Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, organisations worldwide and their employees were wrestling with what the future of work would look like in a digital world. The virus outbreak has forced many of these enterprises to accelerate their digital transformation strategies to ensure business continuity during national lockdowns and a time of physical distancing.
Yet even if South African companies have fast-forwarded their digital programmes by a matter of years, most have not transformed their cultures for the world beyond the pandemic. Their achievements in enabling digital channels for customers and work from home processes for employees are significant, yet these hastily implemented tech solutions may not be enough on their own to prepare them for the future of work.
The pandemic has sped up some aspects of technology adoption, but it has not transformed the how most organisations operate or treat their people. They have changed where people can work, but not how they work or what they do. People can work from home, but legacy processes, hierarchies and cultures remain. In fact, we have seen many old-school management behaviours increase during this time, for example, micromanagement of employees’ time.
This is perhaps to be expected. As the government locked down the country, companies needed to make quick, tactical decisions just to survive. The speed at which they moved to support remote working meant that there wasn’t much time to re-engineer processes, upskill people or embark on change management programmes. They did what they could to keep revenues flowing and support customers.
Are the changes skin-deep?
With the initial panic behind them businesses should be looking beyond the short term and asking how they can seize the work they have done to date as an opportunity for transformational change. To capitalise on the deployment of the technology, organisations need to ask themselves some hard questions. They need to look at what they are doing and ask if it adds value.
In reality, many organisations, managers and employees still cling to the hope that they can revert to the old status quo in six months or a year or two years from now. But even though the pandemic adds impetus to the need for digital transformation, technology and automation were fundamentally changing our world before we’d heard of COVID-19.
The catalyst for workforce transformation is the level of automation and collaboration that is possible through the range of technologies emerging and maturing in the marketplace. Some examples of these technologies might include advanced robots, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, the Internet of Things, 5G and hyper-scalar cloud data centres.
The combination of these technologies enables new ways of working, collaborating, innovating and learning. The organisations that were ahead of the pack in using these technologies to shape new ways of working and operating were already disrupting markets before the outbreak; now, many of them are racing ahead of the competition.
As these technologies take root, they change customers’ expectations and the nature of work. The humanness of the workforce will become more prominent as everything else becomes more automated. This is in an effort to move from a task-oriented world of unequal pay and tedious work to empower people to contribute to solving problems.
It’s not just about cost-cutting
Yet for many companies the temptation will be instead to use automation to pare costs to the bone by reducing headcount. This could be a disastrous outcome for society and the economy – we need to look for ways to drive transformation that empower the workforce, create wealth and ensure profitability. Automation should not be a race to the bottom.
Instead, companies that want to lead in the future should be asking how they can unlock the potential of their people. While many organisations still cling to assembly line processes and industrial age thinking, they need human brainpower more than ever to address the complex problems we face today.
Although technology is driving the process, the value lies in unlocking human potential. If we view the reskilling process through a lens of efficiency, we are setting people up for a lifetime of anxiety and fear about their job security. Human management needs to shift the focal point from doing work to solving problems.
The composition, nature and capabilities of the workforce needs to adjust to match the needs of a world where people need to solve problems rather than execute tasks. Transformation is a moving target – enterprises need to build a nimble organisation and a learning culture that can keep pace with technology, social and environmental change.
If the organisation is aligned behind a vision for transformation, it can build high levels of trust and engagement in the workforce. This, in turn, enables people to bring their best selves to work – fostering more collaboration, innovation and flexibility. Leaders should offer vision, bring the right people into the room to solve problems and celebrate collaboration at all levels.
A transformed workforce will have the creativity, passion and focus to help the organisation build disruptive ideas and experiences that enable it to outcompete more traditional and less innovative players in their market. The technology is available to and affordable for everyone – it’s the humans and their potential that is the differentiator.
Helene Liebenberg is the chief operations officer at Tarsus Distribution.