The emergence of COVID-19 has forced many organisations to review their business models and operations and in recent months I have seen many that are grappling with the challenge of doing this effectively. Often, that’s because they are reliant on manual processes that require people and paper to be physically together in one space.
I have seen multiple cases where customer satisfaction, communication and productivity have been adversely impacted by the fact that staff can’t physically process mail or get remote access to their workstation and company information securely. Without concerted action, such fundamental processes will remain the biggest obstacles to establishing remote working initiatives.
With a Forrester report suggesting that around 70 per cent of organisations still committed to paper-based operations, there’s bound to be a temptation to try to get back to ‘business as usual’ at the earliest opportunity. But that’s not going to be easy or prudent – if it will be possible at all.
For most organisations, the key challenge they face in getting people back to the office is how to ensure sufficient room for social distancing. This is a tough ask even in a spacious open plan workplace, but pretty much an impossibility if you are constrained by the layout of an older building. When you have small, compartmentalised offices, how do you separate desks sufficiently, or create one-way systems down single corridors, or prevent close contact on narrow stairs, and somehow bring existing teams into accommodation that’s effectively halved in size?
Often the answer is ‘you can’t’. You have to accept that what we are experiencing isn’t temporary, and that while some things will go back to where they were before COVID-19, many things won’t.
In response, many organisations are now starting to recognise that if they can create the right technology infrastructure and digital business processes to enable their people to work more flexibly and tackle a range of content and process-related issues, not only can they ride this out, but they can also enhance their customer experience.
It’s a strategy that can reap benefits well beyond financial, productivity and reputational metrics. At a time where employers increasingly recognise the importance of staff satisfaction and their mental wellbeing, the role of employee experience, system usability and working environment are all factors that contribute towards organisational success.
Therefore, when rethinking information ecosystems around a new hybrid model of remote and on-site working, it’s essential to consider how the strategy can also help support staff beyond the realms of productivity. Not only is this preparation vital for any future COVID-like events, but it also enables organisations to review their need for costly office space. Some of the largest tech companies have already committed to becoming much less ‘office-centric’, and I believe this will be the start of a significant trend.
But to fully enjoy the benefits of such systems, companies will have to carefully review their current ways of working, many of which were hastily set up in response to COVID-19. So rather than defaulting to old ways, they need to see this as a chance to streamline their processes and procedures, not only for the sake of the business, but to minimise the stress on employees. For example, for information to flow better, you have to remove paper-based operations and increase process automation.
Unfortunately, I know of cases where remote workers are forced to use numerous different applications, creating a fragmented information environment that makes data inaccessible and encourages the creation of multiple versions of the same document. That’s not good for staff morale or service provision. So, if you want employees to get their work done, they must be given the resources to do so with minimal stress, particularly during times of uncertainty.
Many organisations realise we’re now at a tipping point and recognise the consequences of not getting the next move right. However, the solutions that are needed can’t be sought in the past. And even if you could survive by doing things the way you’ve always done them, every day you’ll be falling behind those who have taken the opportunity to rethink their entire information ecosystem.
These are truly unique times and there are few clear answers as to the best way forward. Every business will have to navigate its own particular course. But one thing I’m sure of is that it is no longer sufficient to dismiss new ways of working simply because “we’ve never done it that way before.”
Being able to adapt during times of uncertainty is a critical skill, so business leaders need to review existing work practices through fresh, objective eyes and develop a 'never the same again' strategy for moving forward. That requires a wholesale change in organisational mindset, as well as a willingness to tear up previous project plans and re-prioritise investment. For many organisations, how rapidly they reset and relaunch themselves will determine whether they rise or fall.