3 minute read 24 Apr 2020
male recording video using smart phone

How to keep transformation human in a virtual world

By

Gil Forer

EY Global Markets Digital and Business Disruption Leader

Leads digital go-to-market strategy and EYQ. Focused on the impact of disruption and what’s after what’s next. Founder and producer of Innovation Realized.

3 minute read 24 Apr 2020
Related topics Emerging technology Trust

Show resources

As COVID-19 forces businesses to transform at speed, future-back planning and a people-centric focus are key.

Despite the physical slowdown of fewer people on the streets and in public due to COVID-19, we are living in high-velocity times. One of the trends I’m seeing is compressed time horizons: no one has years to respond anymore. The pandemic has forced every business to change how it operates, not by choice but by necessity.

What we’re living through now isn’t the latest wave of change – it’s more like a tsunami. Trends that we would have expected to play out over 10 years are now happening in 10 days.

Let me give you an example. One of the megatrends I’ve explored in recent years is the future of work: how changing demographics and technology will reinvent work, creating the need for continuous learning, and emphasizing new approaches and skills as people work alongside Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots.

We expected the usual curve, where a few industries adapt first and others follow. But due to COVID-19, millions around the world began working remotely and virtually – almost overnight. For professional service firms such as EY, this was a step up from usual practice but well within our comfort zone. In other sectors, it was an upheaval.

Trends that we would have expected to play out over 10 years are now happening in 10 days.

And of course, some people can’t work remotely – I believe we are learning a new appreciation for those frontline workers, from the medical profession saving lives to those in retail, manufacturing and logistics who are keeping much needed food and medical supplies going. This supports something that we believe at EY: that tasks will be automated, not jobs, and some jobs will remain uniquely human.

Another trend I’m seeing accelerate is the role of behavioral science. Employee and customer behaviors have had to change dramatically as a result of the pandemic and it is expected that COVID-19 will have long-term ramifications for how we live, work and socialize. As governments respond to control the impact of COVID-19 (globally there have been nearly US$13 trillion in stimulus measures announced), understanding how to influence people and encourage specific behaviors will be more important than ever.

As businesses are pushed into transformation – whether they’re ready or not – we need to make sure we’re equipping our people with the tools and skills to do this successfully.

How a future-back approach can help

Trying to imagine the future is a critical step in helping businesses transform. While no one has perfect vision of what the future will be, we know one thing: we cannot imagine it by looking to the past.

An approach many leadership teams find useful is future-back planning, which flips the script on the standard approach to strategy development. Instead of using today as a starting and projecting forward, you start with where you want to be in the future and work backward to determine how to get there. 

Future-back planning flips the script on the standard approach to strategy development: instead of using today as a starting point, you start with where you want to be in the future.

This approach is particularly suited to the disruption we’re facing, which makes extrapolations based on historical trends meaningless. Future-back thinking also makes it easier for leaders to imagine a future where their company becomes irrelevant or their industry becomes completely redefined – scenarios we can no longer afford to ignore.

Giving people the space and freedom to reframe their thinking

No matter how your business is responding to COVID-19, one thing is clear: it’s your people who are keeping the business afloat and your people whose ideas will fuel the future. Given the extent to which the crisis has accelerated transformation, it’s never been more challenging but critical to keep your people at the center of everything you do.

The pandemic is like an enormous reset button for enterprises and governments. So how do we keep people at the center – not just employees but also customers and stakeholders, as well as the way executives demonstrate leadership? One of the things that marks out this pandemic is the fact that we’re all going through challenging and difficult times together. We need to check in regularly, and continue to be sensitive to each other’s needs when so many are working from home – some alone, some juggling childcare, others caring for parents and dealing with other responsibilities.

As part of my role, I lead EY wavespace, which helps companies to reimagine their business and reframe their biggest challenges. Like other businesses, we had to enhance our people’s skills at speed. Previously, our team worked from a network of wavespace centers around the globe; now, we’re working 100% virtually.

Today, no one has the luxury of rolling out a project over three years. Companies need solutions fast. Immersive, structured sessions are one of the ways businesses are finding to bring people together, to brainstorm, explore ideas, inspire creativity, align leadership and build consensus for moving their agenda forward – virtually. Amid the turbulence and disruption caused by COVID-19, these sessions are a positive and human-centered way to move forward.

What will the “new normal” mean for your people? For your business? 

EY is helping companies respond to the pandemic, from structured crisis planning to building in resilience to planning for recovery.

Personally, the questions I find most intriguing are about the long-term impact. How will the pandemic change the way we live and work in years to come? How will megatrends evolve and what impact and opportunities will they create? 

Deep crises leave a lasting impact. Just think of war veterans who struggle to adjust to civilian life, or survivors of the Great Depression who were unable to trust banks for the rest of their lives. Will the profound isolation created by social distancing create a wave of consumers who prioritize in-person connection over social media or the opposite? Will large numbers of casualties and a heightened awareness of mortality draw consumers to experiences rather than material possessions?

Then there are questions of trust. Across sectors, companies are stepping up to help address challenges created by the crisis – from providing free wi-fi to removing paywalls on life-saving information to repurposing businesses to provide testing clinics or produce hand sanitizer. The actions companies take today will be remembered by customers, employees and wider society, and could go some way towards restoring declining trust in business.

It’s also true that the pandemic has brought the fault lines of economic inequality into sharp relief, highlighting that we are all made more vulnerable by weaknesses in our social safety nets.

None of us know what the new normal will be. But it’s clear the pandemic will bring sweeping change — reshaping the global economy, sparking technological innovation, redefining society and companies’ role in it, and altering consumers’ needs and behaviors.

It is upon all of us to draw the right observations and takeaways from this global crisis and to decide how we want our global society to look tomorrow. Leaders should ensure they have a team tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 and equip them to think about the new normal now and not tomorrow. We have a unique, even once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work together with solidarity to create a better world.

Summary

As the world copes with the unprecedented stresses of COVID19, a key challenge is emerging for businesses: how to stay human-centered while transforming to operate in a virtual world. As every business is pushed into transformation, ready or not, future-back planning and a people-centric focus can help. Leaders should ensure they have a team tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 and equip them to think about the new normal now and not tomorrow – because this is a unique, even once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work together with solidarity to create a better world.

About this article

By

Gil Forer

EY Global Markets Digital and Business Disruption Leader

Leads digital go-to-market strategy and EYQ. Focused on the impact of disruption and what’s after what’s next. Founder and producer of Innovation Realized.

Related topics Emerging technology Trust