Paper documents are still a leading cause of employees having to go to the office. Cities in Asia may be better able to slow the spread of COVID-19 if businesses can rapidly transition to digital alternatives.
When you think about some of the leading causes of virus spread, top of mind would be close contact with infected persons, not wearing face masks, and leaving home unnecessarily when lockdown measures are in place.
A recent survey found that, ironically, in our age of digital transformation and paperless initiatives in almost every economy, paper is still a leading cause of employees having to go to the office when they should be staying at home.
Indeed, as many as 80% of accounting and finance staff at businesses were still going into their workplace in recent months to process physical documents such as invoices. This despite the virus wreaking havoc on economies and triggering movement restrictions.
Cities in Asia may be better able to slow the spread of COVID-19 if businesses can rapidly transition away from a reliance on paper in the workplace and towards digital alternatives. A good place to start would be in the finance department of every business big and small, with the digitization of paper-based invoices, contracts, and expenses.
A few key takeaways from Sansan’s recent survey of 400 accounting and finance professionals in Singapore include:
- A majority (52.8%) said invoices received in electronic file format (i.e. PDF) had to then be manually pointed out, while an even larger number (66.3%) also had to regularly scan paper invoices into electronic files.
- On average, 436.27 invoices are requested from suppliers each month, with 80% requesting suppliers submit invoices in a specific format.
- After invoices (79.8%), receipts (59.5%) and contracts (48%) are viewed as priorities for going paperless.
- Over half of those surveyed (52.5%) said they process invoices the moment they are received, with the remaining 47.5% taking longer.
- From this group, 65.2% spend over 10 minutes on average searching for a specific invoice and receive an average of 300 invoices each month.
- This suggests 50 hours per month (about 600 hours per year) spent searching for invoices, before even starting to process them.
- Finally, the survey found that while almost all (92.8%) invoices are processed within 30 minutes, approximately three quarters (74.4%) still include paper formats.
DigiconAsia discussed these findings with Edward Senju, Regional CEO, Sansan:
The need to process and access paper documents – such as invoices, contracts, receipts and payslips – is causing many employees to go back to the office even during pandemic lockdowns across cities in Asia Pacific. Why do you think so many organizations in the region are still using paper instead of digital documents?
Senju: Ironically, in our age of digital transformation and paperless initiatives in almost every economy, paper is still a leading driver of employees having to go to the office when they should be staying at home.
In Singapore, a country widely seen as a global leader on digital and certainly leading the way in Asean, our research found that as many as 80% of accounting and finance staff were still going into their workplace in recent months – even as the virus wreaked havoc on people’s health and the economy.
Our data showed the leading reason was the need to continually process paper documents such as invoices, contracts, receipts, and expenses that are mailed into offices physically by post.
The question naturally arises: if a developed economy like Singapore’s is grappling with this challenge of paper documents persisting in the corporate world, you can bet regional emerging markets are also struggling.
You can also bet that finance and accounting staff in every economy across Southeast Asia similarly have to go into offices during pandemic-induced lockdowns.
One of the challenges is certainly around the fact that internal communication documents within a business can more easily be digitized than external ones, resulting in what seems to be this widespread obstacle to a unified approach to moving from paper to digital formats.
Can government or corporate regulatory compliance help in reducing the amount of paper documents? What areas of standardization, security and fraud protection should we pay attention to?
Senju: Two years ago, Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) implemented a nationwide e-invoicing network to help businesses improve efficiency, reduce cost, enjoy faster payment, and stay green at the same time.
The network is an extension of the international PEPPOL e-delivery network, which allows businesses to transact internationally with other linked companies, and is an inspired example of a public sector initiative delivered flawlessly here in Singapore.
The government’s Emerging Stronger Taskforce, unveiled in May, highlighted the urgent need for the city-state to create new frontiers in the digital realm and seize opportunities in a growing green economy if it wants to successfully chart its economic recovery in an after-pandemic world.
Moving away from paper and towards digital alternatives will not only help Singapore fight the virus and thus build the country’s pandemic resilience longer term, but is also in line with the government’s stated ambitions to become a greener economy.
At the time of the taskforce report, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat stated:
“This is only the beginning of the next bout of economic transformation that we are embarking on… As Covid-19 is likely to stay with us in some form and for some time, it is critical that our businesses and workers take this downtime to accelerate our learning and transformation, and form new partnerships.”
The private sector needs to step up and do its part on the innovation front when it comes to digitization of paper-based documents.
In terms of security and fraud prevention, this depends on what kind of data the documents contain.
For invoice-related data, we can typically detect fraud by comparing the invoice in question against past transactions.
However, even this simple check is more easily achieved in a digital format that can leverage the power of large data sets and thus better secure or improve business processes – it’s much harder if everything is locked in paper.
How should digital documents be an effective part of the digital transformation strategies within organizations?
Senju: Businesses in Singapore and its neighboring Asean countries may be better able to slow the spread of the virus, while also digitally transforming their economies, if they can transition away from an unhealthy over-reliance on paper in the workplace and towards digital alternatives.
A good place to start with this strategy would be the most obvious: in the finance department of every business big and small, with the digitization of paper-based invoices, contracts, receipts, and expenses.
It’s encouraging that most public and private-sector companies in Singapore and elsewhere do have paperless, digital transformation, and remote working strategies and policies firmly in place.
Despite these, paper unfortunately persists as public enemy number one in the face of these digital strategies – so more must be done.
Both big and small companies and the government should get behind a push to make offices much more paperless as we chart a path of recovery and emergence from this pandemic.
What can businesses do to improve document management for the ‘new normal’ hybrid working model?
Senju: When you consider the average volume of monthly invoices that are processed by each employee, you quickly surpass 218 hours per month that are spent on invoice processing (including converting formats).
This can lead to invoice processing being an inadvertent avoidable but cause of workplace stress among those we surveyed (36.5%), with over half (52.5%) saying they typically have to action them ‘as soon as they come in’ and that this need to process them quickly is a source of stress (60%).
We need a future-proof solution to make this shift to a ‘new normal’ work – we tend to think in terms of top-down versus bottom-up approaches and how technology can help bridge the two.
For example, our digital invoicing solution Bill One uses similar high-accuracy scanning technology and processes as our business card solutions to intuit and digitize all key information; it bridges the classics (paper, PDFs) with the new (cloud-based, digitized).
Broadly speaking, any such solution should be built on the latest technology while coupling it with a pragmatic understanding of the important role physical infrastructure and paper will continue to play in our economy (hopefully just not as much in our offices).
Businesses will still require a physical postal address for paper invoices (where they remain necessary) and other corporate documents to be mailed to, but ideally the processing and handling of all this paper would be outsourced to a third-party tech firm.
For digital documents, an email address could be provided so that, at the same time as handing off their paper invoice processing (then digitized and stored safely in the cloud), the documents could similarly be sent to a cloud mailbox and centrally stored and managed.
Such a tech-enabled solution would save companies substantial time and costs, while also reducing the need for employees to go to their workplace during lockdowns.
We think of it as a key technology pillar of future smart city infrastructure for Singapore and other cities that aspire to be smarter and more resilient – and less paper reliant.