Published August 12, 2020

Rethinking Digital Transformation Post COVID-19

Moderated by Shikha Hornsey, our latest virtual roundtable live brought together the perspectives of; Philip Clayson, Nathan Marsh, the Chief Digital Officer for Costain, Gavin Killen, Head of Digital for Centrica and Simon Evans, Associate Director for Arup, to discuss their thoughts and ideas on ‘Rethinking Digital Transformation Post COVID’.

Over the past two months, several countries across the world have experienced various forms of remote work and distance learning as governments were coming to grips with COVID-19. Business leaders have been very vocal about the amount of digital transformation they have supported their employees with. This thought-provoking conversation explored the inevitable change we have seen and will be seeing going forward, and how this ‘no going back’ attitude is becoming the reality.

Hornsey kick starts the conversation by mentioning over the past couple of months there have been many positive transformation stories and goes on to ask, ‘How are we now planning and adapting the way our businesses work so that culturally these changes can be permanently bought into by every part of the business?

‘That’s a great question to start us off’. Clayson mentioned. ‘The last 5 months has accelerated the digital proposition that we offer…and we largely divided that into 3 main areas’:

– Accelerating our people and our culture and changing our operating model around that.

– Allowing people to become more financially autonomous.

– More remote working and more cloud usage.

Rider then added to this by mentioning the culture element of the question, ‘How can we allow this to persist in the quote on quote, new normal?’ Which Rider goes onto say he finds one of the most frustrating phrases to come out of this. However, he mentions that this has shown us that ‘it is possible for people to work from home and work remotely’ and this could see us viewing ‘working from home as a default’.

Hornsey rounded up this part of the conversation by agreeing with the points made by both Clayson and Rider. She explained how ‘we have had evolutionary change forced on us’ and because we have had to evolve at such speed in a short space of time we have left ourselves ‘wide open’ to data breaches and security hacks, which the panel discuss in further dept later in the webinar.

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‘Working from home has levelled the playing field for individuals who don’t live in London, New York, etc. What opportunities are we seeing now that location is not necessarily a factor when recruiting the best talent for our business?’

Killen started by suggesting that ‘people who never had a seat at the table before, now have a seat at the table providing they have the tools and connectivity’. This allows for businesses talent pools to expand and its opportunities to grow within organisations. Killen goes on the mention how often teams and people were kept separate and often only those in the office would dial in, but ‘now everybody can dial-in, everybody is on (Microsoft) Teams, everybody is in the same situation’. This makes the whole process easier and removes the ‘them and us side’ Killen explains.

In her own words, Hornsey plays devils advocate with Killen and suggests that despite digital platforms allowing us to recruit more talent, that talent must be ‘somewhat technically savvy’. Killen agrees with this point although still mentioning the benefits of digital platforms in the removal of the need to travel. Later in the discussion Hornsey confirms her opinion that although being able to recruit remotely is great, face to face interaction is still the preferred option and believes ‘for career growth, it is required’.

Hornsey asked, ‘Is there any need to set up physical spaces, the future of work kind of thing?

Killen addressed the fact that until we safely put in place and comply to social distancing measures, many people may not want to return to the office, adding ‘equally, if we’re sitting in the office and everybody is on (Microsoft) teams anyway, what is the point in being in the office?’. Hornsey does express that she feels remote working is a tactical response, and we will, if we are not already, miss being in the office as ‘congregation is a key part of a business model’.

Marsh added to the conversation by suggesting ‘we’re definitely seeing some game changing opportunities and perhaps 1 or 2 risks because circumstances have been forced upon us’ and also adds that we owe ourselves credit because of how we and businesses have responded to this sudden change in lifestyle. Marsh goes on to suggest that ‘work is an activity and not a location’ and that is perhaps why we have been able to adapt to this new way of life.

Marsh continued and highlighted many of the points Killen had previously made regarding a new global workforce. Marsh also went on to explain that although we have been able to do this for some time, it has become the default.

‘I was thinking from a society perspective, the working days have become longer’, Hornsey said. She went on to explain how we no longer can really disconnect from work due to the constant availability of technology. ‘From a work perspective, to a point, as long as there is no burnout is good. However, from a society perspective it may not be’. Marsh added that ‘What we were expecting 4 months ago, to be a 10 year path to greater digital working…we’ve probably done it in about 10 weeks’, agreeing with a point Hornsey had made that the next generation will be very digitally focused.

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A key factor when executing change is being able to build trust with the other departments who may not be as tech savvy. How are you establishing trust in a virtual work environment to enable your business to continue transforming?’

‘The trust part is built around communication and having the support there’ Rider began and explained how for those who are used to working digitally this may seem simple, but we have to understand this is not the case for every employee in the workforce. Rider suggests that it is important to lend a helping hand to other departments to build that level of trust.

