Digital transformation: 5 ways COVID-19 is forcing positive changes

The COVID-19 crisis is rapidly reshaping the "what" and "how" of  digital transformation agendas - for the better. Look how organizations are improving amid dramatic disruption
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A few days after the United States started to go on lockdown, the same meme landed in my inbox and social media feeds more than a dozen times. It depicted a survey question:

Who led the digital transformation of your company? 



C) COVID-19 

The answer choice 'C' was circled in red: COVID-19.

There’s a Russian saying, “In every joke, there’s a little joke” – meaning jokes are composed of mostly truth. This meme certainly fits the bill – we’ve indeed seen the COVID crisis rapidly re-shape both the “what” and the “how” of companies’ digital transformation agendas.  

5 ways digital transformation plans are changing now

Here are five ways that transformation is playing out across organizations:

1. Employee experience jumps to the front of the queue

Employee experience of digital technology has gone from "nice to have" to "the only way work gets done."

Even as employee experience has become a key theme in the HR community,  in IT circles this notion had been getting a mixed reception – sometimes stereotyped as “spoiled employees expecting best-in-class consumer-grade tech on shoestring budgets.”

Today, with a vast portion of the workforce now remote, employee experience of digital technology has gone from “nice to have” to “the only way work gets done. Consequently, it's getting the problem-solving focus it likely long deserved.  

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

2. "Hiring" your customers and employees for tech support

At the moment, virtually every job is more tech-enabled than it was a few months ago due to either remote work, changing customer needs, government restrictions, or a host of other factors. This is creating tech support needs at an unprecedented scale.

Organizations have been pressed to expand their support reach, utilizing everything from FAQs to chatbots to realtime collaboration with tech support personnel to allow customers and employees to be more empowered partners in resolving the issues they face. These techniques aren’t new, but the quantity and speed at which they’re being deployed are. This is marking what could be a positive re-set toward a coaching model of tech support. 

3. Escalation of automation for cost and safety reasons

CIOs who’ve long championed automation are suddenly finding strong support from CFOs and CHROs alike. 

The rise of automation isn’t new – in many manufacturing centers, industrial robots now make up nearly 1 percent of the factory “workforce,” and robotic process automation is already a several-billion-dollar market. But automation – in its many forms – has moved from the innovation agenda to the resilience agenda because of new pressures on both the cost of human workers and the need to have fewer humans in many workspaces. CIOs who’ve long championed automation are suddenly finding strong support from CFOs and CHROs alike. 

[ Want more insights from Melissa Swift? Read: 5 habits of high-functioning virtual teams ]

4. Radical housecleaning: Identification of gaps, redundancies, and conflicts

In recent months, organizations have effectively conducted a large-scale audit of the current state of their digital transformation thanks to the skyrocketing utilization of the technology they have on hand. Missing capabilities came to the fore immediately – but more often, redundant or conflicting systems were identified as people actually used them!

Some of these issues will drive systems rationalization (“Why are we paying for five different video conferencing systems?”), but others will play out on a policy level (“Okay, we have five different platforms for video conferencing, let’s agree that this division will use System X.”)

5. "The perfect is the enemy of the good"

Nothing silences an individual’s – or an organization’s – inner perfectionist like a full-blown crisis. In response to dramatic disruption, many organizations have undergone a healthy re-negotiation of their relationship to digital technology – prioritizing “hey, it works!” over “after years of slaving over this initiative, we’ve assembled the very best bells and whistles.” The “working software” lionized in the Agile Manifesto is getting a true moment in the sun.

To-do: A positive impact inventory

If your organization is embarking on some of these changes, or if you’d like it to, a great way to either get started or to accelerate efforts is to do a “positive impact inventory.”

At the ground level across your organization, identify the better ways of working you see emerging. Engage with the teams you see driving positive changes, such as less perfectionism, faster automation, improved focus on employee experience, etc.

Derive their lessons and create a platform allowing them to share their stories more broadly.

As our ways of working and our workforces are being dramatically reshaped, learning from each other is our most powerful tool to transform our transformations.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Melissa Swift is the U.S. Transformation Leader at Mercer, the consultancy helping redefine the world of work. In this role, Melissa is responsible for the firm’s efforts in the areas of workforce transformation, HR transformation, HR digitization, diversity equity and inclusion, and workforce analytics.