It’s a common phrase that we’ve all heard before, “Business as Usual.” It generally connotes a sense of stability and routine. Some may use the term in a derogatory manner to denote chronically understaffed conditions, while others use it to describe uneventful activity at work.
In times of crisis and uncertainty, though, what is “usual” changes. We’ve seen this historically as the world has gone through world wars or massive economic downturns. Business changes along with the new sense of normal to reflect the cultural shift. This time is no different.
Changes to Where We Work
Businesses are re-thinking the way that work is being done. Whether that is a move away from large, centralized workplaces to protect certain site-specific risks or adjusting where shared services work is done to spread workloads across regional offices, companies will look to reduce the risk that is associated with large groups of employees in one location. Certainly, this is not new thinking. Similar moves were made by businesses in New York City after the 9/11 event. But now a global pandemic has exposed further reasons to adopt similar measures.
Remote access technologies have advanced greatly to allow people to access their work networks from their homes, hotels, and coffee shops. Cloud-enabled application services like Salesforce or Microsoft Office have erased the lines of location dependence with network connectivity becoming the lifeblood for modern organizations.
Changes to How We Work
The line between personal time and work time has been blurring for years. With the ever-present connection to office e-mail, instant messaging, and video-conferencing on our mobile devices, employees are more easily able to integrate personal time into traditional work days and are more likely to extend work into evenings and weekends. However, as the world transitions to working from home out of necessity, businesses are uncovering gaps in their processes that were linked to working in a specific location, like processing mortgage applications that have been submitted with paper forms.
However, as social distancing has created new challenges with managing physical access to each other and fears of contamination has led people to take additional steps to avoid infection, businesses are starting to fundamentally rethink their processes. This leads businesses to ask questions like:
- How can we work with our customers to get the information we need to process the work without touching papers or other items?
- How can we operate our businesses without requiring our employees to be physically present in a single place?
- How can we reduce the risk to the business in the case of large-scale employee illness?
Changes to the Workforce
Many organizations have engaged a business-process outsourcing (BPO) firm to support their operations using labor sourced from various countries. This option has often been used to reduce labor costs by shifting the transactional activities associated with internal business operations to countries where labor costs for these functions is much lower. This allowed businesses to focus on sales, marketing, and executive functions from their locale while engaging technology support services, accounting, customer support, and data entry to BPO providers. However, many businesses are finding out the hard way that their business continuity plans are unable to cope with a global event like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Businesses that engaged with BPO providers knew that localized events like hurricanes, power or network disruptions, or social unrest could affect individual offices or countries to which their work had been outsourced. The BPO providers and businesses even had backup plans to shift work between facilities to support these types of events. However, no one foresaw the potential to have an entire region, let alone the global economy, shut down for months with BPO employees either too ill to show up for work or unable to assemble together in their offices to provide the work to their customers.
Rethinking the Work and the Workforce
It has become clear that the human-aspect of our employee base is both extremely important but also exceptionally fragile when it comes to planning for continuous business operations. This reality is leading many organizations to question how their operations can leverage the creativity and inspiration of their human employees while considering the potential impact of a pandemic. These organizations are looking closely at a digital transformation program that can not only increase the resilience of the business to maintain operations during global events, but also provide services in new and creative ways to their customers.
By examining the impact of technologies on the various roles within an organization, business leaders can understand how best to plan for resilience, reduce risk, and reskill their employees to support a new operational model. Discovering and re-engineering processes to streamline the workflow and reduce the risks of a processing bottleneck are critical to making this work. Implementing technology may affect many aspects of the work, including the systems that are used to track and manage transactions, or the way that customers interact with services or buy items from a business. However, the most impactful platform affects the workforce itself.
Integrating a digital workforce made up of intelligent automation coupled with machine-learning and AI can offer the capability to not only orchestrate work across many systems but also provide intelligent processing that is trained to operate the functions that keep the business running. Digital workers interact with human workers to support the business functions, offering a robust unified workforce that an organization can count on both during a crisis and during “business as usual.” It’s not about replacing human employees or even simply augmenting the human’s capacity. No, if this is done right, a unified workforce is a force multiplier for the human employees.
Returning to “Normal”
A global pandemic is a major disruption, both economically and socially. However, the effects of this event will change what people consider to be “normal.” Businesses will address this change and the society will adapt to new ways of interacting, but these will allow us all to grow in new ways that we had not considered before. A positive outcome from a global event like a pandemic will be allowing people to focus on what is important, on the interactions between people, rather than the processing of paperwork or data entry and allow businesses to focus on their most important asset – their people.