Image: RHIMAGE/Shutterstock

I’ve been a huge evangelist advocating for digital materials over hard copies for years now. The rise of remote work has not only justified my preferences but positioned me in an ideal spot to do my job from anywhere. I don’t need printed material, reference guides, DVDs or filing cabinets since everything is stored securely on my computer and instantly accessible or editable.

Workflow automation company, airSlate, polled over a thousand U.S. consumers last fall to better understand how the remote work shift has impacted or disrupted their work as it involves digital versus physical content, from printer access to online document sharing and editing.

SEE: Research: Video conferencing tools and cloud-based solutions dominate digital workspaces; VPN and VDI less popular with SMBs (TechRepublic Premium)

Some of the key findings include:

  • As investments in the cloud continue to grow, consumers like to work online for the ability to easily edit, share and collaborate:
  • The majority of respondents (40%) say the top benefit of working on documents online is the ability to easily edit content.
  • 31% of respondents say the top benefit is the ability to quickly share documents.
  • 20% of respondents most appreciate the ability to collaborate with colleagues from working on documents online.
  • Though consumers want to go “paperless,” the majority are still reliant on printers, both in-office and at home.
  • The majority of respondents (41%), who largely fall within the working age group of 18-54, would prefer to go fully paperless and work on all documents online.
  • For those who do have home printers/scanners, the majority of respondents (23%) use them three to four times a week; this is surprising compared with the 29% majority of respondents who said they never used the provided printer/scanner in the office.
  • A surprisingly low 6% of respondents never use their home printer.
  • While home office product sales rose during COVID-19, a majority of consumers did not consider purchasing a printer or scanner following the transition to remote work, with many already having one in their home office.
  • The majority of respondents (73%) do have a printer or scanner in their home office.

I discussed the topic with Borya Shakhnovich, airSlate’s CEO and co-founder, to find out more and determine what companies should be doing as well as where there still might be a reliance on hard copies.

Scott Matteson: What sort of apps or tools are businesses using to decrease the reliance on printed material?

Borya Shakhnovich: Looking ahead, many organizations are planning to keep their employees fully remote or implement hybrid-remote policies where some will be in-office and others at home. Leadership has realized that operations can remain fully functional no matter the environment, meaning that the traditional office environments are changing dramatically.

SEE: Gartner’s top tech predictions for 2021 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

With that said, in order for this new normal to remain effective, there cannot be as heavy of a reliance on physical, printed material as there once was. Since people are more dispersed than ever before, cloud environments housing collaborative options, like e-signature and PDF tools, have become essential. It’s no surprise that growth across the cloud market is skyrocketing—online collaboration is important for operations to remain frictionless.

Businesses are increasingly realizing the value of online, cloud-based collaboration platforms, e-signature and smart PDF tools to allow employees to easily edit content, share documents and collaborate with colleagues. Our team discovered via the above survey that these are exactly the type of streamlined processes employees want to simplify their remote day-to-day structure.

Additionally, with IT teams more inaccessible than they once were, leadership is realizing the value of empowering even the least tech-savvy employees with easy to use, no-code platforms that automate document creation via templated formats. With platforms like this, employees at every level are able to generate documents, including PDF contracts and reports, and conduct e-signature processes to keep operations moving forward without the need for printed material.

We are living in a frictionless, no-touch era—cloud-based, no-code applications are making it possible to keep workflows moving without face-to-face interaction.

Scott Matteson: What are some things printers and scanners continue to be used for?

Borya Shakhnovich: In our research, we discovered that while the majority of consumers have the desire to go paperless, many do still rely on printers, both in-office at home. Interestingly, while home office sales rose during the pandemic, printer and scanner equipment did not top the list of purchases, given that the majority of people already had these options in their homes.

For many, printers and scanners allow them to take a momentary break from their devices. Some also prefer to review physical documents to allow for traditional note taking. But, because these people are still operating remotely, they will still need to adapt their traditional approaches and upload said documents back onto their devices via smart PDF technology, sharing with colleagues across cloud-based environments to finalize the process.

SEE: Electronic Data Disposal Policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Scott Matteson: Do you see that trend changing in the future?

Borya Shakhnovich: I do anticipate a slow, steady decline of printers, scanners, fax machines—all traditional, antiquated technologies—in the years ahead. I expect this to happen at a slow pace because people tend to gravitate toward the technology they know and understand. Despite there being new options available, people are often hesitant to adopt new processes.

As we anticipate an increase in hybrid work environments, document-sharing and collaboration will be reliant on the cloud. People will have an increasing desire to work from any environment, at any time, and physical infrastructure like this will hold them back.

I expect to see organizations turning from static to smart documentation, like smart PDF options backed by artificial intelligence, for a richer experience. Many industries, from healthcare to education to government agencies, have been working with antiquated technologies and will now begin to adopt new options that streamline workflow and operations.

Scott Matteson: Do you have any other recommendations for implementing the most efficient remote work solutions possible?

Borya Shakhnovich: First, it is important that organizations reflect on the current technologies they have in place and identify where they are falling short in terms of productivity and efficiency. From there, they will be able to best assess the platforms that will help them strengthen their processes and workflows.

Organizations should also consider how they can alleviate some of the pressure on their IT teams. This starts with empowering their entire workforce, no matter how tech-savvy they are. This can be best achieved by implementing no-code technology solutions that can help reduce technical frustration, while also eliminating data silos.

In addition, businesses should work to limit the number of applications that an employee has to use while remote, as too many options can actually hinder productivity. Implementing SaaS application integrations can be extremely beneficial to ensure that information flows seamlessly across an organization.

Compliance should also be top of mind. Organizations should work with vendors that pay close attention to security and data protection, especially since malicious activity is running rampant during the remote work era.

Finally, slow rollouts of new technologies are helpful. Employees become easily accustomed to the technology that they are most acquainted to, so providing time to get up to speed with new tools, like e-signature and smart PDF options, will help drive a more streamlined and long-term adoption of these cloud-based collaboration tools.

Scott Matteson: What are some developing technologies revolving around these concepts?

Borya Shakhnovich: Artificial intelligence will continue to play a large role across workflow automation processes, assisting in the entire data collection process, from prediction and analysis to aggregation and integration. In addition, I expect to see the industry begin to understand the difference between low- and no-code options, reducing the need for IT resources. Overall, applications will become more and more integrated across enterprises.