As we face an unparalleled time of change, our latest BCS #vITalworker webinar examines the lessons learned by managers, the empowerment gained by employees and why we may never go back to work (the way we did before). Blair Melsom AMBCS reports.

Heading up the discussion, Managing Unplanned Business Change, Brian Runciman MBCS talks to Eileen Brown, CEO at Amstra, Julian Burnett, VP of Distribution at IBM UK and Debra Paul, MD of Assist KD.

We discussed:

  • Managerial tensions and pressures, including cost base and people’s wellbeing
  • What technology has and hasn’t enabled
  • How individuals and organisations have been empowered
  • What the future might look like from digital transformation perspective

So, what have managers learnt about unplanned change during this time?

1. You’re more agile than you thought

If the webinar could be summarised in one quote, this from Julian Burnett would be it: ‘If anybody felt they would not benefit from agile working - this has dispelled all myths. You can do it! We’ve adapted; it’s been proven now.’

Debra Paul agrees: ‘the pace at which we are moving into these changes are astonishing, obviously unprecedented and as a business manager, you really have to be able to cope with that and take your team with you as well.’

Although Eileen Brown reminds us that a lot of companies have not managed so well: ‘whilst a lot of large organisations have been set up for working from home (WFH), this was mostly only for a subset of the organisation. The dramatic way in which everybody had to start WFH caught a lot of large organisations short, even though they had the appropriate tech.’

Despite this, Burnett reasons that ‘companies have been forced to adapt so quickly that their adaptability has been proven and [their] agility has increased.

‘We will pass through this pandemic and find that there will be another external influence and if we’ve learnt anything from the experience, it should be that we can react quickly and we can act and behave in a way that we’ve learned, en masse.’

2. Some discretionary spend IS essential

The panel acknowledged that capital investment seems to have stalled for now because of the lack of cash flow. As Julian Burnett explains, ‘the most significant pressure points, after we’ve considered the ability to work and people’s safety, has come back to the adequacy of the organisations’ ability to sustain itself from a cost perspective.’

The immediate, panicked reaction for many organisations has been to stop spending on anything discretionary. The business continuity plan has ‘never had to consider the possibility of zero revenue whilst carrying, for example, billions of pounds’ worth of inventory with nowhere to go,’ says Burnett. However, he adds that people are increasingly aware of the need to invest in capability such as cyber security: ‘all of the tech that we have put in place to support remote work and collaboration are also bringing new risks, in terms of access control and identity, so I’m starting to see an opening up in terms of investing in cyber-resilience.’

Debra Paul empathises: ‘The pressure on organisations to focus on the absolutely essential spend,’ warning that companies must move beyond that, or risk ‘endangering the business hugely.’ She says the way through such difficult circumstances is for companies to ‘operate on a twin track… a track that keeps business as usual (BAU) going and keeps costs low and a track that looks forward.

‘That means not just spending on product service, it’s also looking after people. You may have organisations looking at roles and perhaps wondering if they are necessary at the moment - but actually, what they are doing may be ensuring that the front line can operate. People must not be considered too much as a discretionary spend: at some point it becomes an essential spend.’

3. Home working is not just about the technology

Many organisations may have already been geared towards homeworking where both company culture and technology played a large part in allowing a smoother transition after lockdown measures were enforced. However, as Debra Paul explains, ‘where that wasn’t the case, the pace was so extreme, organisations had massive pressures on them to react and respond.’

As an expert in digital marketing and social media, Eileen Brown notes that the rapid changes have been ‘quite dramatic from a digital perspective,’ citing that ‘Microsoft teams recently reported more than 20 million daily users… so adoption of collaboration tools has seen a phenomenal rise since lockdown, simply because of its ease of use.’

