The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in ways that seemed unimaginable just a short time ago. Within a matter of weeks schools have been shuttered, sporting events and conferences have been canceled, air travel has ground to a halt, over 16 million workers have been laid off, and those able to work from home are now doing so almost exclusively.
Commentators are already proclaiming that coronavirus will permanently change the world. Many of the expected shifts, however, are hardly new. They were nascent prior to coronavirus and emerging stronger than ever due to the pandemic-led paradigm shift.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the migration to remote work and the technologies that enable it. In the United States almost a quarter of employed individuals already were working remotely, and while this trend has steadily increased over the past decade, with coronavirus forcing millions to work remotely, we may have reached a tipping point.
If remote work is indeed the new normal, how can businesses embrace it? Alonso Vargas and Andrew Andrews-Ramirez provide digital transformation, helping organizations with everything from ERP implementation to outsourcing, to migrating to cloud technology, utilizing platforms including NetSuite, SAP, Salesforce, Hubstaff, and Office 365. They have seen a shift in how organizations are operating and have keen insights into how companies can get ahead in the digital curve.
Physical Borders Go Up, Virtual Borders Come Down
Coronavirus has led to social distancing, lock downs, and travel restrictions. In response, people are increasingly gathering in virtual spaces to learn, work, shop, and socialize. Long after the virus fades, this trend toward digital collaboration is likely to become more permanent.
“I think this is really going to realign the way the world thinks about digitally working,” said Andrew. “If this thing goes 90, 120, 180 days out, that’s going to become the new normal and I don’t think that people are going to be able to turn back from it. And I think that’s going to become more of the expectation and requirement for you as an employer, to allow your people, especially if they’re delivering results in this kind of environment, to give them flexibility to work remotely.”
Alonso noted that the tearing down of digital borders is largely being done out of necessity, but that ultimately, it is a form of creative destruction. “It’s just accelerating the way that the workforce is headed, and what the future is,” he said. “Once you start working on cloud technology, the natural progression becomes, ‘Hey, hang on a second. This job can be done from anywhere.’”
Balancing People and Technology
Both employers and employees may have some reservations about remote work. From a manager’s point of view, they need to make sure that people working remotely are still productive. But some of the available tools to manage remote employees and track productivity, such as taking screenshots of activity and tracking mouse movements, may seem overly invasive to workers. In short, the transition to work from home is not just about technology. At its core, it’s about people and culture.
“Every workplace is different,” said Alonso, who has also served in a variety of Interim CFO leadership roles. “But using some of these tools and turning to a more digital way of working doesn’t have to significantly change the culture of your organization. It’s up to how you implement it, how you deploy it, what rules and controls you put around this technology, that’s going to determine whether or not you suffer a cultural shock, or whether it just becomes business as usual and within a couple of weeks people love it, they’re used to it, and it’s a new way of working.”
Andrew and Alonso use a program called Hubstaff to measure the productivity of their workers from afar. They also use Hubstaff to track their own time on client projects, which suggests that employers can help build legitimacy around monitoring tools by practicing what they preach.
“This is our way to prove to clients just what it is that we’re doing,” said Andrew. “It’s a level of transparency that we’re able to provide so there’s no question how we really spent our time. It can be difficult to get used to when you want the freedom to do what you want and be graded on deliverables. But I think this adds value because it’s black and white and everything is documented.”
Be Agile and Fail Fast
Previous market certainties are disappearing and business as usual suddenly seems antiquated. Many companies have the feeling that the ground is opening up beneath them. They’re realizing they were unprepared for a seismic shift, and that even if things do get back to pre-coronavirus normal, the organization needs to be faster, more nimble, and more agile moving forward.
“Every day, sometimes every hour, you’re hearing government announcements setting new rules, new opportunities, new subsidies,” said Alonso. “These cycles are comparable to sprints. You’re going to potentially be faced with problems if you are too slow to react, too slow to test out your hypothesis and fail fast. Because by the time you do you get around to it, the government might have changed or the COVID situation might have changed. We’re walking into something that has the potential to last years, not just months. Business owners are going to have to adapt.”
“You really need thought leaders that can lead by example and can understand and be dynamic in the way they make decisions,” said Andrew. “You need to fail fast. Make a decision, and then continue to make additional decisions to try and point yourself in the right direction. If you do that consistently and you hold each other accountable, the results speak for themselves.”
Making the Digital Pivot
COVID-19 has been a major wakeup call to businesses that they must adapt to the new normal. Using platforms such as Office 365, Microsoft Teams, Slack, G Suite, and Zoom, as well as moving to a cloud-based ERP system, will lay the technological foundation for a remote workforce. In addition to having the right technologies, companies should make changes to their processes as they pivot to a leaner, faster, and more efficient digital model.
“With new age technology, what you find is, it’s the golden opportunity to make changes to your processes,” said Alonso. “Process should drive your technology. Technology should never drive your process. You need to use this opportunity to automate a lot of the things that used to be manual processes. And if you can accomplish that, you’ll find you can shed a lot of back office resources and run more of a skeletal team.”
According to Alonso, moving to a cloud ERP that automates HR, payroll, sales, CRM, and other processes, while also enabling a virtual workspace with offshore team members, can reduce expenses by around 8 – 10 percent on average. In his experience, the long term ROI is well worth the initial investment.
Change takes time, of course. And companies that are in distress do not have much time. They have to pivot quickly, decisively, and successfully. If your business is headed into uncharted territory, you might consider hiring an outside technology expert, such as an Interim CIO who specializes in digital transformations and change initiatives.
Andrew described his three-pronged approach to helping companies select the right technology and pair it with streamlined processes. “The first is a high-level strategy session focusing on issue solving. I get the leadership team together, document the issues they’re currently facing, and we rank those and come up with action items. The second piece is to help them configure a virtual environment. For example, we set up a Microsoft Teams demo account, break the teams down into individual functions, and show them how to collaborate. The third part has to do with their financial position. They need to know whether they can afford this. If they can’t, they need to find some way to fund it to ensure the business not only survives today, but is going to survive tomorrow.”