August 23, 2022
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Using digital forms to create a culture of detail, honesty, and freedom

Stewart Price

On (at least) a weekly basis, I speak with an EHS leader who seems lost – sometimes it’s taken us five cancellations or rearrangements before we even get to speak! They tell me how their roles have become 99% reactive, how they know there is a problem, but that they don’t know how they could possibly step back and fix it without it all crumbling down.

Normally, I’m grabbing time with them before 9am, and it feels exactly what it is – the calm before the storm.

Inadvertently, these storms are creating an environment where detail is lost, freedom is long gone, and honesty is under threat.

Cultures of ‘anti-honesty’

I don’t want to make a blanket statement about companies having a dishonest culture because dishonesty is an active choice to commit fraud or deceit; however, it is possible for organizations to accidentally become ‘anti-honest’ without even realizing it.

In my experience, ‘pencil-whipping’ is the most obvious signal that this is happening. Defined as “approving documents or forms without proper review or knowledge,” I’m sure every EHS leader has seen many paper forms with one long line down all the checkboxes at some point in their career.

There are a million reasons why this happens, and it’s not my role to judge or chastise anyone. (I’ve personally hit ‘Agree’ on T&Cs without reading through the entire document more than I’d like to admit!).

However, like with anything, things start small – and then they escalate. A simple daily check becomes an inventory or equipment check, which becomes a low risk inspection, which becomes training certifications, and so on. Anti-honesty is never an intended journey, but it can become an unwanted destination.

Stress and Pressure is Building

In the vast majority of conversations I have, paperwork or excessive amounts of administrative work is causing a perpetual feeling of disorder and decay. EHS leaders, in particular, have the constant threat of incidents, audits, and near misses hanging over them. In a world where one mistake (whether out in the field or on paper) can cost lives, millions of dollars or reputation – is it any wonder leaders are experiencing such high levels of stress?

This is why leaders want detail. It protects themselves, their employees, and their company. The more information you have, the safer you and your team are, right? Wrong. I’ve spoken to so many leaders who tell me that this has quickly turned into a downward spiral.

EHS Today believes that the "biggest danger in construction work is poor mental health,” and there have been countless studies connecting administrative burden (often known as ‘paperwork’) to increased stress. One survey showed that having to complete paperwork was more stressful for many police officers than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals.

Put simply, employees feel chained to their desk and only able to focus on the immediate task in front of them. And this is why at ReadyKey we asked: “Can we free them to build a sustainable safety culture, and not compromise on quality or detail?”

Digital forms

Making paper forms digital is not a ground-breaking idea. SurveyMonkey was founded in 1999. Google Forms was founded in 2008. There have likely been billions of digital forms created by this point. However, the average American worker still uses around 10,000 sheets of paper per year. Teams are still drowning in paper, and form completion is one of the biggest culprits for the people I speak with.

What is more groundbreaking and where I believe we have discovered a genuine breakthrough is the combination of mobile digital forms with a key library of documentation people need to do their jobs effectively – all in one simple, reliable, and powerful mobile app.

If digital forms need to be completed from a desk or need an internet connection to be accessed, are you really setting employees free? Or just tying them to something else?

True mobile digital forms – which can be accessed and completed anywhere, any time (in multiple languages if you wish) – will finally set employees free. QR codes and easy search can get employees to the form they need in seconds. Simple checkboxes, sliding scales, and multiple choice questions can gather information fast. And when you need it, photos, videos, long form text and branching questions can all be used to collect the data you need.

One of our customers puts QR codes on the side of vehicles to get employees to the form they need fast - no excuses!

I find it staggering that many companies today are still completing forms on paper, and then inputting that information at a later date. This duplication of work is demoralizing, and quite frankly, a waste of time. That ‘pencil-whipped’ document becomes a mindlessly copied digital form – both bring zero value, and a ton of risk.

We regularly talk to companies who have spent $100,000+ on an EHS software, only to then realize that the quality of the data being input is poor (at best). All software is only as good as what is put into it - “you are what you eat” as they say – it’s time to focus on that now and make immediate changes.

Ultimately, if employees see a tool which will make their life easier - they will use it. I’ve heard so many stories of teams using WhatsApp, without any IT approval, because it makes their life easier.

That proves to me that employees aren’t as reluctant to merge personal and professional as most leaders think they are, but it also represents a challenge for IT who normally want to find an alternative to WhatsApp but don’t know where to turn.

It is true that employees can’t be forced to download a company app on a personal device, but our customers are seeing employees actively want to download these apps because of the value they bring to their day to day. We hear that unionized workers won’t download a company app, but that doesn’t match what we see when companies provide a great, optional, mobile tool which gets slowly adopted and embraced over time.

“We just can’t eliminate paper entirely! We’ve tried in the past and it backfired spectacularly! Our workers will never accept doing everything digitally!”

Does some variation of the above sound familiar to you? It probably does if you work in EHS, Manufacturing, or Compliance. I hear it daily.