However, Brown also cautions that a lot of businesses may be focusing on the technology and not realising how the shift from office-based to virtual collaboration may be taking a significant toll on the mental wellbeing of real life teams: ‘interminable video calls are just as damaging for introverts as they are fodder for extroverts. So, whilst there have been some incredible positives from moving to remote working, there are a lot of people that are really struggling with it due to the intrusiveness of the digital collaboration that’s happening now.’

Burnett agrees, adding that ‘IBM have just issued a series of working from home pledges globally to address that point because whether we like it or not, we are all in each other’s homes. We are all in a different context and being respectful to each other in a different way is absolutely critical. These pledges include that simple commitment to each other that you don’t need to be on camera if you don’t feel like it.’

4. Professional relationships have improved

‘The shift in homeworking has shifted how we feel about each other and how we engage,’ says Debra Paul. ‘You’d think that running a training a course online instead of in a room would be more of a remote view. That is actually not what we’re finding at all: there is as much, if not more engagement as you’re in each other’s homes a lot of the time and there is something very personal about it.’ Adding, ‘It’s also allowed us to be a bit more forgiving of each other and more open to collaboration.

‘Overall, there is a strong sense of “we are all in it together” which has led to us all being a bit more tolerant. There’s a real atmosphere around this that is hugely positive and organisations that look after their people and allow that to foster, are going to benefit.

5. Prepare for more, not fewer technologies - and train the workforce

As a technologist, Eileen Brown explains that she worries about the less technically-minded in organisations ‘who are struggling using with all of these different technologies [such as Teams and Zoom]’ and that the training needed to support all employees will need to go far beyond the software. Enterprises with different customers, for example, will also ‘need to learn to cope with the applications or technology that your customers prefer to use.’

Burnett adds to this, speculating that ‘actually getting the job done and being able to choose the best tools to get the job done will start to feel like a more normal way of working. Freedom to choose the tools that work best and bobbing around from different tools is something we’ll become more and more familiar with.’

6. People have been empowered by the change; we might never go back to the ‘old ways’

One of the biggest positives to come from the rapid and remarkable change we’ve all been through is empowerment. As Julian Burnett explains, through necessity ‘we are empowering people in different ways than we have before, to do things differently. Because of that, I see a future where those levels of empowerment that we’ve enjoyed remotely and collaboratively will continue. ‘I think going back to an office to do a job that was required ‘in the old way’ - will be over. We won’t be doing it. We will be looking for that empowerment, freedom, that pace and adaptability to be normal for us.’

Brown supports this view, citing the results of a survey conducted on an anonymous network of professionals called Blind. When asked if they would prefer to continue working from home after the coronavirus restrictions lift, ‘64% of respondents said they wanted to continue working from home, whilst 90% of professionals said they would expect a flexible working from home policy to persist.’ So, it is something many organisations will need to consider in a post-COVID-19 world.

7. Contract working will likely increase - not only due to costs

Debra Paul feels that the shift to contract-based employment ‘was made a while ago’ in some industries and believes that this will now expand for a number of reasons: ‘one of them is going to be the cost base, but I think also once people are empowered, they will get a taste for it. Therefore, not only will organisations be thinking they need to be much more careful of their cost base in future, but people will also want to carry on having that empowerment, that ability to flex.’

She explains that individuals as well as organisations will be able to leverage the current situation: ‘they can do their own personal SWOT analysis,’ consider the skills they have and what they can do in this new world.

8. Digital / technology capability must find its way onto the business continuity plan

Julian Burnett says that one thing this situation has exposed is the ‘absolute necessity of having a well-performing technology capability. Most big business utterly depends on operational integrity and relies on technology. This is not going to decrease; it’s only going to increase. ‘Has this kick-started digital transformation? it’s accelerated it. Has it put cyber considerations up the agenda? Absolutely it has.’

As spending starts to increase once more, organisations will be able to take experience gained from this invest as the future, recognising IT as a central capability. Overall, the panel agreed that digital transformation has certainly been given a huge push. To find out the key things to get right for a successful digital transformation, watch the full webinar

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