The ‘less paper’ office future

At first glance, it’s easy to assume that the printed page is under pressure. Digital books have been eating into the market share of physical tomes for years, social media news is forcing newspapers to look for new sales models, and more content than ever, accessed via smartphones, means that screens are fast replacing paper.

In the workplace, digital transformation technologies are motivating businesses to completely overhaul their IT systems, digitalise paper-centric processes, and introduce electronic workflows too.

However, paper isn’t over just yet. Rather than wipe out physical books, e-books have actually provided an upturn in demand for the traditional version. This year, for the first time in four years, sales in printed books actually rose while e-books declined. Meanwhile, research is proving that students learn better when using print educational resources, compared to digital ones.

It’s the same for the workplace. While an industry-wide push towards digitalisation is seemingly ushering in the ‘paperless office, the reality of a ‘less-paper office’ is much more likely to be our future. Physical documentation will continue to be important and, with multifunction printers (MFPs) able to integrate with software solutions to offer greater functionality than ever before, striking the right balance between software and hardware is now the challenge at hand for organisations.

The digital workplace

Digitalisation and digital transformation initiatives can no longer be ignored for businesses looking to stay competitive in the current enterprise environment.  From hi-tech manufacturers to high street hairdressers, businesses need to embrace the digital workplace. Whether it’s managing customer data or bookings, maintaining a happy, flexible workforce or ensuring that employees have the technological tools to succeed, digital will reach into every area, industry and mentality in the modern world.

Key technologies for digital transformation, as identified by the World Economic Forum and Accenture, include a mixture of growing industries, such as artificial intelligence and robots, to more well-established technologies like cloud computing and big data. For many businesses, the former is unlikely to be on the immediate agenda but there are a number of more easily integrated digital transformation technologies such as workflow management software.

As paper-based processes migrate to a digital environment and the volume of data in day-to-day business operations increases, document management is becoming an increasingly integral business function. Workflow software can be quickly integrated into a businesses’ daily routine and is becoming a popular and cost-effective way of boosting efficiency and interdepartmental collaboration.

Cloud computing has a key role to play in the sharing of documents across this new, digital workspace. Research has found that spending on cloud computing has, since 2009, been growing at a rate that is 4.5 times faster than the rate of IT spending.

When it comes to document solutions, the industry’s success in the future lies not just in the availability of the software, but in understanding how customers will use documents, physical or digital, and what pressures businesses face both now and up ahead. This is true of any industry; the development of a true digital workplace is as much in the understanding of people as it is in the technology.

The rise in flexible working has also come hand-in-hand with technologies that allow for greater connectivity and movement. Digital transformation is forming the bedrock of this new trend in employee behaviour.

Innovation in the MFP industry

Despite this drive to digitalise, MFPs and printers still have their place in both the future and current office environment and potential for further innovation in this sector should not be overlooked.

At a basic level, paper documentation is still an important requirement of most, if not all, workplaces. Digital files can be subject to corruption and, where necessary, should be paired with a physical copy.

Cloud and business software is making major strides in enhancing the ease of purely digital-based collaboration between colleagues based in different locations. However, in an office environment, handwritten feedback on a piece of work and a face-to-face discussion is as important as it always was.  In fact, a study of workplace innovation conducted by Google for Work saw C-Suite executives name employees working together more collaboratively in person as the number one factor for impacting an organisation’s profitability.

While there are increasingly innovative ways of presenting information digitally, physical marketing collateral is still a powerful tool for businesses to create a lasting impact on a potential customer.

Crucially, we are seeing innovations that enable more traditional paper processes, and state of the art digital techniques, work well together. Workflow solutions and network device management tools are creating a greater connection between the paper and print worlds by leveraging the capabilities of smart MFPs.

These devices are opening new avenues and possibilities for businesses as the workplace becomes more flexible. Mobile printing is just one example, with the use of mobile phone applications that can connect wirelessly to a compatible printer device.

Similarly, integration with cloud-enabling software is allowing users to print from their smart phone, tablet, personal computers or any other web-connected device, to any cloud-connected printer without installing specific printer drivers on their devices.

Time-consuming business processes, such as invoicing, can now, with the help of enterprise content management software, be streamlined. A printed document can be scanned, digitised and then processed while intelligently identifying meta-tags such as the date of receipt, invoice ID, and other related identifiers.

From a productivity perspective, while stalling printers may have in the past provoked the ire of many an office worker, today’s  printers and MFPs are reliable and deliver reduced total cost of ownership and less routine user involvement. Document management solutions are also enabling office workers to send print requests to a central application that can assess which devices are free and help reduce printing queues.

Achieving the ‘less paper’ office

The level of digitalisation that we can expect to see applied will vary. Some SMEs will find using less paper easier than others, but even tightly regulated sectors like financial services that often require hefty paper trails and physical archives can employ some degree of digital migration.

Despite this, while digitalisation will continue to gain momentum, and attitudes towards the use of paper resources will no doubt evolve, it is unlikely to lead to a complete reimagining of the office environment. Understanding the intricacies of digital transformation and how to implement the right technologies for their respective workforces is the challenge now faced by enterprises.

The factors involved in this decision are manifold, ranging from budgetary concerns to accommodating the vying needs of ‘baby-boomer’ employees, perhaps more comfortable adopting traditional business processes, and digital-natives that expect the latest technology.

Fortunately, these two worlds are not in direct conflict and digital technology can be seen as an enabler for harnessing the potential of more ‘traditional’ hardware equipment. The mentality for businesses must therefore be integration and migration rather than a digital strategy that sees the complete removal of legacy hardware.

With advanced digital capabilities to improve the efficiency of physical print-related business processes now at our disposal, businesses can progress their digital transformation goals without a wholesale reinvention of their office set-up. As the workplace becomes more flexible, so too does the corresponding MFP technology, be it hardware or software.

Ultimately it is a matter of understanding how employees will use documents, physical or digital and putting the right technology in place to enable this. Striking the right balance between hardware and software will therefore will be seen as a key quality of a successful digital transformation project.

Takahiro Sato, President, KYOCERA Document Solutions Europe
Image Credit: Jason Truscott / Flickr