However, interestingly, whenever I ask someone: “Do you think paper will be replaced eventually? Even if 10, 20 or 50 years down the line” – their answer is always yes.

This paradox is incredibly telling. People can’t see themselves in this future state any time soon, but they do believe it will happen. They aren’t willing, or able, to lead the way there – but expect to be able to follow at some point.

Trends which point towards a paperless future
  • Environmental and sustainability considerations
  • Cost cutting will eventually wipe out the waste of printing, filing, searching, replacing and managing paper
  • Adoption of smartphones and tablets in the workplace is growing every year
  • Automation and industry 4.0 and 5.0 are fully aligned with a digital future
  • New entries to the workforce are far more comfortable with digital than they are with paper

I wish I could share with you the silver bullet to go paperless overnight, or explain the 3-step or 12-week program to getting there painlessly, but it is individual innovative employees (who we are lucky to work with at some of the largest companies in the world!) that are going to make this happen.

They’re going to set the rope for others to follow. They’re going to increase efficiency, decrease incidents, reduce regulatory fines or reputational damage, and improve engagement. They’re going to get rewarded and recognized. They’re going to get promoted and gain new responsibilities.

There’s no shortcut, but below are a few steps I believe any leader can take today:
  • Talk to your team and listen to what they spend the most time on each day
  • So often it is linked to paperwork, and/or duplication of work.
  • Break the project down into smaller pieces
  • Most of our clients start with something simple like Daily Inspection Forms or Emergency Action Plans. They digitize them, get adoption, measure results, and then expand.
  • Decide early how you expect employees to access the information and build for that
  • Do you provide employees with a company smartphone?
  • Do you allow workers to use their personal smartphone (or could you if you reviewed the rules again)? Or set different rules for supervisors/team leaders?
  • Do you have tablets available (or could you for a few hundred dollars)?
  • Work with a mobile expert
  • I may be biased, but I assure you that you need to work with a mobile-first company, with a product that works offline, supports multiple languages, and integrates into existing processes!
  • Never go back
  • Linked to the above, you have to find a provider that you trust because once you make the move to digital, your employees will always reject a return to paper.

Stories from the frontline

I am fortunate to speak with a range of different people each week as the co-leader of ReadyKey and Guidebook. I can go from a workshop with shop floor workers, to a video hangout with a COO, to a face-to-face meeting with a Manufacturing Director.  

Here’s two conversations which have stuck out to me in recent times.

The first is with an EHS Manager at a Fortune 500 Pharmaceutical Company. The first FIVE times we tried to meet, he had to postpone. When we eventually connected, he told me that he was personally spending 20+ hours a week checking, completing, or uploading paperwork into their various systems.

He had tried delegating this to other team members, but their staff turnover was so high – and the work was so demoralizing – that he decided to take on the burden himself… for more than a year.

The second is with a Director of EHS at a science-based technology company. Her team runs daily inspections and weekly audits – all managed through paper forms. Those forms are printed out by her team and given to employees on the shop floor. Once completed they form a stack until they’re collected once a week for review, scanning, and filing.

When copies of the paper forms run out, employees are meant to come to her team to get new ones, just in case there is a new version. However, she admitted that often employees will just pick up the form closest to hand, go and photocopy another hundred versions, and leave them for the next person.

She described her team as firefighters, constantly trying to catch rogue forms, reportables, and keep a compliant trail of completed work – but it was clear something had to change.

Both of these stores are memorable, because the employees I spoke to – and their teams – felt trapped by existing processes. Locked doing something in the same way people were before them, but under far greater pressure and scrutiny than ever before. In almost all businesses today, what’s taken down on paper does end up as a digital record somewhere, so why not cut out the middle man?

If you are wasting time manually copying from paper forms to digital systems, or scanning and taking pictures of forms and storing them as PDFs (which can’t be easily searched or provide trend data), it’s time to say no and that enough is enough. It’s time to embrace digital. It’s time to go paperless.

Final Thoughts

Nobody enjoys paperwork. If you were to remove all of the paper in the workplace, I’m afraid people are still not going to always enjoy providing all the data you need (people will always find something to complain about!). However, I truly believe that most employees can get onboard with something which they see is designed to boost their efficiency, reduce waste (of all kinds), and keep people safe.

I believe that we have discovered a breakthrough which allows companies to permanently make the shift to a paperless future, through embracing the power of mobile. Printing, filing, photo-copying, physically searching for documents - can all be things of the past, ReadyKey is here to help you get there.

Key takeaways
  • Employees hate paperwork. That has always been true, but with recruitment and retention harder than ever before – and some companies getting a handle on this and choosing a better path – the opportunity is there to gain a competitive edge.
  • Pencil whipping is a serious risk for many companies and although they may not be felt until much further down the line (or if they’re lucky, not at all), it’s a ticking time bomb that needs to be addressed now.
  • Digital forms, digital documentation, and integration to existing systems all exist today. This isn’t really that innovative individually, but ReadyKey offers the opportunity to combine them all into one - solving multiple problems in one go.

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