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Building digital workflows for the long game

Chris Pope Profile picture for user Chris Pope December 3, 2020
Chris Pope, VP Innovation at ServiceNow, explains how COVID-19 has left many companies thinking about what they need to do to permanently embed agility, resilience and better experiences.

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(Image by jeonghwaryu0 from Pixabay)

Nobody, from London to New York, to the outer wilds of New Guinea, needs to be told that 2020 was a truly disruptive year. Although we've seen some businesses sadly falter, the general response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been one of resilience, adaptability and a willingness to just ‘make things work' in the situation we have all been faced with.

But although there has been much talk surrounding our progression towards the so-called ‘new normal', we have actually switched to a sort of holding pattern new normal. What matters now is how we engineer and architect business operations for digital workflows, how we digitally transform and improve employee experiences and how we build for the ‘long game' new normal - or, as I prefer to call it, reality.

In order to help examine the way forward, the Work Survey was conducted in September 2020 by Wakefield Research on behalf of ServiceNow. This research project engaged 9,000 executives and employees across industries including financial services, healthcare, telecommunications, manufacturing and the public sector, in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, India, Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

The findings of this project provide us with deeper insight into the challenges ahead and the way we need to build our long game new reality.

As ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott has said, digital workflows are the way business gets done in the 21st century. But even though we have all made great headway, the Work Survey data showed us that at least half of executives and employees think transitioning in fully-blown terms to the way we work in the future will be very challenging.

Moving beyond Zoom calls

This is the point where we need to move on from ‘let's have a Zoom call', to a more substantial analysis of our operational foundation in order to identify non-digital assets and other now increasingly redundant processes, protocols and procedures. Of those questioned, 94% of executives admit they still have offline workflows, including document approvals, security incident reports and technology support requests.

To approach long game reality with confidence, we need to manage complex digital workflows and give employees the services and experiences they need to do their jobs seamlessly and efficiently, plus the choice and flexibility they crave. Importantly though, let's also remember what 2020 has meant for us all, i.e. we now need to also think about employee experience in the context of safety when any more widespread degree of personal contact starts to happen again.

From steeplejacks to corporate tax

As many as 60% of employees globally (52% in EMEA) believe their company may prioritise business continuity over workplace safety. Outside of the realm of steeplejacks, crane operators and movie stunt artists, to even consider business continuity vs. human safety as a workplace trade-off was unheard of eight months ago. But this is the long game and it is about rethinking work and embracing digital transformation for everyone - from steeplejacks to accountants working on corporate tax.

Happily, this progression to digital workflows actually allows us to work better, faster and smarter all round. In our survey, 92% of executives say the pandemic made their company rethink how they work and 87% of employees say there has been an improvement in ways of working. It's not really since the introduction of Windows 3.1 that many of us have really experienced such a major shift in terms of the way work itself is carried out - and that was almost 30 years ago.

We've had access to many of these technologies for some time now. Some of us who can remember back that far recall making our first video handset calls back in 2005, yet 15 years later we're still talking about video chat team productivity and effectiveness. We can now be a lot more prescriptive about the way technology is used and, as a result, get more out of every single interaction that we perform with it.

Human factor, digital workflows

We've mentioned employee, worker, team (let's just say human) experiences already and we may now understand the ‘moments that matter' in peoples' lives with more insight and clarity.

Would you put your family's health at risk by attending a meeting in person when we're still at an early stage of vaccine trials? Would you consider it unprofessional if you saw a newsreader, politician or business person speaking on television from their home office, or even their kitchen table? What might have initially caused a surprised reaction in January 2020 will be accepted as part of reality in January 2021.

But as much as we have already adapted, there are caveats and provisos too. The traditional corporate command-and-control factor - from management to team members - will need some reinvention as well.

Part of that challenge is knowing which employees need more education and upskilling to get more out of the technology tools that they have been provided to work with.

Let's be careful out (and in) there

Going forward towards the long game new reality then, we know that a lot of progress has been made during 2020 and a lot of change has been positively embraced. But let's look at the facts - we are all months into working from home and experiencing the shorter term transformative effects of the pandemic. Even so, 60% of executives and 59% of employees in our study say their companies still do not have a fully integrated system to manage digital workflows.

These same employees say that although their organisations have created new and better ways of working, many were developed on the fly as First Aid solutions and are vulnerable to the next major disruption. Most executives and employees say they would not be able to adapt within 30 days in the event of another disruption.

Although IT departments and healthcare operations in particular have adapted for long game reality in profound ways, there are still entire industries (such as travel, entertainment, sports & leisure) that are yet to see real reconfiguration in order for them to be able to operate safely, productively and effectively going forward.

Striving for transformation is hard work even when we're not in the throes of a pandemic. At the same time, we are on the cusp of an unprecedented wave of workflow and workplace innovation. And that is really exciting.

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