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We went on holiday and the world changed. COVID-19 and the Digital Evolution

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Earlier this year we were taking an epic tour around the USA for the husband's 40th, something we had been planning for nearly 11 months. It consisted of a visit to New York, New Orleans, Houston (he likes spaceships), Vegas and LA. 5 locations and 10 flights in 22 days, Yeh, we were pretty excited, however as we were departing New York for phase 2 of 5 the US declared the Coronavirus (COVID-19) a Pandemic.

We landed in New Orleans to a pretty relaxed scene, people still milling around, shops, bars and restaurants still open however to be sure we rang our travel insurance company to check where we stood now this had Pandemic status. To be honest that was not much help, they told us any medical claim would not be covered even though our trip started before the Pandemic. Knowing the American healthcare system to be somewhat expensive we were reluctant to take the risk of ending up stuck in the USA and in need of any form of medical treatment so we rang the Australian Consulate who advised us to return home.

So the next 24 hours consisted of us reorganising to get back to Australia, obviously disappointed we needed to cut short our trip. During this time America went into lockdown and the experience was surreal. Bourbon Street in New Orleans, once a buzzing atmosphere, was now closed by the police rounding people up and escorting people back to hotels. Shops and restaurants started to close so we made our way back to LA.

Have you ever seen a deserted LA? It’s bizarre. The madness got real. We hunkered down and awaited our flight home. We imagined once we got back to Australia it would be the same level of protocol but there appeared to be a lag affect. Schools were not closed, pubs still open and people advised to stay home but at this point it was only a suggestion. The airport was obviously struggling to cope with the repatriation of citizens.

Over the next 14 days we self isolated. The most interesting thing was how ill equipped Australia seemed to be in the face of this crisis. There were confusing messages from our nation’s leaders which led to bizarre actions (toilet paper hoarding, allowing haircuts but restricting other businesses to operate). 

Working from home became the norm overnight, something many people had been campaigning for and many organisations argued was operationally impossible, was now acceptable. “Zoom” became a verb. The world was waking up to the fact they needed to adapt and that adaptation had to be led in the Digital and online space.

Here are some of my thoughts, observations and predictions for the future.

Digital Onboarding, connectivity and working from home

Working from home has long been a battle between employee and employer and the bottom line is it comes down to trust. Organisations who have not enabled this in the past send a message of distrust to their teams, “if you are working from home are you really “working””. Now there will be some who are not more productive working from home and this way of working is not for them long term (can I get a whoop whoop from the extroverts in the room?) but allowing this flexibility can strengthen culture and advocacy and the key is open communication.

At the moment it is a mandate to stay home but I feel things will change to adapt more to the employees preference going forward to ensure organisations get the best out of their staff by offering the best environment. After all, a plant in the wrong environment will not thrive. The employers already pivoting their thinking this way will be sure to secure and retain the best talent going forward.

A key conversation to have from the get-go with employees is around expectations and this I feel is shifting from being focused around hours spent to output and productivity. Not only will this way of thinking assist with the trust conversation but it will allow clarity and boundaries on both sides to ensure everyone is empowered to succeed.

Organisations who are using this time to embrace digital onboarding will be well ahead of the curve when it comes to rehiring talent, this is not a logistic impossibility and can be done while maintaining the company culture for new starters and helping them feeling connected from day one (both physically and metaphorically) and still upholding your employee value proposition.

Engaging HR and IT departments early and working together to ensure this experience is plausible and friction-less is key. I am not saying some organisations may not find it challenging but it should not be a barrier. Engage recently onboarded staff, get their feedback and operationally can you enhance the experience for the next recruit? Make this a key part of your hiring strategy and offer this level of flexibility ongoing. Map the ideal experience and work towards it, it may be “blue sky” but it does not mean you cannot get there.

The rise of Zoom and Microsoft Teams has been evidence in the split screen photos flooding LinkedIn but remember this is a key tool to your staff to not only keep in touch but to have social interaction.

Something to consider that is not necessarily in an organisations control is infrastructure and connectivity to enable this ongoing if the trend continues. This is where I feel there needs to be a step up from the Government. Australia is trailing in terms of connectivity due to poor infrastructure and again the NBN is not the silver bullet we all wished for and we are yet to launch 5G. They need to be ready for the increase in demand and build networks that have sustainability and scale in mind.

Once the lockdown is lifted we have proven working from home is a possibility and more to the point, it has been embraced in an extreme time of adversity. This needs to be considered in future business strategy and could very well change the landscape of how some roles are executed, after all, we have proven geography is not a restriction so could this open up employees working from anywhere in the world? Does this widen and enhance your talent pool?

The reincarnation of the term “Digital Transformation”

I cannot speak for everyone but I have a love/hate relationship with this term, firstly because I feel “Digital” is enabler and should be regarded as such, it not a silver bullet and without strong business and cultural transformation it is doomed to fail and sit on the large archive of buzzwords from years gone by.

That being said I do believe, very strongly, that digital and technology, if properly embraced with a clear vision of what it can do, will enhance people and organisations to excel culturally and operationally.   

The fact that COVID-19 is “driving Digital Transformation” is an interesting frame of mind as “Digital” should be an ongoing part of business strategy. A lot of businesses will need to take another look at this as part of the current climate but I do not feel “Digital Transformation”, or at least what it stands for, should ever have been grandfathered.

