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Cultural Buy-in & the Paperless Office

Cultural Buy-in & the Paperless Office

by Jennifer Rees

You can also read this article in German, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Italian and Portuguese.

Achieving a truly paperless office depends as much on cultural buy-in from people as it does on software technology.

The paperless office has long been aspirational in the business sense, but with pressing environmental concerns and global shift towards a remote or mobile workforce, achieving this ideal is no longer a nice-to-have, but critical to the future of a business. Much like the moon landing in 1969, technology alone will not get us there.

What Is Cultural Buy-in?


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When we think of culture in the workplace, we might think of work environments that are serious or professional, deeply invested in employee health and fitness, or maybe more people-focused and underpinned by levity and individual contributions. Whatever that environment looks like, it depends on the people who work there to maintain that culture—or steer it in new directions.

This investment in workplace culture is what we call 'buy-in' and it's the individual's contribution to the contemporary culture. It's not much different when it comes to cultural buy-in and the paperless office, where people's decisions, actions, and openness to change, can influence the success of a move to paperless.

Do You Really Need Cultural Buy-in to Go Paperless?


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Yes and no. Investing in the right software and technology is a crucial part of moving a business entirely into the digital space, and it could work even if the people who need to use this technology aren't really invested in its success.

But can you imagine signing up for a marathon, buying all the gear you need, and then only exercising once per week and eating only junk food leading up to race day? Yes, you could still make it just by showing up, but it won't be as fun or easy as it could be. You might have the race entry and the gear, but without the day-to-day investments in preparing your body, you're setting yourself up to have a hard time and, most likely, fail.

The same is true when pursuing a paperless office. The infrastructure, technology, and a base-level of intention might be there, but it's the daily investments into the vision of a paperless office by all the humans involved in the business that will make or break the move to a truly digital environment.

Points to Consider When Moving to a Paperless Office

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As a business begins to strategize and take specific actions to move to a paperless environment, it can be helpful to keep in mind why this could be a culturally challenging move. Being aware of some of the barriers to achieving a paperless office is half the battle won.

The Allure of Paper


People and their paper are not easily parted. Groups of people, like the ones working to run a business, can sometimes feel culturally bound to paper and printing, which can make the entire business seem dependent on paper and ink.

The allure of paper in business can be tied to the seemingly reassuring qualities of a paper trail for auditing purposes, the undeniable tangibility of the page, and the age-old adage-cum-excuse of 'Well, we've always done it this way.' For many, paper makes business official and assured, cementing in ink the day-to-day activities of the business into reality.

Taking this relationship between people and paper into consideration can be an invaluable resource when making the shift towards a paperless office. Knowing what people value about paper systems gives you a template for what you can aim to replicate in a paperless system.

Generational Proximity to Digital


While generations like Baby Boomers, Generation X or Millennials were only beginning to be defined in the early '90s, generational relationships with paper vs. computing technology have been evolving for much longer.

Digital natives are people born into a world where digital technology was already a standard and practical part of daily life. Because of their early—and seamless—introduction to digital technology, no thought- or cultural shift is required of them to adapt to a digital world.

On the other hand, people born before digital natives were accustomed to analogue technologies like the telephone, fax machine, typewriters, and post. This generation has had to make a shift from analogue to digital and are known as digital immigrants.

Digital natives are comfortable working in a purely digital environment and are usually less resistant to embracing a paperless office. But it can be harder for digital immigrants, who've already made the move to a more digital world, to adapt to an entirely paperless environment.

Be sure to consider generation proximity in your move to paperless. Awareness and sensitivity are important here and will support quicker adoption rates and buy-in to the paperless office.

Human Habit


People are creatures of habit and we're most comfortable doing what we always have, even if there are simpler, easier ways to get things done. When it comes to implementing a new software or technology in a business, it's critical to get it right, because people will naturally default to old ways or habits if they sense any holes or flaws in the new system. Hiring an expert to support your move to paperless can be especially helpful here.

Remember, there will always be a certain level of resistance to adopting new technologies in the workplace; this is a normal, and potentially valuable, reaction to novelty. By leaning into this resistance, businesses can leverage insights into what these barriers are and find ways through them.

If you've ever wondered how to achieve a paperless office and what that would look like, watch our exclusive webinar, How to Run a Paperless Office Effectively.

Ways to Get Cultural Buy-In for a Paperless Office


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There are many good reasons for a business to move to paperless, but achieving cultural buy-in is not a one-time fix, nor is it entirely intellectual. Cultural buy-in relies on strategy, baby steps, emotional investment, and creating habits, to stick—and thrive.

Start With Why


Author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek wrote a book and defined the popular business concept, 'Start With Why'. He proffered that all the business greats, like Apple, are so successful, not because they market what they do or how they do it, but why they do it. This 'why' is a powerful motivator, especially for early adopters, because it resonates with the deep, emotional centre of the brain.

Businesses can use this concept as an impetus for the cultural buy-in they're looking for. The 'what' and the 'how' of a paperless office might look like no more wet signatures, or a company-wide resolution to use the printer only in emergencies, but the 'why' goes to the reason or motivation at the core of these actions and could look something like, "We're invested in protecting our natural environment", or "In order to survive, how we work must be sustainable."

Start Small


You don't need to make sweeping changes or big leaps to get cultural buy-in. In fact, making huge, company-wide changes all at once could sabotage your efforts to move to digital, because when people are faced with too much change all at once, they can become overwhelmed, fearful, and resistant.

It might take longer to implement a fully digital office, but if you start small, with one department, or one process at a time, adoption will be far more sustainable and you'll be able to scale up in no time.

Show, Don't Tell


Most people remember—and adopt—processes better when they have a visual or physio-spatial reference, than when they've been told how to do something. Of course it's important and helpful to host training and have procedures written up, but remember to walk employees through paperless systems and allow them to experience the process and explore the benefits of the paperless office.

Don't forget to make room for failure and resistance; these are critical to engagement with new systems and aids to successful adoption of digital technologies.

Have a Strategy


It pays to be strategic when you're looking to win cultural buy-in for a paperless office. Outline what systems you want to implement, how you want to implement them, what your timeline looks like, and in what sort of increments you'll be releasing these to your team. Depending on the size of your organization and the complexity of existing systems, it could be a good investment to hire a third party to help you roll out your new digital strategy.

Routine Training


Nothing helps to reinforce new habits like repetition. Take the time not only to train your staff when you implement new software or systems, but create the time and place for regular, ongoing training. This will not help refresh knowledge about the software, but will give employees the opportunity to bring up real and current challenges in a problem-solving environment, where everyone can learn.

Embrace Failure


Humans learn faster when they engage with a subject, get their hands dirty, and make a mess of things. More than that, failure can be a valuable tool in testing out weak points in software or systems and highlighting the company's document management pain points. With a positive attitude that embraces failure not as calamity, but a learning opportunity, making room for mistakes opens doors to understanding your business better, knowing what your employees need, and how your software and systems can serve them in building a sustainable business.

While it may be easy to invest in software that pushes your business further into the digital realm and away from paper, it's a mistake to think that software alone is the key to the paperless office. People are at the heart of every business, be it marketing, education, logistics, or entertainment, and that makes cultural buy-in as important a key to the paperless office as the right software.

Looking for a flexible document management software suite for your team or business? Start your free trial today or register for Smallpdf for Teams or Smallpdf for Business with plans and pricing to suit you and your team.

Jennifer Rees
Jennifer Rees
UX Writer