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From paper to pixels: how digital signatures changed modern business

Trivia question: What do the following have in common?

  • a) Working in the office
  • b) Ordering food in eating establishments
  • c) Signing documents

The answer: COVID-19 changed all of them forever. 

Working in the office? The myth of absenteeism was well and truly debunked during the pandemic. Being in the office adds value to collaboration and connection. However, lockdown and quarantine protocols proved that you can be just as productive, if not more productive, while working from home. Businesses and employers responded, and, since exiting the peak of the COVID-19 global health crisis, flexible/hybrid working has been adopted in more and more workplaces. 

Ordering food? Waiters and waitresses no longer have to scribble your order on a notepad. Or memorize your decaffeinated oat milk cappuccino without chocolate dust. Orders and payments can be made upfront with a QR code. Freeing up wait staff and reducing order errors. This began as a response to observing social distancing and other government guidelines, but has since stuck.

Signing documents? If you need to print and sign an official document like a contract or lease, you no longer need to worry about how you’ll print and scan those papers. Now, you can just use digital signature software to sign your document. No more hours spent reconfiguring the desktop printer that you only use when you need to sign something, or traveling to a printer/copier outlet to print off your documents.

All three forms of evolution were made possible due to technology. All three meant a shift in thinking. All three increased efficiency for businesses and customers. Ultimately it made sense and was long overdue. In fact, it could have been the status quo for some time…

Definition and function of digital signatures

What is a digital signature? A cryptographic technique that verifies the authenticity and integrity of digital documents or messages.

It provides a secure way to electronically sign and authenticate digital content, ensuring that it has not been tampered with during transmission. 

Digital signatures use public-key infrastructure (PKI) technology, where each signer has a unique private key to generate a digital signature and a corresponding public key for verification.

Pen signatures can be made digitally with a mousepad, or using a stylus on a tablet or touchscreen device. Alternatively, some organisations will accept a typed signature, and the validity of the document is authorized via PKI.  

Enhanced security and fraud prevention

The age-old assumption was that a physically signed signature was the most secure method of preventing fraud. But traditional paper-based signatures can be forged or tampered with, making it difficult to determine their validity. 

In fact, physical signatures are more inconsistent than we may realize. Nor are they the supposed golden source of truth for proving identities. Our handwritten signatures change over time and can alter based on multiple factors like physical and emotional state i.e. signing when tired, stressed, happy, or sad.

Digital signatures, on the other hand, offer robust authentication and verification mechanisms that significantly reduce the risk of fraud. By encrypting the document and binding the signature to its content, digital signatures provide a high level of security and integrity, ensuring that the signed document remains unaltered.

Legality and compliance

Digital signatures have gained widespread recognition and legal validity in many countries around the world. Various legislations and jurisdictions provide legal frameworks that recognize the validity and enforceability of digital signatures. 

By complying with these regulations, businesses can conduct transactions and enter into contracts electronically, saving time, and resources, and eliminating the need for physical paperwork.

Speaking of law, quick sidebar: This is a blog, after all, and should not be referred to as official legal advice. Before adopting digital signatures for your business, I strongly suggest you consult with legal and compliance professionals. This is definitely a situation where you want a lawyer or legal expert to explain the specific regulations and requirements applicable to your business, industry, and jurisdiction.

Efficiency and time savings

Having to print that thing, sign it, scan it, quality check it, upload it, and send it, was time-consuming. It was annoying for end-users. It was just as annoying for businesses. Signing and processing paper documents involved printing, scanning, mailing, and manual storage for all parties involved. All these steps lead to delays and administrative overhead for businesses.

With digital signatures, the signing process is streamlined. It eliminates the need for physical documents and all the other additional steps. Documents can be generated and signed electronically, securely transmitted, and stored digitally, reducing turnaround times and enabling faster business transactions. 

When you think about it, creating a physical document is a manufacturing process. So why not avoid the extra time and resources that process requires with a digital signature system? There’s also the added bonus that a digital footprint is backed up with multiple redundancies and can be harder to lose than a physical copy. 

Cost reduction

A printed document for one 10cm by 5cm rectangular box containing a pen signature just doesn’t make economic sense. It costs money for paper, ink, toner, and electricity. Plus, you have all the operational expenditures on top - from staffing to professional services like MPS. Then there’s the cost of posting, couriers, and physical storage, etc. 

