In 1975, a writer for BusinessWeek wrote that the advent of personal computing opened the door for a new idea - the paperless office.
The writer interviewed George E Pake, head of the Palo Alto research division of Xerox. (If you are not familiar with it, this is the research center that innovated such ideas as the mouse and the graphical user interface, and served as the original blueprint for the Mac and later Windows. They also implemented the original open office concept, with all of their engineers bouncing ideas off each other while sitting on bean bags chairs. It's legendary.)
"There is absolutely no question that there will be a revolution in the office over the next 20 years. What we are doing will change the office like the jet plane revolutionized travel and the way that TV has altered family life." Pake says that in 1995 his office will be completely different; there will be a TV-display terminal with keyboard sitting on his desk. "I'll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button," he says. "I can get my mail or any messages. I don't know how much hard copy [printed paper] I'll want in this world."
Looking at that list, it turns out that Pake was mostly right. We are able to call up documents on screen by pressing a button, and we can get email and instant messages on our screens. And yet, nearly 40 years later, we STILL have not managed to completely do away with printed paper in the office.
Does that mean that we are doomed to be storing paper copies of community data for the next 40 years? Is this another case of a future cruely teased and never realized? (Where's my flying car?)
Let's explore what's holding us back, and how we can (finally) realize the dream set forth in a beanbag strewn room in 1975.
Barrier 1: Legal Restrictions
While many dyed-in-the-wool private industries are embracing paperless at an astounding rate, the legal system has yet to fully close the gap with the private sector. Particularly in real estate and community associations,the laws often require paper exchange for information (such as a physical mailing of a notice of annual meeting) as well as paper storage for record keeping. These requirements make it difficult in many states for a management company or community association to go fully paperless.
While this is a barrier, it is not a full stop to going paperless. Careful study of most state laws reveal that restrictions to paperless record keeping have ways to work around them, such as allowing homeowners to opt-in to receive notices via email. Also, many state laws only restrict specific documents, so for example, contracts may specifically need to be physically stored on paper for 7 years, but letters and other communications do not specify that an original paper copy must be kept.
Consult with a lawyer in your state specializing in community association law to determine the specific paper storage laws in your state. While you may not be able to go completely paperless, you should be able to significantly reduce the amount of paper you are storing for each association you manage.
Avelino Vide, owner of Avid Property Management in Florida was able to significantly reduce paper storage: "We have narrowed the [paper] storage space down to one box per year per association. We're as paperless as the state of Florida will allow us to be."
Barrier 2: Capital Expenditure
The up-front cost of going paperless can be a barrier to small businesses, particularly if you operate on the thin profit margins that most CAM companies do. Even if you've seen the numbers, and you know how much you can save going paperless, it can be daunting to replace your printers with scanners and invest in the storage and devices necessary to go paperless.
The good news is that as options increase, costs are dropping rapidly. Services such as Dropbox, Microsoft's SkyDrive and Google Drive even give a number of gigabytes of cloud storage completely free for using their service.
Barrier 3: Loss of Income
Many management companies bill their association clients for every piece of paper printed. The prospect of no longer printing dicuments can cause them to fear loss of a steady income source.
Avelino Vide had the same fears, but he found that the labor savings in processing those documents more than made up for the loss: "Paperless violation letters save several hours for the managers and the receptionist. Scanning invoices and receipts also saves us a tremendous amount of time, easily a couple of hours per week for each manager, I've looked at the amount of time it's saving, and the cost of filing that paper, and found that going paperless is profitable."
Barrier 4: The Digital Divide
A common argument against going paperless is the so-called 'digital divide'. This argument refers to the split between those who have access to the Internet and digital communications technology and those who do not. The digital divide argument comes up often among management companies here in Florida, because of the perception that elderly people do not have access to modern technology, and thus will be left behind if a community goes paperless. (By the way, this same argument was made about the adoption of the telephone, which may be why it took nearly a century to achieve full adoption!)
While this is true to some degree, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is closing rapidly around the world, even among seniors. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, approximately 15% of individuals do not currently use the Internet, and about half of them are over the age of 65.
One way to combat this divide is to give the homeowners in your comunity the option to be paperless. With an opt-in system, concientious homeowners can choose to switch all communications to email, while customers without Internet can choose to continue to have communications sent to them in the mail. Your association management software should come with this capability. For example, in TOPS, when you print letters, the system can automatically send emails to those who have opted in to receive emails, and send physical letters to the printer for those who have not opted in.
Barrier 5: Disparate Technologies
Some community associations have difficulty going paperless because their data is too distributed. You've got letters in your word processor, accounting in Quickbooks, spreadsheets in Excel, and the ever-present fax machine. With all these disparate technologies, it can be difficult to even consider a paperless solution due to the inability to get everything for an association (let alone an individual homeowner) in one place.
This is where a cheap scanner and a central storage solution such as Dropbox or an integrated Community Association management software can come in handy. By having one central location earmarked for all community data, files can be uploaded to keep everything at your fingertips.
For Avid Property Management, the solution was the homeowner attachments feature in TOPS. "We're scanning everything into TOPS now. We just send an email or print just one letter. TOPS keeps copies of everything that is sent, so I don't have to make that paper copy and file it." Coupled with a check scanner, you can even retain an image of every check the homeowner has written to you.
Barrier 6: Human Resistance
Sometimes, resistance to a new technology comes down to the simple argument of being human. We don't want to. We don't want to learn a new technology, we don't want to spend time scanning things in or typing things up, we don't want to give up the convenience of a long-term habit that we are very comfortable with, thank you very much.
But consider the other side of that - the convenience you can give to your homeowners and board members, as Scott Taylor of Spring Hill Associates discovered: "As a board member, it struck me that each board package was a three inch binder with hundreds of pages. They were difficult to go through and inconvenient to store. We put all of our information and documents on the cloud using docs.net. We also email the board packages a week in advance." Now that's convenient!
Going paperless is a hard choice at first because it requires a change in attitude for everyone involved. Now that technology supports a paperless office, it's up to each of us to take up the mantle and make it happen. Not only can going paperless ultimately benefit the environment, it can also benefit your bottom line.
What barriers have you encountered to going paperless? Let us know in the comments below!