In Canada the “paperless office” is still pulp fiction

There’s a big difference, it seems, between thinking green and working green.

True, a majority of Canadian workers profess concern for the environment.

Many even embrace electronic and digital technology designed to cut down on the use of paper.

Despite this, a recent survey indicates that in Canada the idea of a paperless workplace is still pulp fiction.

Canadian workers print an average of 30 pages of work-related documents, and nearly four out of 10 pages or 39 per cent are tossed to the waste bin, according a survey conducted by Leger Marketing, a Montreal-based research firm.

The poll was commissioned by Canadian telecommunications firm Telus Inc. and Recombo Inc., a Vancouver-based developer of electronic contract and digital signature software.

Recombo recently signed an agreement with Telus, under which Telus will offer Recombo’s product as an online service – Telus Secure Contracts.

Pollsters queried 844 working Canadians on their paper handling habits at work and at home. The margin of error for the sample group is +/- 3.4 per cent.

According to the survey, 21 per cent or two out of five Canadians believe they are printing a lot more than they were five years ago.

“I thought more people would have been cutting waste by now,” said Scott Cho, vice-president for Leger Marketing.

He noted that despite the preponderance of technology-based tools, emphasizing the storage and use of digital data, workplace printing accounted for 90 per cent of all printing activity.

“As a workforce, we still rely heavily on paper.”

Cho said lack of a comprehensive document management policy in a majority of Canadian firms rather than wanton disregard for the environment could be the reason behind the numbers.

More than 61 per cent of the respondents believe that “being green is good for business” another 59 per cent of those asked think their company “should incorporate practices that limit corporate impact on the environment.”

Nearly 77 per cent of the workers polled said they were “concerned about my effect on the environment”, while another 74 per cent said they worked hard to minimize their environmental impact.

Yet, one in eight Canadians says their company has no policy for managing its paper usage.

An estimated 60 per cent of those polled said their firm has a “blue bin” paper recycling program, 16 per cent indicated they had a “full blown paper management policy”, and 13 per cent admitted they had nothing in place.

Current practices are not enough says Cho. “A blue bin program does not constitute a comprehensive paper management policy.”

He said firms should be looking at ways of drastically cutting dependence on printing on paper as far as company operations would allow.

This strategy, he said, could include using electronic versions of documents as much as possible, as well as printing on smaller-sized paper, or printing on both sides of the paper.

The survey indicated a majority of companies are employing such practices.

More than 60 per cent of workers said they use electronic documents, 53 per cent indicated they employ double-sided or reduced-size printing, and 20 per cent use digitally secured documentation.

“I think the challenge lies in putting all these programs and technologies together to form a comprehensive paper management policy,” Cho said.

One solution could be moving greater amounts of transactional data into digital media, according to Reed Clayton, vice-president of sales and marketing for Recombo.

“The Internet just opened up a lot of opportunity to access and print more data. What companies need is a way to streamline and automate the collection and management of that information,” he said.

For instance, while e-mail might have reduced the need for sending out paper-based correspondence, people are resorting to printing out their e-mail messages.

The same process is being followed in instances where large batches of PDF files are transmitted via Internet, said Clayton.

Typically, firms would e-mail a contract agreement to a client. The client will print out the contract, sign it and then mail back the signed document.

Telus Secure Contract can cut down the time lag and reduce paper wastage for both parties, said Clayton.

Companies subscribing to the Web-based hosted service will have their contract encrypted digitally. Signatories to the contract can access the document only through a secured Web link that recognizes their e-mail address and private password. Recipients of the contract can then “sign” the contract with their digital signatures or pass codes. Copies of the contract can be stored digitally or printed.

Clayton said the service is ideal for companies engaged financial and leasing services of for offices that need staff members to sign onto employment agreements of company benefits.

“The process provides convenience for customers, reduces data entry processes and streamlines data management,” said Joe Pach, director of environment for Telus.

The service provides users with highly configurable forms to suit various needs but also encrypts the document to prevent tampering, said Pach.

One Toronto lawyer, however said, users will still have to “go back to the basics” when it comes to considering the enforceability of digitally signed documents.

“This is not such a novel technology, people have been exchanging e-mails and PDF files and have been using digital records for e-discovery for some time,” said Jennifer Dolman, partner in the litigation department of the Toronto office of Osler, Hoskins and Harcourt LLP.

She said services such as those offered by Telus and Recombo can streamline contract signing and save tree, but issues associated with paper-based contracts will still apply.

Parties to a digitally signed contract will still have to consider questions such as:

  • Was the language used clearly understood?
  • Were the signatories properly advised and represented?
  • Are the signatures and document authentic?
  • Was any party unduly pressured?
  • Is the document enforceable?

“People can use various technologies but it all boils down to the basic of whether the contract is authentic and whether it can be disputed,” Dolman said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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