Clayson added to this by suggesting that although he is not a psychologist himself, he had heard that ‘In terms of trust, it can take 6-7 hours being with someone online before you feel like you can fully trust them or not’. Moments spent on webcams looking at workspaces and homes is a part of building that level of trust, Clayson explains.

Hornsey suggests being able to engage with our colleague’s personal lives is a positive thing to come out of this current circumstance. She argues that ‘it goes a long way to building that camaraderie (we have in the office)’ and ‘as long as we as leaders are aware of the fact there could be negative aspects of people, just accidentally not being engaged, valued or cared for’.

Clayson agreed with Hornsey and explained how he has a team with a ranging demographic. He suggested there seems to be 3 groups of people who all have different feelings about returning to work:

  • The younger generation who want to be back in the office as they haven’t got the space to work at home
  • An older generation who want to be back in the office for routine and separation of work and social life
  • The generation in the middle who have kids and working from home is an ideal arrangement for childcare

‘It’s really interesting how the 2 ends of the age scale are the ones who would really like to be back in, and it’s not a technology thing, it’s wider than that’, Clayson said.

‘Working remotely has generated vast amounts of data being transferred across secure, partially secure, and very insecure networks. What systemic risks does the new way of working bring to each industry and the collective economy?’

‘I suspect that the next virus that hits us won’t be biological, it will be digital, and that for me is the systemic threat to the economy’ Marsh said, with nods of agreement from the rest of the panel. Businesses now are now at the forefront of this threat with attempted breaches taking place every day and Marsh explains how the operating environment has changed:

  • We are online more.
  • The volume of data that we are sharing is increasing.
  • Types of data are growing in complexity and range.
  • The time and bandwidth we are taking up is increasing.
  • The privacy of networks (secure, private, and open) are all meshed together.
  • There is an increased use in types of devices.

Marsh adds that in order ‘To operate in this new, riskier and more complex and less structured environment, we’re trying to take a free lensed approach on resilience, and we’re obviously looking at physical resilience to keep sites and people secure, economic resilience to keep our projects to keep our projects and business going and finally digital resilience’, which Marsh stresses that should now be ‘absolutely intertwined’.

Following Marsh’s points, Hornsey suggest that due to us working from home, we can become a bit more comfortable in our home environment. Hornsey summed up what we are now experiencing regarding breaches and hacks as ‘scary stuff’ in which Killen agreed and added ‘That it is only going to take one breach and we will all shut the doors really quickly and find ourselves in another COVID situation and lock it all down’. Points surrounding how some businesses will be able to manage another lockdown, and some will not, were added by Hornsey as ‘they are on the brink right now’.

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‘How do you see use of digital technology in commercial operations in day to day B2B selling?’

Hornsey started by suggesting that ‘B2B selling is part of the trust, the product, it requires more physical interaction, or at least it used to’.

Killen responded, ‘If it is a digital product it’s not so challenging’ and Rider added that ‘the landscape will certainly change’.

Clayson pointed out that Rider, who currently works for design specialists, Arup, will have the challenge of not being able to visit on site locations and do they solve this problem through augmented reality (AI)? Riders points out that there will certainly be a reduction in the number of people on site and there has been virtual remote activities in place for those who cannot mobilize to locations outside of the UK. Marsh also adds to this by suggesting that these are ‘perfect trading conditions’ for online retailers and perhaps all sectors can learn from this growth.

Hornsey rounds up this part of the conversation by arguing that B2B is selling is more about meritocracy. ‘It’s about the quality of the product, regardless of what the product is, rather than if you take the physical, human interaction out of it, rather than the personality or the personal characteristics of the person selling it to you, and this applies across the board to remote hiring…You’re selling your talents, your product, rather than your personality’. This highlighted Marsh’s previous point regarding online retailers thriving, as there is only the need to sell the product itself.

The final question to the panel from Hornsey, ‘From a leadership perspective, what do you think the future of outsourcing will look like?’

Clayson began by explaining how ‘When COVID hit I had 700 people through partner or direct overseas’. Countries across the world all dealt with the outbreak in their own way at different times, Clayson tells of how despite this, everybody he worked with was still able to operate brilliantly and he still checks in with them regularly. ‘It didn’t really have a material impact at all’, Clayson said.

The panel all agreed with Clayson and Marsh summed it up by suggesting ‘It has nudged us, rather than catapulted us into a different working model’.

Hornsey rounded off the discussion by saying ‘COVID-19 has made us more global than more integrated’, and this could well be the case. Unfortunately, we cannot predict what will happen next, these are uncertain times, however, it seems the whole panel is in agreement that through digital transformation and our ability to stay connected, we can continue to operate our global workforce, both in-house and outsourced.

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