Paper forms and the headaches that accompany them are all too familiar in the construction industry. For many years, paper forms were the most effective solution for capturing data in the field, as digital, mobile solutions were unavailable, not user friendly, or cost prohibitive. However, this has changed significantly in the last ten years with the increased availability of tablets and smartphones as well as internet access. Because of this, many companies are recognizing the clear ROI when it comes to using mobile devices and are eliminating their paper forms and manual processes. Electronic data capture has been proven time and again to be easy to use, affordable, and more efficient than paper forms. In this article, we will review the top ten benefits of using electronic forms compared to paper, with a particular emphasis on capturing more useful and better information.
- Deploy Forms to the Field in Minutes
With paper forms, it can be difficult to quickly and easily distribute forms to the field, particularly if you have job sites spread across a large area. This means driving to and from multiple locations or mailing paper forms to an employee’s house. These options are less than desirable as they take up excessive amounts of time. Not to mention, what happens if you want to update the form with new information? One of our customers used to mail Toolbox Talk forms to their foreman every weekend so that they would have the paper form with the new safety topic ready to review every Monday morning. Often times, it would take a week or two to get those forms back to the office.
With an e-forms tool, users in the office can dispatch forms without having to leave the office, and employees in the field can access these forms directly from a mobile device within a matter of seconds. Our customer now uses this method to make new toolbox talk topics available to their foremen. They can edit the form, add a new topic, and re-publish that form with ease. As a result, the foremen are less burdened and can spend more time focusing on their job and not having to worry about receiving paper forms in the mail and taking the time to send them back.
- Real-Time Access to Data and Automatic Alerts
Tied closely to #1, once paper forms have been delivered to the correct people, how do you get that data back to the office? Often times, employees will fill out all their forms for the week and drive their forms back to HQ or mail in their forms at the end of that week. This means enormous lag time in receiving that data that’s needed to run your business efficiently, effectively and proactively. On top of that, paper forms can be returned damaged or they can get lost. Maybe they never show up at the office at all. What if something serious happened in the field and you don’t actually find out about it until the form is turned into the office? The only way you can be notified is if someone picks up the phone. Keeping track of all of this is a logistics nightmare.
With an e-forms tool, forms can be filled out on the job and once they are saved, can instantly be accessed back at the office. This means having access to important data in real-time. See what progress people have made on their forms, if an incident has occurred, if a piece of equipment is down receive an instant email or text message letting you know something happened. This important data can be instantly populated into reports to show the most up-to-date analytics, trends, and patterns. Having access to this data empowers your employees to make informed business decisions proactively and not two weeks after the fact, and ultimately makes filling out forms in the field much easier for your staff.
- Customize Your Form Templates
Another disadvantage of paper forms is that they’re inflexible. Once you’ve printed them out, you’re stuck with the template you’ve created. Making any changes or corrections will require you to either edit the form you’re using, which can make the information difficult to interpret, or create, print out and distribute new batches of forms, which can be an expensive and time-consuming process.
Electronic forms allow you to add, delete and create new entries and sections as needed to capture the exact information you need about a specific activity, piece of equipment or process. The updated forms can then be immediately distributed to those who use them during their work.
- Required Fields
One of the biggest risks you take when using a paper form is that you cannot enforce if it actually gets filled out…and if it does get filled out, did the form filler spend a sufficient amount of time entering in the data? We hear this term called “pencil-whipping” a lot in the industry. This just means that the form was “filled out,” but the person did not take the time to make sure they were inputting the correct data.
With electronic forms, the user designing the forms can eliminate a lot of these issues by marking specific fields as required. The form filler will not be allowed to submit a form to an approver unless all required fields have been filled out.
- Multimedia Capabilities – Photos, Videos, File Attachments
Another headache of paper forms: how do I attach this photo/video I took on my camera to my form? If you have access to a printer, you could print your photo and staple it to the form. Videos? Out of luck! Relevant files (e.g. PDFs)? Gather them and staple them to the related form. This is another example of how much time is wasted trying to compile all relevant data into one place manually. Then, you still have the challenge of manually transporting that analog data.
