How to thrive in a digital economy from the experts themselves

Michal Bednarski

For business leaders 2020 was a year of radical disruption, rapid innovation, accelerated digital transformation and unthinkably swift organisational change – a year in which Covid crippled economies, up-ended businesses and invaded the home life of nearly everyone on the planet. The pandemic highlighted just how vulnerable our businesses could be, with everything from workforces to supply chains to entire industries left reeling from its impact – but it also spurred a much-needed adoption of digitised work practises in business, and highlighted the importance of solid digital leadership.
So, what does the recent acceleration in digital transformation and rise of remote ways of working mean for digital leaders? How have their roles shifted over the course of 2020? What new operational vulnerabilities are they tackling? And how technology can be used to combat the challenges going forward?

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To explore these questions, WIRED in partnership with Capita, convened some of the UK’s most inspiring digital leaders from the retail, healthcare, consumer IT, academic, professional services and energy sectors in a roundtable debate.
For these CIOs, CTOs, CEOs and CDOs one thing was abundantly clear, in spite of a diversity of mission and output, they are grappling with a surprisingly similar set of challenges and, amongst these, human and workforce vulnerability is very much front of mind.
The digital leader has a critical role to play in connecting distributed workforces in meaningful ways and, as 2021 will still have elevated levels of remote working still firmly in place, this will remain a fundamental driver of organisational success. Yet creating meaningful connections in a remote world, whether to drive innovation, build communities, develop culture or monitor wellbeing, is something that many businesses continue to struggle with.
So, how do digital leaders tackle the areas of human and workforce vulnerability that Covid has most exposed? It seems the solution here is rooted in both the personal and the technological. For digital leaders, successfully tackling workforce vulnerability will require elevated soft skills, new technologies and an understanding of where technology can and can’t be used to enable meaningful human connections.

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Shifting priorities for the digital leader
Several areas have become increasingly important over 2020 as remote working patterns have dialled up – and they will remain firmly on digital leaders’ radars as we move into the year ahead:
1. Prioritising “social care.” There was a broad consensus that business leaders need to recognise the demand for a step change in how employees are supported. The need for social care has never been more important, and more time and emphasis is needed here. The initial post-pandemic requirement to use technology to keep people engaged and find ways to minimise distraction has morphed into a much wider need to deploy technology in ways that can connect employees, manage overwork and monitor wellbeing.
2. Creating communities. The notion of using technology to connect workforces and create communities is one that offers benefits which extend well beyond social care and has become business critical. In addition to offering support channels to employees and their families, virtual communities have proven themselves as powerful ways in which to drive innovation and involve wider groups in decision making – something that, in turn, can engage more employees with business change initiatives and drive more resilient solutions.
3. Recognising the power of the individual. Alongside the need to create communities, leaders should not neglect the role of the individual in building workplace morale and helping businesses flourish at times of change. Within all organisations, there are certain individuals who have an amplified positive or negative impact on culture, morale and wellbeing. Identifying these people can offer significant organisational benefits. Mathematician and UCL academic, Hannah Fry, makes the point: “One thing about the pandemic that really has crystallised is that the role of the individual now is more important than ever”. As Margarete McGrath, Chief Digital Officer for Dell in the UK put it, “It is a time for allies. It is the time for tapping into those networkers in the organisation that might not be the most senior, but who have the most reach.”

