Aurora Magazine

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Published in Nov-Dec 2020

Covid-19 and Organisational Transformation

From organisational tumult to organisational change, Fauzia Kerai Khan maps out the way forward.

Covid-19 has had an unprecedented impact on our personal and professional lives. It is escalating the VUCA-ness (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) of our world across all geographies and industries. Companies have no choice but to change the way they are operating and they have to do it now because only businesses that are agile enough to adjust to the current situation will survive the crisis.

What has been the biggest driver of digital transformation in your organisation: (a) The CEO (b) The CTO or (c) Covid-19? The answer is of course (c). This widely shared Twitter meme is not a joke but the new reality of digital transformation. Most companies have business continuity plans to minimise recovery time and reduce business losses during and after emergencies or events like power outages and natural disasters, but these plans typically don’t account for a pandemic. We have actually been fast forwarded into a world where digital is central to every interaction, forcing both organisations and individuals to cross the chasm of the technology adoption curve almost overnight. This has changed business as we know it and while it may mean different things for different industry verticals, there are a few common actions that can help organisations as they shift from crisis response to recovery: staging the return to work, integrating the learnings from the crisis, and mapping a path going forward.

Phase the Return to Work

While the coronavirus outbreak initially brought unique and unparalleled challenges to the world of work, businesses were also able to respond and adapt at consummate speeds. Before the pandemic, the conventional wisdom had been that offices were critical to productivity and culture. After several months of adapting to a primarily remote workforce, businesses are beginning to realise that employee productivity is not directly correlated to working in a physical office as many previously believed. While remote work is increasing, it is important to remember that certain industries will still require a more significant on-site presence to operate properly. The physical workplace may be changing, but it is not disappearing altogether. Before a vaccine is available, the office experience probably will not remain as it was before the pandemic. In the office of the future, technology will play a central role in enabling employees to return to office buildings and work safely. Companies will require employees to wear masks at all times, redesign spaces to ensure physical distancing and restrict movement in congested areas (for instance, elevator banks and pantries), how often the office is cleaned and whether the airflow is sufficient. Forward thinking organisations will question long-held assumptions about how work should be done and the role of the office. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The answer is different for every organisation and is dependent on the talent requirement, the criticality of roles and the degree of collaboration required. Additionally, with barriers to remote working fading, many organisations are now accessing new pools of talent which were hitherto unavailable due to locational constraints.

Reconstruct How Work Is Done

The lockdown and quarantine era taught us that remote work is not merely a luxury, or even a ‘freelancer lifestyle’. Today, we have realised that the vast majority of jobs can be done from home. Companies that were considering moving their assets to cloud are now doing so at an accelerated rate. Video calls have gone from being a suboptimal substitute to the preferred mode of communication. The list goes on – and the reality is that a majority of these changes will have a lasting impact on the way we work. As the pandemic hit, industries were faced with intense disruptions. Businesses were forced to explore different models, take care of their now remotely working employees, reduce costs where possible and shift to a digital working environment. Alongside a growing digitalisation of smaller companies, there has been a trend of businesses adapting not just their working practices, but also their offerings in line with public demand. Many were catapulted into a world in which digital channels are the primary (and in some cases, exclusive) standard for customer engagement and digital processes have become a principal driver of agile ways of working. Few businesses, if any, will return to the same manner of working and customer service practices of pre-Covid times but they may need to introduce greater agility and flexibility into their supply chain models.

Even though we were experiencing the rapid growth of online sales and services, the pandemic pushed online retail into overdrive. Demand for services, ranging from training courses and entertainment, have increased exponentially. For many, this prompts the development of omni-channel business models that combine digital and face-to-face offerings. 

Integrate the Learnings

When the disaster hit, organisations were forced to rethink ways in which they perform vital activities. Many organisations’ first priority was crisis response and focusing on health, safety and virtualising work and learning. For many, the pandemic exposed weaknesses in their business plans and rendered many established strengths irrelevant. Months into it and having tried different models with a hit-and-miss philosophy, they are now at the stage where they are reflecting on what has worked, what has been learned and what has been missed in the response to develop competitive strategies that will enable them to emerge from the crisis stronger and more agile and resilient than before. However, one thing which is the same across the board is that technology has been the common denominator for most organisations’ resilience amid the crisis. And rather than viewing technology as a substitute for humans, now more than ever, we believe in Augmented Intelligence — a close collaboration between humans and machines that rests on the idea that humans will not be replaced by technology, but empowered by it.

Map the Way Forward

The biggest challenge organisations will likely face in recovery is the tension between preparing for a return to previous activities and routines – getting back to work, while also embracing a new reality – rethinking work as the economy re-gears itself to tackle the pandemic. As we begin the recovery process, businesses need to consider the challenges brought about by the current crisis and look at how a new normal may change foundational elements of their operations. For instance, strategic thought has to be given to essential versus non-essential workforces, processes and policies. One of the critical decisions is what work can be done remotely on an ongoing basis and what needs to return onsite when the crisis ends. Businesses will need to figure out how they restart their operations while continuing to prioritise the well-being of their staff and increasing operational agility and adaptability for resilience. During the crisis, customers and business partners often had little choice but to access products or services through new digital offerings. Another thing to bear in mind is that the options for customers and business partners will expand as we move beyond the crisis and a pertinent question is: How well will organisations’ offerings measure up when things begin to settle into the new normal?

Darwin wrote in his theory of evolution that natural selection favours a sense of flexibility: “It is not always the strongest species that survives; it is sometimes the most adaptable.” Organisations that resisted embracing digital products or channels risk being disrupted after the crisis, because digital technologies can help improve efficiency and productivity and make organisations more resilient to operational disruptions.

Fauzia Kerai Khan is Chief Executive, i&b Consulting, Training, eLearning.