The dream of the “paperless office” has drawn attention for decades. The last few years brought the concept closer to fruition, as organizations accelerated digitization efforts to support distributed work models. What many are learning is that digitizing paper documents is just the first step toward a paperless office. To truly achieve the vision, organizations must also digitize and optimize document lifecycles and workflows in support of new work patterns and digital-first experiences.

Contracts, invoices, and employee records are the lifeblood of business operations, and recent progress made digitizing key document workflows address parts of what can be a complex and convoluted process for creating, sharing, reviewing, and signing specific types of documents. Yet the accelerated digital transformation efforts in response to pandemic-era challenges also had a downside: It created application silos and integration issues that, in some cases, add steps to the process instead of streamlining it. Although 44% of respondents to a 2022 IDC survey said they had adopted mostly digital versions of paper-based workflows, only a third characterized their digital document workflows as advanced, meaning digital documents were readily accessible to everyone, with data-driven orchestration and decision-making.

The lack of end-to-end visibility resulting from immature or incomplete document workflows is causing problems for both customer experience (60%) and employee experience (66%), an IDG/Adobe survey revealed. As result, even though half of IT leaders in a 2022 Forbes Insights study said they restructured workflows during the pandemic, two-thirds said there’s more work to do on their digital document processes.

“The new reality of the paperless office is it’s not just about making a paper document into a digital document,” says Alex Gay, Adobe’s senior director of product marketing, Document Cloud for Business. “It’s thinking about the entire journey the document goes through and optimizing that process, from creation through to engagement, transaction, collaboration, archival, retrieval, and analysis. Only then can you think about being a paperless enterprise, because you’ve started to transform the business process that underpins the document workflow.”

Helping business – and the planet

The paperless office concept continues to resonate with enterprises for good reason. Businesses can achieve multiple goals, from improving customer and employee experiences to reducing costs by minimizing paper use and reducing the ancillary time and resources associated with overseeing paper-based processes. Companies’ desire to meet specific sustainability targets is another upside to going paperless; Adobe estimates that every 1 million pages signed digitally with Acrobat Sign translates into savings of more than 27 million gallons of water and 1.5 million pounds of waste. (Adobe offers customers an e-signature carbon footprint calculator that estimates reductions with e-signatures compared to paper agreements.)

Another major advantage of digitized workflows is improved experiences for both customers and internal employees—a must in today’s business climate where experience is king. In Foundry’s 2023 Digital Business study, more than half of respondents (51%) said their digital business strategies are aimed at improving employee productivity and collaboration, and 45% said they are looking at digital business processes to create better customer experiences.

Companies can accomplish these objectives by creating digital workflows that eliminate as many manual processes as possible across a document’s lifecycle. Consider the case of an investment firm where customers making account changes were still required to print out documents from a website before sending the completed form back to the firm, where it was not automatically uploaded for processing. By rethinking and digitizing the end-to-end process, the investment firm was able to streamline the experience and improve customer retention and customer satisfaction scores.

Similarly, integrating PDF or signing capabilities directly into the applications and services that people use every day, such as Microsoft’s Office 365 suite, removes the need to switch between applications, streamlining the experience and boosting employee productivity.

“There are real impacts that organizations can start to unlock when they think about these processes holistically,” Gay says. “If you look through too narrow a lens, that’s when you can miss some of the opportunities for improvement.”

How to embrace paperless workflows

There are a number of factors organizations should consider when transitioning to a paperless office. Here are three that should always be top of mind:

Identify all the right stakeholders. Different types of documents are often handled by multiple stakeholders across an organization, including HR, legal, and different functions within line of business. It’s important to understand where the center of excellence lives within an organization and who is authorized to view and handle documents. A team of business partners should collaborate with IT to evaluate processes end-to-end, identifying opportunities where APIs and integrated solutions can streamline workflows and unlock productivity gains.

Evolve from an application mindset to an ecosystem mindset. It’s no longer about end-user productivity, but rather using APIs to plug capabilities into applications to power document workflows across an entire application ecosystem. Take e-signature capabilities, for example. Most IDG/Adobe digital document survey respondents (86%) flagged the lack of integration with applications such as Salesforce, Workday, Microsoft Outlook, or SharePoint as adversely affecting their digital document and signature journeys sometimes or often.

Adobe’s API strategy addresses this issue through web services that can be plugged into an application ecosystem. Adobe PDF Extract API, for example, creates a file for analysis in BI systems while the Document Generation API employs AI technology to pull information from applications like Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics to generate documents. Its Accessibility API auto-tags documents at scale to improve the PDF reading experience using assistive technologies. Adobe’s Seal API ensures signed documents can’t be tampered with.

Consider the people as well as the process. Leadership teams need good change management practices to help users see the value of moving away from traditional paper-based processes.

“Understanding the behavioral changes needed across different parts of the journey and supporting them through training, engagement, and making the right tools available will ensure the best possible chance of success,” Gay says. “Once you build the automation engine in the background, you remove so much manual effort and enable users to focus on higher-value work.”

The dream of the paperless office is closer to reality than it’s ever been. But IT and business leaders need to think beyond digital document libraries to reimagine end-to-end workflows in pursuit of the digital-first experiences that deliver competitive advantage.