A digital signature wipes out those expenses associated with paper-based processes. Printing, shipping, and document storage can be significantly reduced or eliminated entirely. Additionally, automating and streamlining document workflows through digital signatures reduce administrative costs, freeing up resources for other critical business activities.

Global collaboration and remote work

For companies with offices scattered across the globe, physical signatures were an administrative bottleneck. That’s another element of working life the COVID-19 pandemic forever changed. Overnight our world became our laptops, smartphones, and tablets. But, to be honest, they were already our worlds. The pandemic just fast-tracked evolutions in the business world that were a long time coming. One of those evolutions was increased global interconnection and cross-region hybrid and remote working. 

It created opportunities where jobs were no longer bound to a physical location. All that was required was a computer and a stable internet connection. Within that melting pot, the embrace of digital signatures meant businesses could sign contracts, agreements, and other documents remotely, enabling geographically dispersed teams to work together effortlessly. 

This flexibility is particularly crucial in the era of remote work. You no longer need to wait 3-5 business days for physical sign-off. You can now get your legal head in New York to sign a contract from wherever they are - even if they’re just on a mobile phone. 

Environmental sustainability

This is an obvious win. It’s not practical to print a 10+ page document when all you need is one-third of a page where the sign-off is located. Shifting to digital signatures significantly reduces paper use. It can even eliminate it entirely if your company dreams of a paperless office.

The clear advantage here is less paper contributes to the conservation of natural resources and helps create a Forest Positive impact on our planet’s land, sea, and air. Adopting digital signatures can demonstrate a commitment to environmental stewardship while driving down carbon emissions associated with paper production, transportation, and disposal. 

Integration with existing systems

Digital signatures remove the middleman of needing to scan a printed document and upload it to various online storage providers and SaaS platforms. You can seamlessly integrate with existing business systems and processes, providing a smooth transition from paper-based workflows to the land of digital operations. 

Many digital signature solutions offer robust APIs and integrations with popular document management systems, customer relationship management (CRM) platforms, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. This ensures that businesses can leverage digital signatures within their existing infrastructure, enhancing productivity and minimizing disruption.

Customer experience and convenience

Not everybody owns a printer and copier at home. So when that once-in-a-blue-moon document needs to be printed, signed, and scanned, it can be extremely inconvenient. But most people have a laptop or a smartphone. So, with digital signature technology, they can conveniently and easily sign documents from home, or while they’re on the move like taking the train to work or sitting in a doctor’s office.

This eliminates the need for physical meetings or sending documents via traditional mail, improving customer satisfaction and reducing friction in the sales and onboarding processes.

Advanced authentication methods

One of the concerns around digital signatures is questions pertaining to how secure they are. But as a digital technology, they have the advantage of offering advanced authentication methods to actually further enhance security. 

Biometric authentication, such as fingerprint or facial recognition with smartphones to access the files requiring signing, adds an extra layer of identity verification. In some cases, it introduced extra locked doors of authentication that make it incredibly difficult to access or use someone else’s digital signature.

Mobile and cloud-based solutions

This is another example of a revolution that was a long time coming. Modern society is a mobile cloud environment. For personal and professional means. Digital signatures were built to be used on mobile devices in the cloud.

Now there is no limit to when and where you can make agreements and contracts legally official. It’s not without its security concerns, but it does provide a seamless and flexible avenue for businesses and individuals to finalise important legal documents using the same tools they use for all their other personal and business communications.

The age of paperless signatures

Digital signatures went from a last-minute resort to an essential tool for modern businesses. They have revolutionized the way contracts and agreements are authenticated, and they have streamlined sign-off processes and boosted efficiency.

Digital signatures existed before the COVID-19 outbreak. And eventually we were headed towards their larger adoption. But like with QR codes in the hospitality industry and the acceptance of hybrid working, the 2019-2023 pandemic fast-tracked an eventual technological paradigm shift that has been on the horizon for some time. 

Because, where possible, digital signatures over hardcopy submission just make sense. Adoption of digital signatures rewrites (haha, pun intended) how contracts are signed, how transactions are conducted, how paperwork is managed. And how we define paperwork as we know it.

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