​​Will Covid-19 kill the pen and paper signature?

As the shockwaves of Covid-19 rippled throughout society, they exposed a number of peculiar anachronisms that we have long taken for granted. Most obviously the notion of centralised offices – when internet connections are so fast and computers so cheap, why wasn’t distributed work more commonplace until now?
And, in the process of adopting the model, here’s something else we asked ourselves: why-oh-why do people still insist on wet-ink signatures? Printing off a document, signing it, scanning it, attaching the image and sending it by email – that’s the kind of convoluted process that belongs to 20 years ago, not to the perma-connected, device-synced, AI-driven internet era of today.

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To entrepreneurs, frictions are opportunities. When Dropbox pivoted into making tools for collaborative working, it knew that it would have to confront this issue. After all, when teams are scattered across locations and timezones, productivity is predicated on seamless workflows, and waiting on a pen-and-ink signature is a dam. That’s why Dropbox acquired HelloSign last year – and integrating its technology may lead to innovations that go well beyond simply validating a document.
Yet even in its most basic guise, the e-signature is, for many organisations, radical. Analysts estimate that only about 30 per cent of business transactions are settled electronically; the majority are all still done on paper. Mostly that’s a cultural hangup.
Whitney Bouck, COO of HelloSign, likens the situation to where cloud computing was a decade ago. “We had a lot of the same issues around people being reluctant to change away from what they know and trust, and can touch and see,” she says. There’s also a lack of awareness of the solutions that are out there. “But I think we’re at a really interesting turning point. This pandemic has actually been a catalyst.”
The benefits of e-signatures, says Bouck, are manifold. Most immediately, they save time and money, removing all the costs of storing, shipping and locating physical documents. HelloSign’s software lets distributed teams get business-critical documents securely sent, signed and saved from anywhere they work. It has found that this speeds up document turnaround times by up to 80 per cent; shortens sales cycles by up to 10 days; and saves around 700 annual hours of work. It also, straightforwardly, helps make signatures happen. Right now, on average, 15 per cent of documents never get signed. E-signatures improve completion by up to 26 per cent.

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Behind this seemingly simple tool, however, lies a web of complexity. For one, security is of the utmost importance, so HelloSign has to meet demanding standards for user identification and data encryption. For another, regulations concerning signatures differ between countries, so compliance is critical. But perhaps the most specific problem is legal defensibility.
“What makes a digital signature ‘a signature’ is that the identity of every single party that’s involved – and every action of each of those parties – is verified at every step along the way. This is then stored in an encrypted and hashed audit trail that we maintain, so that if the validity of an agreement is ever questioned we can actually stand up in court, show the entire transaction history and say ‘this is true’.”
But HelloSign’s ambitions don’t stop there. “We always had a vision that this is not about the moment you sign something, it’s about the whole transaction, from negotiating a contract agreement up front, all the way through execution of potential payment or triggering other third party services.”
Could the technology automate due diligence checks, for instance, or intelligently generate contracts once a sale is complete? And then there are the particular smarts it could bring to Dropbox. “Dropbox is one of the largest repositories of PDF and Word documents in the world. Many of them are clearly contracts that need to get signed. Can we use artificial intelligence to discover those things, proactively surface them, set them up for signature and prompt the user?”
As e-signatures become more commonplace they may evolve entirely. Many of us are still beholden to something that looks like it was scrawled on paper. We fetishise the idea that it was written by hand, even if it wasn’t. “I myself prefer to use a ‘drawn’ signature because it feels like me,” says Bouck.

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“It’s ‘I’m the one making this commitment’ and there’s some emotional, personal element there that I think people relate to.” So, does she think that will ever change? “If I look to the future, well, maybe it gets more interesting. What if a signature becomes something that isn’t really a signature. What if there is a unique identifier for me that is indisputable, is biometric – my thumbprint, perhaps – that allows everyone in the world to know that I am who I say I am. I can see things changing like that where this gets even easier and faster as we go forward and as technology evolves.”

To learn more about how HelloSign will enable your future workforce, click here

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