We’ll bounce back from COVID-19, but let’s agree not to bounce back from digitalization

As I write this, the entire world is building their respective societies back up to pre-COVID-19. Vaccination programs, led by the pharmaceuticals and orchestrated by governments and NGOs, are finally giving us confidence that the global pandemic will be controlled. It may require a single global vaccination round or it may become a yearly requirement for a healthy and open society. Who can tell? Most importantly, we are bouncing back.

In the meantime, life has continued. While our national health-care heroes are doing their very best to limit human casualties, governments are trying their best to limit corporate casualties - especially those hit hardest by lock-downs. Industries like travel, leisure and major events saw their entire business evaporate. Other industries faced diminished incomes and increased pressure on internal operations due to employee sickness, and the sudden need to work remotely. No more quick walks to that colleague that can fix that credit approval issue, or a that chance encounter at the coffee machine that helps you close a problematic insurance claim. Working from home is an entirely different experience yet the need for efficiency, speed and agility remains.

I work with customers in the financial services and insurance industry (FS&I). In FS&I, we saw a perfect storm of lost revenue (late payments and defaults), increased work pressure (requests for financing through rough times) and of course the sudden need to work from home. In response to these issues, many of our FS&I clients accelerated their automation and digital transformation projects.

We and our clients witnessed the immediate benefits. Applying digitalization technologies like AI, RPA and blockchain reduced the cost per unit as fewer manual actions were required and had the added benefit of reducing the risk of mistakes or fraud. It also improved end-to-end processing time per unit and it allowed for more structured digital processing of files and documents. The created structure helped to minimize the impact of operational teams working remotely. Sure, technology is not a full replacement of good-old human efficiency, but we have to admit that automation can help organizations focus their people resources in the right areas and augment and improve operational efficiency. At least, automation can be transformational if we do it correctly. At Atos, we strongly believe that the new digital and distributed way of working imposed by the COVID-19 crisis is sustainable and can lead to better outcomes for companies that fully embrace the change. In that regard, the focus should not be “will we all work from home?” or “will we all come back to the office?”, but rather “how can we make work frictionless in every environment?”

In other words, we need to fully embrace digitalization as whole, unified companies. Starting with a renewed digital strategy that enables ‘frictionless working’. Most of the world is planning and assuming we’ll all be able to work in offices again after this summer of 2021. As was researched by McKinsey in November of 2020, many business leaders fully intend to maintain and leverage let the new tech-enabled work efficiencies to increase employee satisfaction and minimize location-based risks.

More freedom, more invention, faster progress, less strain on the environment and a definite competitive advantage for the early adopters. If there is a down-side, I don’t see it.

Personally, I am very curious to see if these business leaders will truly embrace the possibilities or revert to old more customary ways of working. I’d like to challenge all business leaders today – let’s not only keep the current COVID-19 investments, let’s push innovation to discover the optimal combination of human and technology that yields the highest efficiency! With new levels of awareness and acceptance, we could finally going to allow digitalization technology to fulfil its potential and transform the way we work.

 

Here are my predictions for the next two years:

• The new standard way of working will be a healthy mix of working in the office when needed and working from home when it’s possible. This would strongly improve employee’s work-life balance and have a drastic impact on carbon emission through traffic.

• A big improvement in the quality of work done by employees. Menial tasks will be automated allowing employees to focus on the higher quality tasks that can only be performed by humans – at least today! Imagine the innovation that could come from the freedom to think ahead and work on experimental and breakthrough projects that normally impossible due to resource limitations. I personally can’t wait to see what innovations develop from this mental freedom.

As Plato hinted, necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps the one benefit we can see coming from this pandemic is that we are more ready to embrace technology as an important component of our operations. Intelligent automation (AI and RPA), blockchain contracts (DLT), quantum computer power and other digitalization powerhouses. And who knows, maybe in a few years’ time we can look back at this ink-black page in human history and realize that it was an event horizon for humanity and transformed society into a more digital world, where personal freedom allowed us to grow beyond the current business paradigm of mandatory 40 hours work in an office.

If we can discuss working fewer than 40 hours per week, maybe we can even start to think about a system with needs-based income rather than the current pay-per-work system. Such a universal basic income would dramatically shift our global economy, but that’s a topic that deserves a dedicated blog.

So, business leaders, please accept this invitation to really transform the way we work. We all need it, in multiple ways. More freedom, more invention, faster progress, less strain on the environment and a definite competitive advantage for the early adopters. If there is a down-side, I don’t see it.

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About Ivo Luijendijk
Atos Group Industry Director Data Analytics and Emerging Technologies - Global Financial Services and member of the Scientific Community
Ivo is a business technologist with over 20 years of experience in bringing technology driven innovation into the business of his clients. His natural drive to understand and demystify complex topics is a constant in his career, where he helped clients make the changes they needed with the help of technological innovations as they emerge. After 15 years’ experience as a banking consulting, Ivo now drives business reinvention for the Atos global financial services clients. Ivo is a coauthor of the recently published Atos circular economy white paper found here.

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