The Digital Post Room: How Tech Is Transforming Back Offices

The Digital Post Room: How Tech Is Transforming Back Offices

Why you should care

Paper mail is dying, and with it, so are some jobs. 

Squeezed between the first and second floors of a glass-fronted tower in London is a hidden level with a low ceiling. Just one of the building’s 11 elevators stops here.

“Watch your head,” says John Clarke, crisscrossing between the steel girders that support the Uber office just above his head. There, on the mezzanine level, is a small, windowless space for the six post room workers he manages on behalf of Ince & Co, an international law firm that occupies one of the building’s upper floors, with sweeping views across the city.

Clarke and his colleagues are employed by Hobs On-Site, a digital delivery specialist that runs print and post services for companies.

As offices and the people working in them adapt to new technologies, the back-end operations of big companies — such as office post rooms — are ripe for disruption, with digital delivery at the heart of the change.

Ince & Co outsourced its mail services to a digital provider after it embraced agile working, so that staff could receive mail outside of the office, and after its office space halved when it moved into its new premises. Now only parcels and legal documents such as passports and wills are conveyed in physical form.

According to Simon Kelly, Hobs’ managing director, delivering post to desks is inefficient. Mail should be sent directly to the addressee, he says, regardless of where they may be in the world.

The company’s software picks up names and other address details before sending each scanned item through a content management system. “We just have to go ‘yes, yes, yes’ and approve the destinations on a system,” says Clarke. The paper letters are archived for a few weeks before they are destroyed.

Half of the roughly 50 office post rooms that Hobs manages are now digital-only operations, while about 15 more are thinking of making the move.

But the changes do not mean post room workers will make fewer runs upstairs. “The physical act of delivering mail will reduce, but we have taken on other tasks,” says Clarke. “We used to be a simple post room. Now we set up flexible meeting rooms, maintain stationery and printing machines and deliver personal packages.”

However, Louisa Bull of the Unite union says the digital post room is an oxymoron. “The fundamental job of a postman has not gone digital; it has disappeared,” she says, suggesting layoffs in office post rooms have been acute in the past decade, though the union does not hold data. Ince & Co, for example, has lost half its post room staff — from 14 down to seven — since it began the digital project about 18 months ago.

“There are very few left today,” Bull says, adding that, like Clarke, many workers have taken on facilities management duties, such as restocking office supplies and preparing meeting rooms.

Letter post is in decline, while parcel volume is increasing. Over the past five years, inbound mail to post rooms managed by Hobs decreased by a quarter. Royal Mail saw a 30 percent drop in U.K. mail market volume between 2005 and 2012, while a study by PwC estimated it will have halved between 2005 and 2023.

The increase in parcel post, driven by online personal shopping, puts additional strain on depleted post rooms. At offices managed by Hobs, the number of parcel deliveries has risen by 54 percent in the past five years.

Some employers, including HSBC and John Lewis, have responded by banning personal deliveries to their offices. But Kelly says other employers are not only allowing but encouraging employees to have personal items delivered at work, so they do not have to leave the office to receive their shopping.

Hobs offers so-called smart lockers — a delivery drop-off point much like an Amazon Locker, but located at work and for all staff deliveries. The Scottish law firm Brodies is one client interested in using smart lockers, as staff deliveries during work hours are on their way up.

David Edwards, Brodies’ finance director, says its post room workers scan 2,500 documents on a typical day. The goal, he says, was to not transfer all that paper to the office: “The confidential nature of what we do was a big part of the decision.”

Hobs’ newly hired workers for the digital post room are trained in confidentiality. However, Clarke says: “We do not have time to read through anything anyway.”

Clarke says the work he and his colleagues do has stopped being “the same duty on a different day.” Now, the different members of his team have specific responsibilities.

His colleague, David Harwood, now rearranges Ince & Co’s flexible meeting rooms, and he likes it better than post room duties. “It is nice up there,” Harwood says, nodding toward the low ceiling. “It is more interactive.”

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By Patricia Nilsson

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