The rise of ecommerce and online – survival of the fittest

Seems strange to be talking about this in 2020 as though it is someway revolutionary but here we are. Many retailers are suffering the effect of COVID-19 and Corona as they were very reliant on foot fall and in-store visits.

Retail giants such as Primark for instance who have suffered a downturn in sales from £650 million a month to zero due to the Corona virus lockdown have seen their 376 stores close along with furlonging over 68,000 staff leaving the retail giant with £248 million of unsold stock. The idea that all in this time Primark have not built an online contingency beyond click and collect is crazy to me. Not only has this meant they are now seriously exposed to business failure but they have not met the standard expectation of the consumer in this day and age.

An example of innovative thinking in this space comes unsurprisingly from the UAE. Dubai has seen many of its epic shopping malls close due to social distancing however, intervention from a Digital mindset through the monarchy has enabled these retailers to survive by offering them a lifeline. The marketplace platform Noon, born out of the UAE and an aspirational rival to Amazon, has proposed retailers build stores on their platforms to allow shoppers to still access and buy their products online. For those retailers without ecommerce capability it offers an elegant solution by ensuring shopping, payment and shipping process through the platform. This pivot in thinking rather than being caught like a deer in the headlights has given these retailers an opportunity to survive while exposing their stores to new audiences on a wider platform.

The online retailers or at least those with an ecommerce/online offering or strategy (no matter how temporary) will lead the charge in this revolution. They will need to consider the customer experience at this time but they will be sure to emerge from this crisis by applying adaptive thinking. After-all, the expectation of the consumer is now living in an online world with access to everything they require.

The rise of the “gig economy”

A big issue that has been highlighted is around job security during this time. Obviously what a lot of us took for granted has been moved aside to make way for essential workers in this time of crisis. So this lends itself to the idea that maybe we should embrace this and adapt to the circumstances by looking at the future of work as a “gig economy”. By that I mean a movement to more shorter term roles, the execution of project based work rather than long term employment.

 Now this has many pros and cons from an employee and employer perspective, one employee con that comes to mind is job security. Who is to say when the next “gig” will come up?, is this sustainable? Well, having suffered more than my fair share of redundancies in my career during my tenure in Australia I feel job security is a little white lie we tell ourselves, especially as Australian business culture seems to approach redundancies with a cavalier attitude. This pandemic has indeed highlighted that many roles are deemed disposable in the time of cost cutting and economic upheaval. So maybe it is time to reinvent and adapt. Afterall organisations take on a lot of risk with salaried employees and this could be an attractive alternative especially while managing a lot of unknowns while things get up and running again.

Operationally organisations need to be ready for this way of working, from an onboarding perspective as well as HR contracts, payroll and IT etc but those who do make previsions now to accommodate this way of working embrace this will reap the benefits of having highly skilled staff with lower risk. I acknowledge that culturally organisations may not find this an attractive way of working as they perceive this as a lack of commitment but it might be worth considering some of the workforce will look to work for employers who can work this way and it may open doors to new talent.

Total Online Customer Experience

Something that needs to be considered going forward for all organisations and businesses despite if they are digitally led or not, is their current and future customer experience and how the online experience stacks up.

It is not only retailers that have fallen to an over reliance of physical presence in store, the likes of banks are finding some operations difficult given that visiting a branch is now more tricky. Many are now finding the online experience is not consistent to the offline and many online experiences are unable to cope now with higher demand if being put on it and this could cost them customers.

It interests me a great deal that some of the first roles to go where those around digital and strategy and deemed of low value to those organisations in reaction mode trying to cut costs, these roles will be paramount in leading businesses into potentially new territory around how customers will now want to engage and meeting their expectation going forward.

A physical presence will likely be required for some time yet and realistically there are operations that require presenteeism for many businesses, but a shift to enabling an online experience from several fronts must be considered as part of a longer-term strategy.

A change in customer behaviour, albeit forced by current circumstance, is evident. Click to chat channels for instance and none call centre related means to communicate with brands have been more heavily utilised due to limitations on capacity from businesses who cannot meet demand with a remote workforce during this time. Now is the time to listen, understand and build experiences that allows customers and consumers to have access to what they need. The answer to how to pivot your strategy and how much should be online is right there in that data. Look at the job to be done and solve the customer problem.

Wrap up – Digital Darwinism is real

I have covered about 10% of what I feel will emerge in the not too distant future but I do feel a lot of businesses, by devaluing marketing and digital experience during this time, have left themselves ill equipped for the future. Customer is king and they will be making demands of your business and you need to be ready to serve.

For anyone who has read The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster you could start to look at extreme parallels to this proposed “new world” as those highlight is this book but I do not personally feel the changes will be that extreme although the enablement of this level of capability needs to be considered and is not beyond the realms of possibility should customers dictate this is what they want. Afterall if another Pandemic were to take away our social liberties again this would not be a bad strategy to map to, hopefully it will never come to that.

I appreciate it is difficult to adopt a growth mindset during these challenges but that is exactly what is required. Being customer led and understanding the expectation and the need will be key to businesses offering solutions to customers who want information and products available and accessible to them by a variety of channels.

Many businesses will be facing numerous challenges head on, some unprecedented, but those with a test, fail, adapt mindset can leverage insights and learnings that will lead to the right experience.

To quote my all time favourite Maya Angelou “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Words to live by.

This is Darwinism, and only the most adaptable will survive.

#covid19 #customerexperience #userexperience #digitisation #digitalservices #futureofdigital #ecommerce #gigeconomy #coronavirus #onlineretail

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