Beyond COVID-19: Doubling down on digital transformation strategy

In tomorrow’s working world, HR leaders can drive change with digital transformation strategies that enable remote working, talent management and goal-setting

“Why would I want to go back to ‘normal’?” asks Ellen Petry Leanse, author and chief people officer, at US-based, AI-powered search technology provider, Lucidworks. “Normal was people feeling stressed, commuting unnecessarily, and suffering from burn-out and presenteeism. Human Resources directors (HRDs) have an opportunity to radically influence leaders about the way forward and how digital transformation happens - and it must be from a people-centric standpoint.”

According to research, employee demand is already here for solidifying working practices that give staff autonomy about when and where they work. A CNBC/Change research poll of US homeworkers found twenty-four per cent would like to stay as they are when the economy reopens.

In fact, COVID-19 “may change the workplace forever,” suggests Ann Francke, head of the Chartered Management Institute, as “everyone will need to embrace a different sort of working behaviour.”

Underpinning this will be the even greater adoption and bedding-in of digital transformation strategies, which will enable remote working, and allow talent management and goal-setting to happen digitally.

Already, there is evidence that firms are ramping their investments up in response to this. EY’s recent Capital Barometer data finds forty-one per cent of businesses are speeding up plans to implement new technologies in preparation for the post-COVID-19 economy.

Can HR reimagine digital transformation?

But what role should HRDs take, and how can they really support leaders in reimagining their post-COVID-19 business?

These are not easy questions to answer.

“HR’s role right now requires striking a balancing act - first determining what the workforce ‘can’ and ‘needs’ to do in the future, and what role digitisation will have on this,” says Dessalen Wood, chief people officer at crowd conversation platform Thoughtexchange.

She adds: “It’s almost a moral as much as a technology decision - do HRDs invest in up-skilling those that need to adapt or just hire in those who are ready? It has the potential to put HRDs on a collision course with leaders about what is the fastest way to get from A to B in terms of their business strategy.”

Job losses are an inevitable consequence of digitisation, but inexorable advances in automation could absolve HRDs from having difficult moral decisions. But some argue one thing that won’t change is the difficult challenge HRDs’ face steering leaders away from traditional paradigms.

“Luckily, what I think has helped,” says Daniele Fiandaca, co-founder of culture-change business, Utopia, “is that the enforced nature of these changes to working practices has helped to elevate trust - and that this is a model of doing business that works.”

He adds: “What HRDs need to impress upon leaders now, is the fact that the best companies will be those that allow employees to juggle work around them, and not the other way around. It will involve going on a culture change curve in addition to a digital transformation one. I think it will happen though - because it has to. But HRDs will need to play their part. What’s clear, is that I don’t think we’re going to see having 50-people all in a cramped office any time soon.”

People-first technology

What HRDs will also need to do is convince leaders that embracing more people-centric technology [to allow for the necessary change of business culture] is useful technology.

“Technology has always promised ‘enabling people to do more’, when often all they really do is end up dealing with the technology rather than getting anything useful from it,” says Leanse. “Digital can actually ‘reduce’ cognitive capacity so HRDs also need to understand the way technology transformation can still be humanised.”

A harder step, perhaps, will be counselling leaders and working out what needs to change about digital transformation for those firms already part-way through their journey. Namely because the COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably drive new discussions about how to remotely manage performances, oversee talent pipelines, or even run L&D, as well as what roles could be powered by AI instead.

However, what should be clear is that such changes should be employee-centric, as Leanse notes: “employees will need to be involved in the way a designed process impacts them, rather than having one forced on them that the need to adopt.”

HR and digital transformation ownership

HRDs will also need to position and take ownership of their organisations’ digital transformation strategy much better. This will require a change of their own skills – something that may prove challenging.

“HRDs will need to change their company cultures first, ‘before’ they change technology. Digital transformation has to follow - which is why there is massive pressure to act on all of this now,” says Aine Hurley, managing partner and head of the global HR practice at executive search firm Odgers. “People officers will need to be ahead of the curve to see who amongst their employee population is likely to be best receptive to technology change. They then need to lead the CEO in the best digital transformation strategy based on these assessments.”

But whilst HRDs need to counsel their leaders, leaders aren’t exempt from rising up to their own responsibilities too. They will also need to communicate their business’s new purpose. HRDs’ coaching role here will depend on their CEO’s own digital maturity. It may well be easier for younger, first time leaders to communicate the digital path their organisation needs to take; it may be harder for older, less digitally-savvy leaders.

However, with leaders listening to HRDs, and HRDs listening to what the business needs in terms of its digital transformation strategy, there really is the opportunity to double-down and invigorate a people and digital transformation in parallel.