleaning their clothes on washboards.

The fact is, most of us are just more comfortable using paper for certain tasks. The prevailing thought in our industry is that we need to do away with paper altogether. But while that might be a good goal from an ecological and sustainability perspective, it simply doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. I may be an outlier in the digital industry, but I don’t think the use of paper should be entirely eliminated from the workplace.

Listen up and write this down

There is increasing evidence that people retain more information when they read it on paper than on a screen. If you’re trying to get a really complicated set of ideas down or absorb something that’s complex, you have a better chance of being able to truly remember the information — and with a deeper understanding — when you read it on a physical piece of paper.

Going back to the idea of digitalization, let’s remember that the whole point of digital transformation is to make people more effective and efficient. We should automate only where it makes sense, particularly in light of the fact that employees are clamoring for less screen time, especially after working from home through Covid.

Instead of digitalization for digitalization’s sake, smart digital transformation leverages automation technology such as workflow or RPA to eliminate those repetitive, mundane tasks that simply waste time, to free the employees we hire for their big brains to generate big ideas. That way, when employees are in front of a screen, they’re doing work that’s really valuable.

The right medium at the right time

It doesn’t make much sense to send a piece of paper through the mail just to ask my boss, who works in another city, for time off. And who hasn’t bought or sold a house, only to have the joy of closing day marred by the hour-long slog of signing 300 pieces of paper? I doubt too many people would be sorry to see that process move into the digital world.

On the other hand, if I want to remind myself to pick up my dry cleaning, nothing beats a sticky note on my computer. And if I want to take notes during a meeting, it’s often easier and more efficient to write them down. Not only is it easier, but research shows that notes you handwrite lead to better comprehension and recall. And when it comes to proofreading a report, a red pen is the way to go.

As much time as we spend on the internet and with our computers, we live in a physical world, and there’s something about sticking a reminder on our computer or leaving a note on a co-worker’s desk that’s visceral and gives us a sense of control.

It’s often assumed that these attitudes about the use of paper are generational (older generations are clinging tightly to their stacks of paper, while younger folks strive to live in a paperless world) but what I hear the most from everyone starting down the digital journey is, “I don’t want my time being wasted, I want to be productive and efficient.”

So it comes down to the right medium at the right time.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing

The problem arises when organizations force their employees to use a “solution” simply because it’s digital, often creating more work and turning employees off to the whole idea of automation.

People easily accept digitalization in small steps. Email and even online banking have become de rigueur, but the thought of complete digital transformation can be overwhelming and intimidating. I’ve heard it again and again: “That sounds expensive. That sounds hard. I don’t even know what that would look like.”

There’s an assumption that digital transformation is a big, heavy lift, and when you have that in your mind, it tends to become a much lower priority for management and employees. The key is finding the low-hanging fruit and bringing your employees along with you. Find out what’s giving them heartburn or wasting their time and fix that one little thing. Instead of sending a piece of paper about time off or an expense report, put a digital form online.

Have you digitally transformed your world? Nope. Have you made a huge difference that your employees really appreciate? Yep. And they’re going to want more of it. After a couple of little wins, the process starts to drive itself. It’s critical to get buy-in early because successful digitalization is grown from the ground up, not the top down.

Instead of automation becoming something new that an employee has to do, it becomes a solution that management has implemented to solve a real problem for their employees.

Means to an end

And that brings us back to paper. As much as I love my sticky notes, I realize they aren’t the appropriate tool when I want to expedite approvals, drive important decisions, or do a complicated calculation.

So, if you want to free up my time, remove those boring, repetitive tasks from my list and drive efficiencies, I’m all in for digital – but if you want to remind me to make a doctor’s appointment in the morning, be sure to leave me a sticky note.

In her role as VP of Product Management at Nintex, Zoe Clelland is passionate about building world-class products based on customer-centricity, empowered teams, and a deep belief that software must work for humans, not the other way around. Zoe has focused on defining every aspect of digital user experiences for more than 20 years, and holds a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology.