How Digital Transformation is the key to survival in the times of Covid-19

The world has changed and how! It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation. A tiny virus has changed the face of the world completely and probably, forever. The spread of Covid-19 initially shocked businesses all over the world and now, after some resistance and denial, there is a sense of acceptance and scrambling to deal with the “new normal”

Fortunately or unfortunately, there are no written rules or playbooks for companies to refer to as they adjust to the new settings of the world and this is both a boon and a bane, according to Jason Averbook, a leading analyst, thought leader and consultant in the domain of human resources, the future of work and the impact technology has on that future.

Jason is the CEO and Co-founder of Leapgen, a firm that helps organizations create digital HR/People strategies. With over 25 years of experience in the HR and tech industries, Jason is also the author of two books: HR From Now to Next and The Ultimate Guide to a Digital Workforce Experience.

In that context, today’s theme is: How Digital Transformation is the key to survival in the times of Covid-19. Jason believes this is an amazing opportunity for companies and leaders as they get to write their own rules, which is nothing short of creating history.

In this session, you would hear Jason talk about:

  • The top three things organizations are doing to deal with the current situation
  • The top three challenges HR leaders are facing today
  • The approach companies need to take for digital transformation
  • How do you carve out the path ahead in uncertain times
  • The three stages of onboarding in the Covid-19 era
  • How you should talk about your digital transformation stories
  • The three phases that you need to go through in the current situation

1. The three pillars to build in the Covid-19 era

  1. Go digital: Since there isn’t a playbook to deal with what we’re facing now, Jason says organizations across the world are doing a combination of both learning what the problem is and unlearning the things they’ve done in the past. While people are talking about mapping their current state process and then creating a future state process but the two-book author says that it doesn’t matter.

“You know, we’re living in the “now of work” and the now is different from what your past was, or even what it was, you know, four weeks ago. So, you know, mapping current state and thinking about the change impact – that doesn’t really matter right now. What really matters is designing in a way that’s going to work going forward into the future and that that’s digital,” says Jason.

      2. Design for different personas: The pandemic has changed the way most of the things are done and most of the organizations would be forced to opt for a distributed model of work and the workforce would be more distributed than ever. 

This would not just be reflected from where people work but also the way they work. You cannot design workflow processes and base it on a single template for all your employees but you need to design in such a way that it ties to the persona of your employees. 

    3. Redefine onboarding and performance: Jason says it is extremely important for organizations to unlearn and redefine what success looks like in the new normal. “Bringing a person into the company and getting them to work is all that matters? You know, some people would say, yeah, that’s all that matters. Well guess what, that’s all that mattered in the past,” says Jason.

You need to answer important questions such as how much time do I spend on onboarding my new hires, how do I ensure they make it through the first year and do not think of leaving or what do I do to make sure they regret having joined my company? Jason says it is time that terms such as onboarding and performance evaluations take on a whole new avatar. 

2. Design workflows for employees’ journeys and don’t think of them as processes

Jason thinks most of what we’re familiar with in the domain of Human Resources is dated and is not built for today. Though we have an amazing opportunity to redefine the way we are doing things with respect to running our companies and engaging with our employees, it’s pretty easy to go back to what we are familiar with. 

It is important for organizations to adopt blue sky thinking where there are no limits to brainstorming – where your ideas needn’t be grounded in reality or they can be as creative without being constrained by practicality. 

The biggest hindrance to this is the unchanging mindset of organizations and leaders where their thinking is more geared towards how it was, running the risk of going back to how it was. As an HR professional, one might be following a number of processes while onboarding employees but this approach needs to change. HR leaders must think of employee onboarding as experiences and not processes.

“When I think about journeys, what I want to think about – are my journeys natural or frictionless? Do they feel good to me? Most of us that do go through processes don’t say – oh that process felt good. But what we do say as an employee is – well, that journey or that experience was a really good experience,” says Jason.

When you shift your thinking from process to experience or journey, that naturally puts in place the behaviors necessary for designing employee onboarding strategies.

Make sure that the technology is truly enabling or fueling what you’re doing, not deciding on how you do it.

Organizations must understand that technology is not the answer to their problems. Rather, it acts as an enabler. “Okay, so I don’t take a piece of technology and say, I have to do this because the technology tells me I have to do this. If you do that, the natural response is to reject,” says Jason.

Using technology for the sake of doing so will only get your employees to shun it. Instead, you should design a process where the technology sits in the background and helps you create an experience or journey for your employees. To summarize, think of employee onboarding from a new mindset, create journeys for employees and not processes and use technology only as an enabler.

3. Companies must take the human-centered approach to digital transformation

Over the years, what has happened at the outside of work has advanced at a faster pace than that which has happened inside of work. HR leaders now have the opportunity to bridge that chasm by resetting employee-related journeys or experiences.

Any organization that’s doing anything once a year around listening to their people doesn’t deserve to be in business. They should be shut down because that’s inhumane.

Jason likens the current situation to an experience he had as a child. “When I was 5-6 years old, my grandfather used to take me to watch a train everyday when it went by. I used to watch this train and would always wonder what was on the other side of the train. And what’s on the other side of this train, we don’t know. But we get to create what’s on the other side of the train,” he says.

Since we all are dealing with a situation that’s unforeseen, unpredictable and unknown, the marriage between employers and employees is likely going to be much more complex than ever. The variables on both sides have increased and if organizations don’t consider the moving parts, then they run the risk of slowing things down by a greater degree than necessary.

In his experience, Jason believes organizations aren’t really good enough in a key aspect of running a business: listening to their employees. And the current situation would see organizations adopting a human-centric approach to designing experiences to understand if their employees are happy, if they feel fulfilled in their job roles and to ensure they support the mental health of their staff.

4. In the Covid-19 era, paint the picture as you go

The one question that is likely to be on any HR leader’s mind is: should I design temporary strategies and build on them as I deal with the current situation or should I re-work on my existing plans to suit the vagaries of the existing uncertainty?

“Anyone that’s waiting for the last part of the training to go by. In this particular scenario. It’s going to be too late because when the last car goes by, all of a sudden I see what I see. Now I will not be able to respond to it quickly enough in order to maintain business,” says Jason.

The first thing that any leader should do is listen to signals, which tell you what the future looks like, every single day. You probably need to discard your way of thinking if you are the kind that says one plus one is always equal to two because we do not really know if it’s two.

What we don’t know is what things look like on the other side, which means, hey, I’m learning and I’m trying to put this picture together as I go. I should be thinking about this every day and painting my picture.

If you’re at the helm of a boat in calm, smooth waters, you can take your hands off the wheel for a bit and let go. But when you’re in really choppy waters, you can’t do that. You need to steer your boat this way or that depending on how the water is at a particular point in time. This is similar to the world we are in now.

Today’s situation has caused our boat to hit the wall where some people fell off into the waters while others are left in boats with holes. “And when that boat filled with water, those areas that that boat filled with water, whether it be, how do I communicate better to my employees or how do I make sure they get paid or how do I make sure that if I have to offboard people quickly, or if I want to make sure all the tools are available when an employee has to work remotely,” says Jason.

The water taken on by a boat is not the same as that taken on by another. So, there’s no one answer to building a playbook to tackle the current situation. One needs to think about what an organization’s most important needs are and to assess which aspects will create the biggest impact on the business, be it your employees or customers. 

If you answer these questions, you would have a clearer understanding of the outcomes your business needs and will help you devise better digital transformation solutions. “Digital Transformation is moving how work gets done with a digital mindset, which is having a vision, knowing my audience, thinking about my journeys and leveraging technology,” he says.

5. Orientation, integration and self-sufficiency should be the three stages of onboarding in the Covid-19 era

Orientation: Jason believes that the situation brought on by the pandemic is most likely to force organizations to do a much better job at orientation, given that a sizable percentage of employees are working from home and are likely to continue to do so in the near future. The one way to go about designing onboarding experiences for virtual workplaces is to over-communicate. 

“So they’re (employees) used to having a once a week team meeting or once every two weeks, or once every month. And that’s nowhere near enough when I can’t see you, and have water cooler conversations with you, you know, about how you’re doing,” says Jason.

Integration: Businesses have been functioning in silos. One of the impacts of Covid-19 on businesses has been that they are realizing that perhaps, they’ve been a bit too siloed than they ought to be. Each department such as the HR, IT and finance have been doing things their own way and have been communicating in their unique ways.

