Business leaders have generally acknowledged the importance of technology to their company, but the COVID-19 crisis has turned that theoretical understanding into a wholehearted belief in tech’s value. In fact, I’ve found that many executives are confident that without the use of technology, their companies likely would not have performed as well as they have during the pandemic.
During COVID-19, many of my clients were able to quickly shift from a traditional in-office operation to a work-from-home environment. It wasn’t easy, but they got it done. (As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.) However, this pivot put the spotlight on operations that were not tech-enabled and that required rapid change and fast learning. It was the world’s least-wanted workforce experiment — one that focused on the manual, paper-driven tasks that were the hardest to get done from home. But teams figured out how to perform them differently.
Once companies could pinpoint those challenging areas and find the pieces that were missing, many were able to quickly address the gaps that probably would have lingered for years had they still been working in a traditional office environment. Having employees work from home during the crisis highlighted the urgent need for businesses to change the way they were operating. That’s when tech stepped in to help.
Now that those workarounds are in place, everyone’s figuring out how to make those short-term fixes more efficient, sustainable and controlled so they can continue to work for the long term.
During the pandemic, many businesses increased the use of technology to facilitate communication, workflow management and documentation of processes to support remote work. They had to find better ways to get the same tasks completed and reestablish effective communication systems. Fortunately, many learned to appreciate and value the new structure.
By using tech-supported tools, companies could capture communications in real time and in a more permanent manner, in tech-enabled virtual workrooms, discussion threads and the like. As a result, if employees or managers were out for the day and needed to jog their memory on a discussion — or if they couldn’t find a particular file — the material was right at their fingertips. I’ve learned from my clients that documenting things in a group discussion thread format provides ongoing value to both employees and the company.
Now that some of their people are back in the office, these firms are giving serious thought to how to maintain the best parts of their new ways of working as a supplement to traditional practices. Communication seems to rise to the top of the list. Why? Because, if some people on a team are in the office and the rest are working remotely, it can be a major communication challenge to keep all team members informed. Fortunately, most businesses are continuing their new digital communications habits, and they’re making sure the best parts of those habits stick around.
The companies that took the time to figure out what was worth automating and how to capture ROI are making smart choices about where to invest in technology. Initially, some thought their increased tech spend was a temporary solution to a temporary problem. However, many businesses have come to realize that this isn’t the case, so they’re making strategic investments that can help drive long-term benefits.
This tech-focused environment also highlights the issue of cybersecurity. When the pandemic struck and employees began working remotely, companies had to quickly emphasize that data is an essential asset, and data security is everyone’s responsibility. Working from home made people view their data a little differently. I think workers should view data as dollars. You wouldn’t leave your wallet lying out in public, so why leave your data exposed? People are careful with their dollars because they don't want to lose them, and they should feel the same way about their data.
To stress the importance of cybersecurity, companies should repeatedly send these messages to their workforce: Use the company VPN, not an unsecured WiFi network. Don’t use personal email accounts to transmit work documents. Don’t print documents remotely. Avoid uploading documents to unknown third-party clouds (e.g., online data converter tools). And never use a personal computer for work — even if your company-issued machine crashes.
As employees return to the office, businesses face a new set of challenges. How many employees can safely be in the office at the same time? Is there enough space to provide social distancing? What safety protocols and tech tools — contact tracing, temperature checks, ID bracelets, etc. — should be employed? Should at-home employees be given different technologies than in-office workers?
In my experience, businesses also need to consider intangible issues. For example, are remote workers at a disadvantage because they don’t have face-to-face access to in-office leaders? How do we facilitate team building with a split workforce, with, say, half the participants in a live happy hour while half are in virtual happy hours?
We all need to think differently about building relationships and trust in this very different post-COVID-19 world. I believe businesses that consider all the component parts — technology, process and human issues — can have a smoother road and a more successful transition back into the office — whether it’s an everybody-in office or a hybrid one.
I’m convinced that the increased use of digital technology is here to stay. Some clients have told me that they’re never going back 100% to the way things were, that they’ll continue to evolve how they interact with their customers and employees. And that offers hope for the future.