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4. Supporting the innovation pipeline. On one level, innovation is an area that flourished during the pandemic. 2020 saw previously unthinkable levels of innovation within ridiculously short time frames – think the speed of creating new forms of ventilators or protective masks for health workers, or the overnight retooling of 3D printers to become mini-factories for health services worldwide, or the testing and deployment of a Covid vaccine which condensed a decade of activity into less than a year, across several different companies. Furthermore, the innovation process has been vastly more inclusive than the norm – Matthew Higham of Microsoft noted new joiners in their early careers have been more included in innovation than ever before.
However, while many big, innovative achievements exist, building and maintaining an innovative culture within a distributed workforce appears to be much harder. How can organisations continue to spark innovation through watercooler moments if the offices don’t refill? Side conversations on Zoom just don’t replicate the old-school, face-to-face and chance conversations of the past. For Caroline Hargrove of Babylon Health, that comes down to capturing the opportunistic exchange of ideas – something which drives very early stage innovation, but is much harder to achieve when people are fragmented.
5. Revisiting 2020’s ways of working. As we’ve seen, the early days of the pandemic saw businesses deliver projects at breakneck speed. These phenomenal achievements are things to be proud of. But they were also exhausting, and the ways of working required to deliver them are simply not sustainable. Leaders need to be open and transparent around achievements, challenges and ways of working, displaying intellectual humility around what has worked and what needs to be revisited. As Neil Butler, CTO of Track and Trace puts it: “It is time for leaders to move beyond the superhero mentality of 2020”. While this helped many leaders and their organisations through 2020, it’s not a replicable – or desirable – way of working for the years ahead. For Mark Lambert of Capita, that means an environment that puts the user first, and offers a seamless and frictionless digital experience wherever they are.
Harnessing technology to tackle vulnerabilities
So, where can organisations best use technology to support their workforce and deliver organisational success? The most obvious priority is to simply keep people fruitfully connected when they don’t have a central office. Crucially, technology can help to create social bonds between people who are missing daily contact, offering new ways of working together happily. As Expedia’s Chris Burgess illustrated, technology can be used to not only connect the workforce, but to support employees with remote living and working more broadly – something that was illustrated by several initiatives it had put in place to support working parents. Technology can also be used to foster innovation in remote environments, promote collaboration and identify vulnerabilities, for example in terms of at-risk consumers who may need additional support – something stressed by Raman Bhatia, COO of Ovo.
More complex is the increasing desire to use technology to monitor productivity remotely – often to prevent over-work and burn-out, an increasing concern for business leaders. It’s also to make sure that managers can still identify and respond to traditional warning signals, and genuinely assess answers to the most basic of human questions: are you alright? That bleeds into a monitoring of wellbeing, too – an area where AI use cases are starting to build up, but where some of the foundations may well be shaky, not least in facial monitoring to understand wellbeing.
Matthew Higham from Microsoft agrees: “You will never replace human connection. You can’t AI human connection. It’s just not possible, so stop trying.” That human element has an upside, though – it has fostered ever more ethical use cases. For example, Hilton Hotels reinvested money intended for monitoring staff social media into better skills training for managers. The aim is the same, to support people’s wellbeing, but a more sensible and, in this case, old fashioned approach was taken.
For a growing number of businesses the pandemic has also focused minds on the kind of technologies and apps that make sense for people working at home – or across hundreds or thousands of different locations, and not just well known brands like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Digital whiteboards have become commonplace. These include Miro, which helps people to digitally “brainstorm” together, in the absence of Post-it notes and a wall to stick things on. Jira – much like Trello – takes the Japanese kanban approach to project management, letting teams organise and speed up projects virtually with shared online “cards”.
Confluence has become one of the go-to apps for sharing documents and spaces to manage documents in. And Silicon Valley favourite, Slack, continues to be relied upon, even as it joins forces with Salesforce. More radically, some firms are even turning to holographic technology, including some of the apps from Holoxica – letting colleagues see information, pictures and videos in 3D form, rather than on a flat screen.
Where there still appears to be a gap is in apps and technologies that don’t just allow for collaboration or insight, but which can directly fuel innovation – perhaps through the use of AI predictive analytics, or better workflow management, given the shift of ideation to online spaces.
Maintaining a more collaborative approach
Another positive emerging from the pandemic is the way in which it has pushed organisations to collaborate. Internally, amongst different teams, but also externally between companies, governments or charities. Competitors have come together to work for the common good – most famously seen with Apple and Google collaborating on Covid alert tracking. For McGrath,, “It was only when the pandemic hit that we truly collaborated with other tech players”.
As the pandemic unfolded Richard Corbridge, CIO for Boots saw a groundswell of employees wanting to help out the UK’s health system – a movement that led to staff joining up with the NHS’ phone service 111 to help triage calls. This positive collaboration between the private and public sector saw priorities re-drawn. As Corbridge puts it, following the pandemic, businesses have developed a habit of asking two questions: “Who can we collaborate with, and how do we protect our business for competitive advantage? For the first time, these are being asked in that order and we really need to hold on to this.”
Deeper cross-organisational collaboration is critical if we are to rapidly develop new and more advanced digital skills, for example founding practical AI systems, or setting up and using remote virtual environments. While it does beg the question as to how this can be maintained beyond the pandemic, there are signs that a culture shift is underway.
The future is a hybrid creation
A final point of agreement from nearly all of the digital leaders we spoke to was the emergence of a new balance in the world of work. Most saw a hybrid future for the office as being here to stay – neither fully digital, nor all working alongside each other in the same building. Replicating “water cooler” moments is still the challenge – as much as people can use Miro or Jira or other apps to become better at collaboration, there is still the magic ingredient of serendipity, and the unplanned social contact of working alongside others. Yet accepting the benefits of a looser home-and-office model seems to have already happened.
That issue of finding a new equilibrium came out as a key lesson. In many ways the pandemic has forced us to pivot so far in one direction – online – that the immediate challenge in 2021 will be to see how much of the new culture remains as we start to emerge from our homes. From a fully digital shift, to a race back into offices and to the hybrid blend of both – taking the best of both worlds will be where the art of leadership now comes into play.

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As Mark Lambert of Capita said, “it’s all about getting the balance right. Maintaining pace and collaboration in a post pandemic world, despite the challenges of connecting teams when some people are remote and others are in the office. These challenges need active management but are completely surmountable, with mutually positive outcomes for the individual and organisation.”
Perhaps, above all else, the hybrid future needs to be both sustainable and positive. The ability to continue to work so fast, all the time, seems to be coming to a pause as the needs of people move more and more to the forefront of every business. Better social care in the workplace, finding a new balance between online and in-office working and managing the lumpiness of a hybrid workplace will be the next challenges to manage for every digital leader.
–For more information, visit Capita

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