“As an employee, I get overloaded with information that I can’t synthesize and put it into a message that makes sense to me. When it comes to integration, I really think that post-Covid, we are going to see organizations think about how we should design one experience for my employees?” he says.

Self-sufficiency: This is, perhaps, a hard lesson for businesses but they should realize that employees just want to do their jobs. They just need the tools to do their jobs and not be forced to talk to different people to figure things out. Organizations should try and move away from the “tribal-knowledge” kind of work environment where one depends on certain individuals to get the solutions to their problems because that isn’t scalable.

6. How you narrate your digital transformation story matters too

So, Jason and his team worked with a big insurance company and tried to solve one of their problems – the company was having a hard time hiring people in sales fast enough. The company’s HR head told them it took them 52 days to fill a vacancy. Jason’s team managed to bring that number lower to 37 days.

His team was celebrating when they told the insurance company’s CEO that the time to fill had been reduced to 37 days from 52. The CEO didn’t react the way they expected him to as he thought that was still quite a long time to fill a job vacancy in sales in his company and he asked how this helps his business.

“So I guess in this particular case, what’s really important is we were measuring the wrong thing. We were measuring how many days it took me to do something but we weren’t actually measuring the impact of that on the business,” says Jason. 

So, his team went back and calculated their job’s impact and showed the CEO that by filling a job vacancy in their sales team 15 days faster, they were able to generate $5 million in new business each quarter. And, the CEO was jubilant. By putting in a new recruiting process, Jason’s team was able to generate $20 million a year.

“So we have to make sure that we have self-sufficiency built in so that my workforce can actually get the answers to the questions that they have – not just about benefits and HR, but how to do their jobs… so they can do their jobs and be as efficient as possible and drive effectiveness as much as humanly possible,” says Jason.

Making sure that as you’re doing your (digital) transformation, also make your story matter to those who care.

In another instance, Jason’s team worked with a computer chip manufacturer in the Silicon Valley to put in a new performance management system. They changed the process from one that was driven by the HR team to one that was driven by employees and managers.

“If I said Senthil, here’s a new HR program, you’re not going to be like – Yeah!!! A new HR program. If I say, Senthil, here’s a new tool to make your job easier, to make sure that you have a career path and that you’re following your passion, you’re gonna be like wow, they really care about me. Once again, the same exact process, framed in a way that ties up,” says Jason.

In the two examples, if the CEO and the employees didn’t buy into the change, then there’s no transformation. “It would have been money thrown away because no one would have adopted – not the technology – but adopted the change. And that’s really where transformation goes from fairy tales to reality,” he says.

7. Three phases you need to go through on repeat mode

For HR leaders who are devising digital transformation, there are three phases that they can use to think their strategies through. 

Create a coordinated strategy: The first is making sure you create a strategy because there are organizations who do not have a strategy function and that’s a huge mistake. Also, a lot of people begin this process with the question “how”. Instead it should be “why”.

Quite often, different units in an organization have different strategies but there should be one coordinated strategy. “If we think about a whole bunch of people going out to play – be it footbal or soccer – if every player on the field has their own strategy, you think I’m gonna win? No!” says Jason. This is how a lot of organizations have operated in the past.

Deploying the strategy: To remind you, deploying a strategy does not mean implementing technology. It may be a part of it but it is never the whole thing. “For the most part, I’m deploying that strategy and I’m getting my employees to believe in it. I’m getting my employees to act differently. I’m helping them understand what’s in it for them and enabling them to say – Hey guys, this new strategy is working or, more importantly, this new strategy, is not working,” he says.

Optimize: Jason says a lot of organizations say – Here is my strategy and I am going to deploy it. They go live and then move onto the next thing. This is a terrible way of thinking as one is not bound to get it right the first time and that you must focus on continuous improvements.

“I always say treat your strategy like a pet, not like a rock. You have to walk it every day. You have to clean up after it every day. You know, you don’t just put your strategy in place and then say – yes, it’s done and then move on,” he says. Strategies need to evolve in alignment with the pace at which the world changes.

The best way for HR leaders to think about digital transformation is to strategize, deploy and optimize and repeat. “It’s a continuous circle and to me, no matter what it is you’re trying to do as an HR leader, if you keep these things in mind, your chances of succeeding are 1,000% percent greater,” says Jason.