In his 2001 song “Mississippi”, Grammy, Oscar, Golden Globe, Pulitzer and Nobel winner Bob Dylan informs us “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way”. I’ve been pondering the relevance of this pronouncement in the context of our current times, and came to the conclusion that, as always, Bob knew exactly what he was talking about.

The Coronavirus outbreak and ensuing COVID-19 pandemic have not only altered many aspects of our daily lives for the duration, but have also created a “New Normal” to which we’re all going to need to get used to. It’s entirely possible that the handshake will disappear; face-mask violations, once the sole dominion of Football officials on the gridiron, are now cited at grocery stores throughout the land; and the massive proliferation of home delivery services is certainly here to stay.

By far the biggest societal impact has been the rapid adoption of technological solutions to compensate for disallowed face-to-face interaction: all educational providers, from K-12 through Graduate Schools, after-school tutoring services and music instructors, have shifted over to online classes. Businesses and public-service entities (such as Local and Federal Government agencies) alike have sent employees to work from home, deploying Virtual Private Networks, Voice Over IP telephony, and a massive quantity of computer notebooks. The slightly dated, much-maligned Apple iPad has emerged as the one indispensable device with which one can manage all their remote interactions. This Passover, millions of families conducted extended Seder meals, connecting to their loved ones via Zoom teleconferencing (one of our friends had twelve families in their Seder connecting-up this way). Finally, an alternative to traveling to one’s In-Laws…

As we begin to emerge from our shelter-in-place and stay-at-home existences, and start the process of returning to our places of employment, we may find that, along with the handshake and morning stand-up meetings, another thing may have disappeared from our workplaces: Paper. For hundreds of years, paper has been the preferred method of collecting and distributing information; no more. People are simply going out of their way to avoid touching documents handled by others, and even paper money is getting short-shrifted these days, with many businesses opting to no longer accept the USA’s venerable “Legal Tender”. If your HR director won’t hold Benjamins in her hand, how do you think she’ll feel about processing an Injury Report, which had been serially filled-out by six of your co-workers, one of which was bleeding at the time?

Truth be told, most businesses already have long ago implemented various technologies for contact-free communications and interaction with the outside world: emails are a routine part of customer and supplier relationships, as are online order forms, electronic billing and payment systems, bid submittal portals and digital document signatures all represent methods which have not only greatly improved operating efficiencies, but also keep microbes, germs, and (non-electronic) viruses at bay. I expect to see an even greater reliance on these (and other) mechanisms, especially in Business-to-Consumer interactions.

But what about our Workplace interactions and paper flow?

Most organizations still rely on in-house designed paper forms to convey information from remote job sites back to the head office. This is true of distribution companies who leave a few blank accident forms in the trucks’ glove compartment, the contractors who keep a stack of incident reports in the construction trailer, or the city landscapers that tear up the park office looking for that elusive safety inspection form. If that sounds familiar, don’t feel bad about it, you’re in good company: most organizations tend to make significant investments in “outwards facing” data communication technology, with a lessened focus on internal paperflow, certainly when it comes to more sporadic exception reporting regarding injuries, utility strikes, property damage or safety near-misses. Unfortunately, the shift away from direct human contact and multi-user paper forms puts pressure on those responsible for such reporting to source, onboard, and deploy technologies which allow the documentation, collection, and dissemination of workplace incidents in a seamless, real time manner, without running the risk of recording avoidance or reporting lag because employees are no longer comfortable “moving paper”.

The good news is that handheld devices have become so ubiquitous in our society that their scope of usage and user familiarity are virtually universal. As such, implementing Workplace Incident Recording and Reporting applications such as Compatica is done rapidly, painlessly, and with no friction or task delays. Deploying electronic solutions takes away the need to fill out and “flow” paper from the worksite, removing health-risks and delivering improved accuracy,  immediacy, and ease-of-use to a complex, frustrating process.

Thomas Watson Jr., son of the founder of IBM (and, in his own right, its second president) famously opined that “A paperless office is as feasible as a paperless bathroom.” Well, truth be told, Tom never had the opportunity to use an iPhone or a tablet (let alone experience firsthand the Great Bathroom Tissue Shortage of 2020) but he knew better than most to heed Dylan’s stark warning from way back in 1964: “You’d better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’”.