Written by John Dathan,  Insight Canada SVP and GM

We’ve seen evolutionary changes in how companies do business in just a few months since the COVID-19 pandemic impacted everything. When stores and restaurants shut down, suddenly they needed to think about how to effectively reach customers virtually. Similarly, as businesses closed offices, a mad scramble ensued to ensure that employees remained productive from home.

Today, every organization is considering how to become more digitized and automated. These trends already were occurring before the coronavirus, but now they’ve escalated to the point that every business needs to be thinking like a technology company. The cloud, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, among other modern technologies, present unlimited ways to make workplaces smarter, more agile and even safer, especially now as governments reopen work and public places. 

My company recently surveyed 200 IT leaders across North America about the impacts of COVID-19 on business readiness, and our 2020 Insight Intelligent Technology Pulse report found that many enterprises rushed to cobble together solutions to enable remote work and maintain business continuity. More than half (54%) expressed feeling only “somewhat prepared” or worse to handle IT business changes due to the pandemic, and 76% experienced employee downtime of some kind while adapting IT systems and processes to new business models. 

While half of organizations expressed that developing or refining their business continuity plan was very or extremely challenging, according to our report, it stands to reason that there may still be obstacles to overcome for many. Thankfully, nearly two-thirds (65%) now feel extremely or very prepared to handle a similar crisis in the future. But are they really prepared to operate in today’s norm? 

Here are some things to consider when turning short-term IT fixes into long-term sustainability:

Scale costs to needs

In the rush to quickly enable a remote work plan a few months ago, many companies implemented solutions without the usual level of planning or architecture rigor. Now, with time to reflect upon lasting changes, we are seeing a desire to revisit those designs and optimize by addressing concerns such as: 

  • Is our network properly secured now that it’s remotely enabled on a broader scale? 
  • How can I maximize the benefit and full capability of our investments? 
  • How can I reduce our overall spend, particularly if a temporary solution was over-provisioned and needs to be scaled down as more employees eventually return to a normal work setting? 

Cloud economics will factor heavily into IT strategy, even more so than before the pandemic. Companies have experienced dramatic swings in their business fundamentals due to COVID-19, with some having to lay off thousands of workers. But once the demand returns, they will have to re-hire, and I believe companies will look to cloud strategies to enable them to rapidly scale back up or down on capacity and the corresponding costs.

Go more digital and automate

If they hadn’t done so before, most businesses whether healthcare, retail, grocery, business to business, etc. have been pushed into adopting an e-commerce or virtual customer engagement strategy. 

Investing in cognitive services, such as chatbots and virtual assistants, is one way to support customers and personalize their needs while reducing direct physical interaction. Similarly, robotic process automation can free employees from rote tasks so they can focus more directly on addressing customer needs. 

Traditionally remote tasks like field services also can be automated through IoT and drones, and some industries will particularly benefit from transitioning more fully to virtual engagements, like how telemedicine is turning mainstream.  

Prepare for permanent remote work

We’ve recently seen some of Canada’s most successful companies, like Shopify and OpenText, announce that the majority of their workers will permanently stay at home. My own company is taking a similar measured approach to returning teammates to the office, balancing both our business needs with their health and wellbeing. Flexibility is the key to coming to grips with maintaining productivity – and sustained worker happiness – in an increasingly hybrid environment that will see either more people staying at home or bouncing between digital and physical workspaces. 

When the pandemic arose, many initially deployed collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex for one feature like video conferencing as a utility to hold virtual meetings. Yet they’re failing to leverage the full capabilities of these tools. Often missing from remote work are those impromptu brainstorming sessions that come from physical meetings – they can be done virtually, too, but most people still don’t take advantage of virtual whiteboards, real-time collaboration on shared documents, group task management, etc. With new features being added all the time, maintaining virtual training on all of these capabilities is essential to realizing a full return on investment. 

There are also human considerations to address as remote work becomes a lasting norm and fatigue sets in. People have a tendency to work longer days, often without breaks or casual conversations with co-workers to break up the monotony of a workday. 

The promotion of a healthy work-life balance is more prevalent than ever as people blend their personal and work lives. It’s important for employers to manage expectations on what is asked of employees: trust is critical, flexible hours should be encouraged, as well as things like stretch breaks to walk the dog, take care of your child, or grab a cup of coffee.   

Get smart on going back to work

Not everyone will stay at home, and the workplace of the future is taking shape now, particularly as employers consider how to bring people back to a safe and sanitized environment. That starts with the right operational processes to ensure necessary precautions are in place, and intelligent technology can be an enabler of that as long as IT is working in lockstep with the rest of the business, particularly human resources, legal and operations. 

In fact, our survey on the impacts of COVID-19 found that 58% of enterprises intend to invest in smart personal hygiene devices, 36% in contactless sensors and 35% in infrared thermometers as ways to reopen their doors to workers. One-third plan to invest in an IoT ecosystem and data platform that features virus detection and prevention devices like these. 

At Insight, we are activating our own proprietary IoT platform at our largest facilities across North America, including our offices in Montreal and Edmonton. The solution includes thermal cameras to help detect elevated temperatures, optical cameras connected to machine-learning software for tracking facemask compliance and proper social distancing, and a mobile app for daily health self-assessments before teammates come to work. This same intelligent technology is being used in a Canadian-manufactured mobile virus testing center called Citizen Care Pod that’s making COVID-19 detection more accessible for work and public spaces. 

These examples show the growing roles that technology and IT now play in a post-pandemic business world. No one knows for sure what the future will hold, but what is clear is that companies need to be more agile, more digital and more automated than ever. 

Over the past few months, organizations went through the proverbial fire and were either refined by it or burned because they weren’t prepared to handle disruption. Regardless, COVID-19 has forced organizations to cut through a lot of red tape, and where the inevitable committees, debates, business cases and analysis were cast aside initially out of necessity, transformation has been accelerated by months or even years.

Now is the time to assess which of those short-term solutions work well or need to be tweaked for long-term sustainability. Once companies have the technology right, they can go back to focusing on what they do best. 

John Dathan, senior vice president and general manager of Insight Canada, helps organizations of all sizes implement intelligent technology solutions to manage today and transform the future.