This article has been updated from a previous version.
In 1975, a since-removed article by BusinessWeek posed the idea that the advent of personal computing opened the door for a new idea: the paperless office.
The writer interviewed George E Pake, former 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 as well. More than that, we have the cloud--a storage space so vast and unending, it rivals the Indiana Jones' antiquities vault you see at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
And yet, over 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 cruelly 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: 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. TOPS sought to shake things up a bit from those standards of cloud storage with Document Management in TOPS [ONE], which offers unlimited cloud storage for all of your documentation.
Barrier 2: 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.
There has been mild progress made, however. In March 2018, then-Governor Rick Scott modified existing condo legislation requirements for website content publication, and those will take effect beginning Jan. 1, 2019. It actually requires that certain documentation be available in digital format, and even goes so far as to specify what documents need to be accessible from where on your website.
However, it does not negate the legal requirement for specific documentation to be kept in physical paper format for specific time limits (with some of those time limits being 'forever'!) And even though this law is only applicable to Florida websites at the moment, other states tend to follow suit when it comes to Florida legislation regarding HOA and condo rules.
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.
Barrier 3: 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 community the option to be paperless. For example, with the opt-in system built into TOPS [ONE]'s Owner Access, conscientious homeowners can choose from communication options like to switching completely to email, while customers without Internet can choose to continue to have communications sent to them in the mail. This also gives homeowners 24/7 access to their own specific information and documents, thanks for Document Management's attachment functionality. With Document Management, a community manager can decide which documents are visible at every level, from as wide-reaching as the property level, to as specific as the individual homeowner.
Barrier 4: 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 like Document Management can come in handy. By having one central location for all community data, files can be uploaded to keep everything at your fingertips.
Barrier 5: 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 (and the fact that the rapid advancement of mobile technology has created a rampant demand for the immediate gratification that digital access provides).
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!