The global pandemic has forced businesses to speed up their digital transformation, in many cases completing in weeks what may have in the past taken months or even years.

The reality is that digital transformation is not just a nice to have anymore, it has become a priority for SA businesses that want to emerge stronger from the disruption of Covid-19. In the midst of this economic and health crisis many organisations are grappling with how to better meet the needs of their customers. Even for large organisations this need to transform has hit them hard. Recently we have seen businesses that thrived pre-Covid-19 go into business rescue, and large organisations that had operated in SA for over 30 years close down in just two weeks.

Many businesses have seen these drastic changes and are looking for ways to digitally reinvent themselves. In fact, according to our research six in 10 organisations have accelerated their digital transformation during the pandemic, and two thirds have completed technology initiatives that had previously encountered resistance. Now more than ever they are betting on their future with an aggressive digital transformation strategy with hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) at the core.

If there is anything the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us it is the critical importance of technology solutions that enable speed, flexibility, insight and innovation. Executives are now planning for Covid-19 recovery to include investment in technologies such as AI, the Internet of Things, blockchain and cloud. The benefits long extolled by technophiles have become more broadly embraced across organisational leadership.

In fact, choosing which technology platforms power the business is now seen as the most consequential decision any business can make. This sense of urgency needs to carry over to any company’s most valuable assets — its people — as the users of that technology. To stack the deck for success, organisations need to be sure their people are as capable, resilient and adaptable as their technologies for the long term.

Our research on Covid-19 and the future of business entailed surveying 172 C-suite executives across SA. We found that even as companies have rushed to adopt the technologies necessary not only to survive but to thrive as business enterprises, too many of their employees feel stressed and even overwhelmed. Executives recognise the problem: they report employee burnout, inadequate skills and organisational complexity as their biggest hurdles to progress today and in the next two years.

It’s one thing to nimbly retool and modernise the workplace. It’s quite another proposition to expect workers to quickly adjust to the upheaval in their lives and livelihoods.

Many South Africans believe we’ll experience a major, sustained economic downturn over the next year or more and are preparing for permanent changes due to the pandemic and fears about future outbreaks as we come out of a second wave of Covid-19 and anticipate a third hitting later in the year.

Too many everyday people feel the pandemic has affected their mental health and well-being. And they don’t think their bosses are doing enough to help them navigate these challenges. Our executive survey indicated that these workers are right: there is a gaping chasm between what executives think they are offering their employees and how those employees feel.

Executives recognise that their employees have been under intense pressure, and they contend that employee well-being is among their highest priorities. While workforce safety, skills and flexibility are important, employee satisfaction has been deprioritised.

Executives recognise that their employees have been under intense pressure, and they contend that employee well-being is among their highest priorities, but many overestimate the effectiveness of their support and training efforts. Only about half of employees say they believe their employer is genuinely concerned about their welfare. Clearly there is a huge opportunity for leaders who can get this right when most others seem to be struggling.

Many employees are being asked to innovate amid challenges of a kind they’ve never seen before, as the move to remote work undermines the personal connections that help define many corporate cultures. The quality and reliability of work-from-home tools may lag significantly behind people’s needs.

Since the beginning of 2020 executive priorities have been fluid, and they’ve reshuffled again the last few months. Executives expect to place more emphasis on internal and operational capabilities over the next two years, such as increasing prioritisation of workforce safety, skills and flexibility.

That’s good news, because now more than ever executives need to focus on two critical areas on behalf of their people: processes and technology tuned to empower the people who use them, and empathetic, transparent leadership. Leaders need to listen closely to what workers need in terms of digital tools to be productive and serve customers well in this environment — and actually provide them. 

Commitment to business agility, AI, data & analytics and other emerging technologies has grown. Accelerated investment is coming in digital tech, transformation, and cloud adoption.

And then there’s the personal element. Many employees are trying to oversee their children’s education at home because many schools are still closed or operating virtually. These employees in particular need flexibility and support to stay engaged and productive while also dealing with the larger social disruption that has forced many of them, particularly women, to take on two full-time jobs simultaneously.

There is no going back to what used to pass as normal. A flexible organisation that can transform itself quickly during the next crisis requires building trust and confidence among employees. How they are treated now will have an outsize effect on perceptions and value in the future. 

• Ratshefola is country GM for IBM Southern Africa.


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