Your post-COVID-19 business plan should not just be asking what digital can do to better sustain your business, but what people need from digital tools to support and grow your business over the long term. This applies to both your employees and your customers.
For too long the opportunity of ‘digital' has centred around a conversation that focuses simply on efficiency, cost cutting and ease of access. That's true of companies using digital tools to ‘modernise' the workforce, where stripping out human capital in search of higher productivity has been a driving force. But it's also true of companies that have forced digital channels on customers because they're cheaper for the company, not because they're more useful for the customer.
This is of course a blanket statement that can't be applied to every organisation, but as someone that has spent the past decade speaking to vendors and buyers about their digital strategies - i can tell you now that it is rare for strategy discussions to be focused on people's needs.
COVID-19 has changed that to a large extent. For the first time since I started covering the digital enterprise, more and more of the conversations I'm having are focused on putting people first. The shock of the pandemic to economies across the globe has served as a wake-up call, where buyers (and vendors) had to think long and hard about what their employees and customers *really* needed in this time of crisis.
The shift to distributed work meant that organisations needed to offer employees unparalleled flexibility and support in order to sustain their job roles. Tools obviously played a critical role, but leaders also realised that they needed to focus on increasing transparency, offering financial and wellbeing support, as well as giving workers flexibility to get work done in an environment that is very different to an office. There has been an increase in discussions on mental health, community networks, engagement, mentoring and even forcing time away from screens.
Without the control of an office keeping employees in one place on a dictated schedule, employers have had to think about actually keeping their employees happy and productive.
And as for how customers have been served, companies that had invested in digital channels obviously fared better than those that relied heavily on physical infrastructure. But it wasn't just digital channels that were necessary. Successful companies took time understand what their customers needed in a time of crisis and they had to offer flexibility, empathy and support.
Simply put, the companies that have come out stronger throughout this pandemic have been the ones that understood it's their people - employees and customers - that will see them through. And as such, organisations need to think about how people are central to their strategies going forward.
What is your people-first strategy?
Clearly not every company will be the same, but below I will outline some things that leaders should be thinking about when putting together their post-COVID-19 change strategies.
People centred design - For a long time we have lauded the idea that user-centred design for services is the key to success - as well as a strong focus on user experience. However, this conversation needs to change to ‘people centred design'. It's a subtle shift in language, but it's important. A ‘user' doesn't quite capture the complexity or needs of a real-life person. Companies need to be working closely with their customers, reaching out to people to understand what it is that they need from their organisation; designing systems, processes and tools that serve the needs of customers where they are, offering choice and flexibility wherever possible.
Boost transparency and communicate - Building trust between employees, customers and leaders requires a level of transparency that previously has been missing from many corporate entities. I realise that we are living in 2021 and it can sometimes feel daunting to reveal too much, but strengthening these relationships requires creating an environment where people don't feel like they're being ‘duped' for their skills or cash. Once you've created systems that allow for greater transparency, hold leaders accountable and communicate information freely and regularly.
What are your values? - People want to work for and buy from organisations that are clear about and committed to a strong set of values. Define these. Communicate them. Support them. Invest in them. And be accountable to them. Whilst some of the internet giants can rely on scale and market power to stay dominant, others need to build a reputation with their people that they are an organisation that can be relied upon to not only make money, but better society.
Modern learning and development - Learning and development is set to be a very different thing for organisations that plan to embrace distributed work in some form or another over the long-term. People have historically relied on proximity to other people to learn ‘on the job' for huge chunks of their careers, much of which will be stripped away - at least in the traditional sense. How are you investing in your people and giving them access to the careers that they desire? Leadership pathways and access to learning need to be made clear and need to be promoted. Organisations that aren't upskilling the market in a distributed world will find themselves in a very dire situation in a decade's time.
Give people the right tools - Yes, I know I said this isn't all about technology, but for people to thrive they need the right tools to do so. The emphasis being on the ‘right' tools. Companies need to engage with their people - employees and customers - to find out what tools and channels they want and need. Equally, if leaders feel a different approach is needed, make sure you have an effective change management programme in place to bring people along with you. A top-down, mandated, distribution of new technologies is a sure fire way to disengage the exact people you need to bring along with you.
Engage with employees and customers on defining your strategy - Engage employees and customers in what they'd like to see from your company strategy. It's never been easier to get a sense on what's top of mind for stakeholders and what they want out of the company. Obviously leadership will have their own ideas and insights, but bringing your people along with you in defining goals, objectives and the path to success will almost certainly achieve better outcomes.
Companies are nothing without their people. If you don't recognise that, and have a plan for supporting them, then I'd argue you don't have an effective long-term strategy at all. Not one that is sustainable.