Exploring documentation-heavy industries in a digital world

Stacks of paperwork in the office.

We live and work in an undeniably digital world. Meetings have become video calls and memos are now emails and instant messages. Even paper, which has been the foundation of countless businesses for centuries, has been phased out in favor of electronic documents.

Using digital documents is quick and convenient, but the business benefits don’t stop there. According to research compiled by Statista, digital document processes also improve productivity, save time, and reduce printing and storage costs. In an increasingly competitive landscape, these small advantages can make a significant difference for businesses in any industry.

However, despite the financial and environmental benefits of going paperless, several industries have yet to make the transition. As electronic documents become standard in many workplaces, each of the following has the potential to digitally transform and revolutionize their respective workflows.

Order in the court

Lawyers and other legal professionals often require paper to do their work. Even if you want to go digital, many documents — such as affidavits and essential records — must be presented physically to be legally valid. These documents also have to be copied multiple times and shared with relevant parties, including the courts themselves. Others can have digital copies, but originals may still need to be physical, depending on their use and the laws in that jurisdiction.

This amounts to a staggering amount of paper usage. Cleveland.com reports that, according to a 2019 survey from Arnold & Porter, one lawyer uses anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 sheets of paper in a single year. At this rate, a lawyer would generate a sheet of paper each minute of the workday.

To cut back on this reliance, some, but not all, parts of a legal business could still go paperless. Much of the administrative work does not need to meet the same rigorous standards as formal legal documents. From employee records to company policies, internal documentation is far easier to digitize without compromising on the strict standards most legal documents must meet.

The world of finance

Though the financial landscape is largely digital, many financial institutions remain tied to paperwork. Like the legal profession, banks, insurance companies, and other financial services in the United States are heavily regulated.

According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, there are many institutions and agencies, both at the state and federal level, that are responsible for overseeing the financial services industry. Financial institutions must follow whatever regulations are set by these bodies, and often they must use physical paper for certain documents. As this industry starts using digital documents, it will take time for regulators to update their laws and policies to reflect those changes. For the foreseeable future, some aspects of the financial industry will almost certainly continue to require old-fashioned documentation, including physical paper and written-out signatures, called wet signatures.

Luckily for their clients, financial services companies have already incorporated some digital documents into their workflows. Customers can access their account information, receive bank statements, make payments on their loans or credit cards, and deposit checks online. Even documents that require signatures no longer pose as much of a challenge, as they can be signed electronically.

Location, location, location

The real estate industry is built on stacks of paperwork. Between property deeds, purchase agreements, appraisal documentation, and contingency negotiations, it seems unlikely that this field will ever be entirely free of physical paper.

Real estate is yet another area that faces significant regulation. Everyone from realtors to homebuyers must follow the relevant regulations in their area to ensure each transaction is valid and in accordance with the law. Further, real estate transactions are often so large that all involved parties must document everything, and keep their own copies of these documents, to protect their interests.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has led to significant changes in real estate paperwork. With necessity being the mother of invention, many processes that previously took place in person — such as signing a lease agreement or viewing a home — went virtual. Because the industry was able to pivot to an electronic experience so quickly, there is likely a chance for more deliberate document digitization in the future.

Modernizing medicine

In the U.S., healthcare is highly bureaucratic, and like any bureaucracy, there is an abundance of red tape and paperwork. A study conducted by Harvard researchers revealed that the U.S. spent $812 billion on administration in 2017 alone. Further, a survey of healthcare professionals reported that 90 percent of providers still use paper and other manual processes in their practices.

The large amount of paperwork makes sense, given the amount of information medical professionals need to work with a single patient. Once you factor in other patients, insurance companies, licensure requirements, billing, and general administration, it’s easy to see how paperwork accumulates and why, to a certain extent, it is necessary.

Slowly but surely, many parts of the healthcare system are going digital. Telehealth services make it possible for patients to see providers virtually, which also results in patients using online forms and facilities storing that information online. Of course, some aspects of medicine will always necessitate in-person interactions (and likely some paperwork, too), but these small changes are already an improvement for those who have to interact with, and work in the healthcare system.

Hit the books

Finally, education is almost synonymous with paperwork. In-class assignments, homework, tests and quizzes, and essays all amount to a mountain of paper for every student. That does not even include lesson plans, grading, permission slips, handouts, syllabi, administrative forms, and other kinds of paperwork that move through a school.

The education system increasingly uses technology to reduce paper usage. Many teachers, for example, can use online tools to grade assignments. Other tools make it possible for teachers to assign, and students to complete, homework online. Some schools keep track of students’ health records with online systems.

Though some schools and degree programs manage to operate completely online, it’s difficult to imagine the entire education system making a similar move. Integrating paperless solutions into the physical classroom and exploring other ways to improve the educational experience with digital tools seems like a more probable and promising future.

Digitizing documents and revitalizing workflows

If you work in one of the above industries, it is still possible to incorporate digital documents into your organization. You simply have to determine what kinds of documents should be digitized, as well as the steps your organization needs to take to make the transition possible.

You do not have to go entirely digital to benefit from using electronic documents. Even digitizing a few documents or creating a hybrid process can help you capitalize on the benefits of digital documents without encroaching on the essential role that physical paper plays in your organization.

Read more information about digital document workflows, including how you can turn manual document processes into efficient digital ones.