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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 paperless office depends as much on cultural buy-in from people as it does on technology. Learn about challenges and opportunities here.

The paperless office is not a new dream. It’s been around for quite some time. The PDF format was invented just for this reason—to build a stepping stone for a path towards a truly paperless office. Even though for a long time, things didn’t seem to move forward, we can see a cultural shift in today’s society. Pressing environmental concerns and a global shift towards a remote or mobile workforce have once again turned our direction towards the right path. The paperless office 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 it or steer it in new directions.

This investment in workplace culture is what we call “buy-in” and, it's each and every individual's contribution to 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 vital part of completely transitioning a business into the digital space. As with many other things, it can still 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 and you likely won’t be running the whole thing. 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.

The Allure of Paper


People and their papers are not easily separated. 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.

Paper appeals in business due to its reassuring audit trail, tangibility, and the 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. It’s also a matter of habit. Humans don’t break their habits easily and most of us didn’t learn or start out in business without paper.

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, and 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 is 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 analog technologies like the telephone, fax machine, typewriter, and post. This generation has had to make a shift from analog to digital and is known as the 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. They’ve already shifted a large part of their world into the digital space and will likely cling more tightly to the remaining analog aspects of their day-to-day. The paperless environment may feel like a threat.

Be sure to consider generational 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 it may sound logical to do things a quicker, easier way that will clearly save time and money, getting there means breaking with old habits. When it comes to implementing new software or technology in a business, it's critical to get it right. If something goes awry and a process fails or creates problems, people will naturally default to old ways or habits. Hiring an expert to help your transition 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 go 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. In any case, communication and an open mind for criticism are key!

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 because of why they do it. This “why” is a powerful motivator, especially for early adopters, because it resonates with the deep, emotional center 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 convincing enough to thing everyone would be on board. After all, keywords like no more wet signatures or a company-wide resolution to use the printer only in emergencies sound great in theory, but without a reason or motivation at the core of these actions, not everyone may understand your goals. Example of this very important “why” are 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 large , company-wide changes all at once could sabotage your efforts to transition to digital entirely. Regardless of the topic: When people are faced with too much change all at once, they can become overwhelmed, fearful, and respond with resistance.

It might take longer to implement a fully digital office if you take smaller steps, 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. The resistance you face, if any, will also be smaller and more manageable.

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 aid in the successful adoption of digital technologies. A trial system purely for testing doesn’t only help eliminate errors before roll-out, but also gives everyone a chance to get used to a new system before they actually have to use it in their daily operations.

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 your existing systems, it could be a good investment to hire a third party to help you roll out your new digital strategy. They’ll also be able to point out potential pitfalls on the way with regards to cultural buy-in.

Routine Training


New habits are created best through endless repetition. The more often you do the same thing, the more it will become second nature and fade from something new to a habit. Take the time not only to train your staff when you implement new software or systems but also to create the time and place for regular, ongoing training. This will not only 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 for testing out weak points in software or systems and highlighting the company's document management pain points. With a positive attitude that meets failure not as a calamity but as 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 management knows all about the “why” and “what”, it really is the employees who are experts in the “how.” They know their pain points and can tell you what your solution is lacking to really help your business go the extra mile.

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 a 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. So, when you make the decision to go paperless, be sure to get everyone on board—help them understand the “why”, provide them with the “what”, and be sure to get their invaluable input into the “how.”

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