With e-forms, multimedia capabilities allow you to capture things like photos and videos and – directly from your device – attach them to your electronic form, making all this data available in one place and in real time. Or upload a related file to the e-form. Much easier, right?
- Data Integrity
When a worker is tasked with filling out forms, it’s up to that individual to interpret what should be included in each form field, which can lead to inconsistencies in how vital information is entered. For instance, one worker might write a measurement using feet, while another uses inches. One worker might abbreviate the date while another might spell it out. Furthermore, written forms lead to more errors as handwriting can often be hard to read.
This type of inconsistent data is called “unstructured” because it is just that–data that doesn’t follow a set of guidelines as to how it should be entered. This makes the interpretation of that data challenging.
Electronic forms follows a structured approach to data entry. You can employ drop-down menus to make it easy for workers to select the correct information, and you can build in defined fields, such as feet vs. inches, to ensure information is entered consistently. Electronic forms also provide options for check boxes, radio buttons, auto-population–all of which make data more accurate and valid, and makes it easier for workers to fill out the information and get back to the job. If users are using a common set of data, this also ensures data integrity across forms, making it easier for the folks in the office to interpret the data coming in from forms.
- Capture Electronic Signatures
One recurring theme when it comes to paper forms for heavy civil construction operations is that they’re slow and inefficient. Paper forms need to be manually delivered, signed and returned, with delays a likely possibility at each stage of the process. Furthermore, there is no way to confirm the form was not modified after the form was signed.
Not only do electronic forms let you sign a document instantly using an e-signature function, but there is built in validation to ensure that if any data on the form changes after it has been signed, that the signatures are marked as invalid. Signatures captured on a form can also be associated with a printed name, so you know who exactly signed the form as well as a timestamp and GPS coordinates. This information can be particularly useful so you can see who signed the form, when they signed the form, and where they were when they signed the form.
- Computed Fields
Bad calculations can often lead to bad business decisions. Paper forms that require the form filler to do manual calculations are not only time-consuming for that user, but do not have any built-in safeguards to ensure that the calculation is being done correctly. The outcome of a bad formula can be misleading not only for the user, but for the business as a whole and can skew data analysis, which could have detrimental effects for everyone.
With electronic forms, having the ability to pre-define a formula for a field is a not only a huge time saver, but also assures accurate calculations are being made. These safeguards obstruct bad data from even entering the system, let alone perpetuating across the organization.
- Access to Reference Documents and Images
Many processes that are executed on the job very often are accompanied with a “how-to” document. Doing an equipment inspection? (How do I do that? What types of things should I be looking for?) Presenting a toolbox talk? (What is the topic? Is there a diagram I can present?) In the paper realm, this means lugging around all the relevant manuals, “how-to” docs, and other documents that you might need to do your job. The flip-side is, maybe you don’t have access to these things at all?
With e-forms, the ability to access relevant documentation directly from the form you are filling out makes things so much easier. No need to carry documentation around with you or worry about keeping these items undamaged. Having access to these items in the form (AKA all in one place) saves you time and ensures access to important documents that you need while completing these forms.
- Approve/Reject Workflow
One major complaint that we hear frequently is how paper forms block a company’s ability to enforce employee accountability as well review forms in a timely manner and keep track of where each form is at in the process. This is especially true when it comes to the approval process. When forms are being manually delivered to the office from the job, there is no guarantee that they will even make it there, let alone on time. Once it is at the office it is challenging to interpret who was responsible for what pieces.
Electronic forms let you sign a document instantly using an e-signature function. On top of that, being able to define a set approval sequence for a form is a game changer. When a user submits a form to one or more people, there is a clear path that form is taking and no doubt who’s court it’s in for review. Approvers get notified via email that they have a form they need to review. Approvers can either approve the form or reject it along with comments on their reasoning and a signature. This lightning-quick speed allows you to streamline your business workflows and know exactly where a document is in the approval process.