Digital transformation beyond Covid: what to keep and what to ditch?

The high-octane acceleration of technology during the pandemic is without question, but now’s the time to be more strategic about digitisation 


As days and nights were smudged into one and boundaries between home and work dissolved, it’s little surprise many of us felt unmoored during the lockdowns. Experts have labelled the phenomenon ‘temporal disintegration’, where we were dislocated from time and lost our sense of continuity.

One facet of life where everything seemed to accelerate was in the digital realm. As our physical lives slowed to a halt, the only way businesses could continue to operate at all was a breakneck pivot to digital. If organisations did not have remote policies in place, they were certainly feeling it when the pandemic struck, as they raced to build the kind of infrastructure that would allow our work lives to continue.

Frequently, that meant slapdash solutions: strapping together a bit of Zoom here, a touch of collaboration software there. It’s understandable that businesses may have selected their digital technologies in a hurry – but equally, this is the reason why these hastily put together methods may fail in the long run.

Ad hoc approaches are typically neither strategic nor sustainable. Now that this period of temporal disintegration draws to a close, it’s an appropriate time for businesses to reflect – taking the best of the pandemic-era solutions, dropping what wasn’t working, and devising a plan to be more deliberate from here on out.

Make sure your systems and processes are efficient before you digitise them – you don’t want to digitise a rubbish process

Tools like digital whiteboards and collaboration platforms, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, make the cut. With more than 80% of all firms expected to keep some form of hybrid working arrangements in place, according to the Chartered Management Institute, this kind of connectivity is here to stay and with good reason. 

“The pandemic drastically altered ways of working for most businesses, so it’s a matter of necessity that employers maintain some of the changes to fit modern employees’ needs,” says Ulla Riber, head of group workplace management, ISS Global. 

With the US’s Department of Labor statistics revealing that the great resignation remains underway, it’s essential employers take stock of employees’ expectations around flexibility and their workplaces, Riber says. Even as restrictions lift, Riber notes that ISS’s monitoring has found continued demand for technologies relating to the pandemic, such as systems for booking desks. Collaboration tools are a clear route to ensuring participation from a dispersed workforce.

And as the workforce became more widely distributed, vestiges of traditional perimeter protection such as cyber defence also faded. Businesses have had to wise up about the vast expansion of potential attack surfaces; not to mention the importance of educating individual employees about security. 

Meanwhile, staff wellbeing should always have been a priority but during the heights of Covid-19, it became a more pressing concern – as might be expected in a pandemic. Surveys have shown that HR automation grew drastically over this time, not only with performance-management tools but as a way to measure staff sentiment and wellbeing. Technologies that help staff stay healthy, be productive and remain secure equip organisations with a digital toolset that will be vital no matter the wider situation.

Although the pandemic era has undoubtedly proved the worthiness of digitisation, there may also be a tendency to view ‘doing digital’ as a catch-all salve to all kinds of problems, whether promoted by vendors looking for an easy sale or as a result of organic hype. This attitude can easily place businesses in a tricky spot, with disappointing implementations often putting organisations off digitisation in general, according to Richard Jeffery, national director at social enterprise The Growth Company.

“I’ve seen a lot of businesses buying software or hardware because they’d heard that they need it,” he says. “But when that fails, it’s become a big barrier to digital adoption.” 

Another issue during the pandemic was accessibility, Jeffery adds. All the latest technology in the world is of little use if people are left behind due to infrastructure not-spots, lack of education or poorly applied technology that isn’t user-friendly. 

And, with all the change, cultural hangovers may be the trickiest symptoms to cure. One result of that temporal disintegration was long hours and a virtual kind of presenteeism – where staff, in the knowledge that they could be online at any time, felt compelled to show their faces for the sake of it.

“The pandemic helped us begin to challenge the principal of presenteeism,” says Ita Waller, group HR director at integrated marketing agency Unlimited. “But moving forward, it’s important working hours are respected, especially when working from home when it’s easy to stay online.”

I’ve seen a lot of businesses buying software or hardware because they’d heard they need it

Likewise, Waller adds, maintaining a balance of genuine flexibility is crucial because, according to a Microsoft report, 67% of staff desire more in-person work, not less – so as businesses pivot to hybrid work or downsize office space, they need to be mindful of the needs of all staff, not just the most vocal. “Making the office accessible for people to collaborate in person should be encouraged as much as respecting people’s decisions to stay at home,” Waller says. The shape that this will take is undetermined, but it’s going to require a careful balance of digital technologies and physical spaces.

Digitisation is a process, so businesses that have managed to successfully leverage the abnormal conditions of the pandemic era to their advantage should not rest on their laurels. 

Instead, they should try to capitalise on the existing momentum. For companies at any stage of the process, this requires a step back – going back to basics, planning, and focusing on desired outcomes, says the Growth Company’s Jeffery. The times may have been strange, but rudimentary principles like being mindful about things like procurement remain. “Businesses should work out what they want to achieve with digital,” he says. “Look at what digital can do to change your vision – can you attain faster, more encompassing change? Make sure your systems and processes are efficient before you digitise them – you don’t want to digitise a rubbish process.”

Meanwhile, notes Unlimited’s Waller, technologies like robotic process automation should be used to automate day-to-day tasks; this isn’t about replacement but efficiency and giving time back to employees – to help alleviate those pandemic bugbears like long hours and poor work-life balance. 

Hybrid working has empowered employees, she says, and having an open approach to hybrid working, while constantly assessing and adapting working practices and technology will ensure businesses of all stripes get the best out of digital, whether with future disruptions or – touch wood – operating in plain old normalcy.