Can the pandemic push us closer to a ‘paperless office’ culture? Experts say it is high time to bid paper documents goodbye
From introducing office yoga to tackling workplace harassment, professional environments in Bangladeshi offices have changed quite a bit.
These days, both workers and employers have a more positive mindset.
However, one modern practice is widely absent in the country's private and public businesses.
The idea of a "paperless office" has never really gained momentum in these places.
Although most things are digitally stored, they hardly surpass printed copies in importance.
This raised the question of why has not the internet killed office folders yet?
The answer was a little vague until working from home became a common practice during the pandemic.
But a paperless office is not just a futuristic notion, even for a middle-income country like Bangladesh.
"Going paperless" may sound like a buzzword now, but it was actually prophesied in the 1970s.
Back then, Business Week, an American magazine, had hinted at the possibility of an automated record keeping system in future which would make printed copies redundant.
The same decade, personal computers had entered workplaces.
Finally, paperless offices were taking baby steps towards becoming a reality.
Defying all pundits and their prophecies, the long cherished paperless office has sadly not arrived yet.
But businesses can still cut down their use of paper. Fewer papers mean less clutter in offices.
Better still, it would champion workplaces to go green.
Did the pandemic play a role in this regard?
Wishing to remain anonymous, a deputy director of Bangladesh Bank shared his take on a paperless office with The Business standard.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," he said, hinting at the urgency of paper free operation in banking.
According to him, reduced paperwork is the best of "new normal" practices at workplace.
"Before the pandemic, central banking hinged on paper based documentation. Now, we do the same work via emails. It is a lot faster," he opined.
The banker said, "Now I can send documents directly to the executive director without using a single paper. This was unthinkable just months ago."
Although employees are returning to workplaces after the shutdown was lifted, fear around the coronavirus has not diminished.
"Let us face it, paper documents could be a way to contract Covid-19, no one can ignore the possibility," said the deputy director.
"If organisations adopt the paperless culture, which we are partly doing already, the impact will be rewarding."
E-noting is a modern mechanism to run the banking system where major decisions are initiated in real time, digitally.
It was a pipe dream for Bangladesh Bank, until the pandemic forced the organisation to go digital for executive decision making.
"I can safely say that we would not have come this far to go paperless unless there was a pandemic," he added his two cents.
However, the banking system in general cannot shift to paperless mode overnight.
Signed paper documents are rampant and still hold significance in many cases.
Moreover, rural workplaces may not be ready or equipped for digital documentation.
Hence, the banker suggested, "We need to change the laws for going paperless from the government's end, but digital literacy is more important if we want to establish a paperless culture."
The private sector may also have reduced paper clutter amid the pandemic.
This correspondent reached out to CEO of Shohoz Maliha M Quader in this regard.
She seemed ready to welcome a paperless office with arms wide open.
"Remember those science fiction shows that depicted a potential future for our world? Well, the idea to go paperless is kind of futuristic, and thankfully, it is finally happening!" said Maliha.
"If coronavirus struck businesses have any silver lining, it has to be our race to become paper free in offices. We may have won the race to some extent," Maliha said.
"The organisational productivity we have enabled during this 'work from home' time can be credited to the paperless file management system. If it were not for Google docs and emails, things would have been more sluggish," she explained.
Maliha is delighted to see that a paper free office is finally coming to the fore.
She said, "I lose paper documents all the time, who does not? Even digital documents can get erased. But I would rather rely on digitisation of record keeping than saving pieces of paper."
Maliha championed the paperless culture by saying, "Within the last few months, we had to work with several government entities for Shohoz. All the work was done digitally, using Zoom and Google docs. If it were done with boardroom meetings and paper documents, it would have been a lot more time consuming."
Grameenphone, a leading telecom company, had introduced paperless office culture in 2010. "As Grameenphone is fully driven by digital system, employees are very keen to work in a paper free workplace," said a representative from the company.
"What we have seen in government bodies that they are very much willing to work with the changed environment through digital platform. Paperless office matches well with the 'Digital Bangladesh' ambition. We believe such practices should continue even beyond covid-19," he added.
The experts also pointed out the practical barriers in creating a paperless office.
One, signed documents are everywhere; we cannot get rid of them anytime soon.
Two, electronic signatures can catalyse a paperless workplace, but lack of digital literacy among workers would remain a problem.
Three, changing the laws could force-establish a paperless culture, but workers would also need a situation-driven reason to adopt this practice. The pandemic was a "tipping point" in this regard.
Attested documents are still critical for many paperwork in the country. For this reason, most organisations cannot truly go paperless.
One good thing is that they do not have to. It is the over reliance on papers that needs to be sized up.
The pandemic has played a role in our fight against paper clutter.
Now we wait for the post-vaccinated world to finish the battle once and for all.