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Why it’s time for businesses to kill the clipboard

Work is digital, so why are so many companies still using pen, paper and clipboards?

5 min read

Small Business

Why it's time for businesses to kill the clipboard

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Up to 80% of the global workforce are employed in so-called “deskless” jobs, but the humble clipboard remains the system of record used by most companies to manage their mobile workers. But don’t mistake ubiquity for efficacy: There are plenty of better options for operational leaders looking to keep their teams working efficiently during these chaotic times.

Fortunately, in the digital era there are far better ways to keep your mobile workers organized and engaged. Here are 10 reasons why your company should look beyond clipboards and seek out a state-of-the-art solution to operational efficiency:

1. Checklists don’t work. Even in life-and-death situations such as operating theaters, paper checklists frequently get ignored, and in lower-stakes situations it’s even easier for workers to run down a checklist on autopilot, marking tasks as complete without thinking through whether they’ve been completed correctly.

One option: Use digital applications on employee phones to coordinate work, communicate and ensure compliance. This way, errors are spotted before they spiral into show-stoppers or safety hazards. 

2. Clipboards are unhygienic. In the pandemic era, nobody should be passing bits of paper back and forth. Clipboards are the definition of a high-touch area, and studies show they’re usually crawling with bacteria and microbes. (Want to know the filthiest item in a doctor’s office? It’s the clipboard pen you use to sign in.) Far better to give each worker their own mobile device, so they can follow work instructions, communicate and share documents without trading germs. 

3. Clipboards increase face time. Clipboard-based project management means finding people and talking to them face-to-face in order to check details or hand over ownership of a project. That doesn’t square well with social distancing. Using the pane of glass in our pockets is a much better way to collaborate on work than huddling in front of a clipboard.

4. Clipboards are lousy at problem-solving. Physical documentation can only help with problems that the original author anticipated. Workers need tools that enable them to cope with the unexpected too. Instead of clipboards, give your workers communication tools that let them share information and problem-solve in real time by drawing on institutional expertise from across your organization.

5. Clipboards are disconnected. Unlike clipboards, connected digital tools let you track workers in realtime, monitoring and modeling their movements to find new efficiencies and develop smarter, safer and more productive ways of working. We’re all moving toward connected workforce solutions, with facilities creating virtual models of their operations to optimize workflows — and scrapping clipboards is a big step toward achieving that goal.

6. Clipboards are time-wasters. If you don’t have the right piece of paper on your clipboard, you need to travel back to the file cabinets or the document room to get the info you need. Critical information is left collecting dust in three-ring binders in the document room, and clipboards don’t make that information any more accessible. In the digital era, when we’re all used to being able to access virtually any information imaginable at the touch of a button, that’s a colossal and inexcusable waste of time.

7. Clipboards hamper creativity. Clipboard-based management forces people to think in terms of fixed routines and processes. Mobile workers need the freedom to color outside the lines in response to new challenges. After all, mobile workers aren’t just blue-collar workers pushing brooms and buckets around; they’re highly educated engineers and technicians who know their fields and are well-placed to make improvements to operational processes — if we give them the tools they need to succeed. 

8. Clipboards can’t auto-update. Information that’s kept on a clipboard has to be physically updated in order to stay current, and there’s no way to check whether the information in front of you is actually up to date. We all know how hard it is to stop data decay even in digital systems — and keeping things up to date gets exponentially harder when you’re dealing with dog-eared sheafs of paper scattered on clipboards all across your facility. 

9. Clipboards aren’t cool. Let’s face it, nobody gets excited about using a clipboard. Young workers, who are increasingly moving into mobile jobs, were born with smartphones at their fingertips, and they expect to use digital tech in their new roles. These days, in fact, even the least tech-savvy workers can learn to appreciate the way that mobile tools enrich their working lives.

We’re all running around with camera-equipped, web-connected supercomputers in our pockets — so it seems downright perverse for clipboards to remain the state-of-the-art system of record for so many companies.

10. Deskless workers deserve better. Studies show that many mobile workers feel isolated and ignored, and clipboards are part of the problem. Managers should be looking for tools that can open up communication and make workers feel valued, heard and included. Good mobile communication tools foster collaboration, human interactions and organic opportunities to chat and share knowledge — and you just can’t get that with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie.

The bottom line: If your company is still using clipboards and physical checklists to keep your mobile workers organized, you’re missing a trick. Nobody would expect desk-bound workers to go back to using typewriters, and we shouldn’t expect deskless workers to put up with clipboards either.

We already have the digital tools we need to help mobile workers to do their jobs more effectively. Now it’s time to unlock their full potential — and that starts with killing the clipboard.


Chris Turlica is CEO of MaintainX.

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