Put Employees at the Center of Your Post-Pandemic Digital Strategy – Harvard Business Review

Executive Summary

Its time to rethink your digital strategy in the context of people. Its not just about adding new technologies like quantum computing, IoT, or AI, but how that tech will make your employees connect more effectively with their work. Its also time to shift from the here-and-now and look further out, revisiting your long-term strategies. To get the most out of your technology investments, you need to hit the pause button and think more about how you can connect your people to the goals you hope to achieve with that technology.

When the pandemic hit in March, many companies long-term plans and strategies were thrown out the window, as everyone from the frontlines to the C-suite shifted into fire-fighting mode. Many worked around the clock by leveraging remote technology. Its often been exhausting, as each day seems to bring new challenges and obstacles to overcome. As a result, the past six months have felt more like six years to a lot of us.

This pace isnt sustainable. While you may have needed your organization to run at 200 miles-per-hour as you learned to adjust to the new realities of the pandemic, youre now risking serious burnout among your team. Research shows that employees are reporting alarming levels of stress and fatigue, and the risk for depression among U.S. workers has risen by 102% as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is becoming a serious threat to organizations, including those who have already been forced to lay off staff or downsize. The paradox is that while many organizations have gained new efficiencies from embracing digital transformation using technologies such as Zoom to keep their workforce functioning remotely they may now risk losing their best employees, many of whom feel disconnected and disengaged in this new digital workplace. A recent survey from the consultancy KPMG found that losing talent is now the number one risk organizations face.

Thats why its time to rethink your digital strategy in the context of people. Its not just about adding new technologies like quantum computing, IoT, or AI, but how that tech will make your employees connect more effectively with their work. Its also time to shift from the here-and-now and look further out, revisiting your long-term strategies. To get the most out of your technology investments, you need to hit the pause button and think more about how you can connect your people to the goals you hope to achieve with that technology.

Over the course of my career, Ive studied more than 1,000 organizations and have coached more than 100 organizations that have undergone significant transformations. Over the past five years, Ive been particularly interested in the impact of DT and how organizations can leverage technology for growth. What Ive learned is that most digital transformation efforts fail often spectacularly which leads to hundreds of billions of dollars in wasted investment and the deterioration of employee engagement.

My mission has been to help coach organizations to achieve more positive outcomes through their digital transformation efforts. More recently, Ive been researching how the model I developed last year a transformation framework in partnership with the Project Management Institute (PMI), called The Brightline Transformation Framework can be applied to Covid-19 and its impact on organizational efforts to embrace digital transformation.

Specifically, this approach aligns the inside-out which means aligning every employees most important personal aspiration with the outside-in, where employees understand and embrace the companys strategic vision, so that everyone is working toward the same objectives.

Outside-In Approach. Employees must first understand and embrace the companys north star, including customer insights and megatrends, so everyone is working toward the same objectives.

Inside-Out Approach. Aligning every employees purpose or personal north star with those of the company includes:

Taking this approach is more relevant than ever in the wake of the pandemic, as it emphasizes that employees personal goals and engagement are the critical factors underpinning every successful transformation much more so than other elements like technology or business processes.

For organizations to thrive in a post-Covid world, while simultaneously tackling the challenges of burnout and the threat to employee retention, there is an urgent need to rethink these two key areas:

1. Bring the Outside In

The pandemic has changed the landscape of many industries ecosystems leading to an existential crisis for many organizations. Consider Airbnb, whose business suffered a loss of a billion dollars due to guest cancellations all while paying out some $250 million to compensate their hosts for their losses. The company now recognizes that nothing will ever be the same again. To help engage their team in adjusting to the new realities of the marketplace, the leadership team embarked on an outside-in transformation exercise that helped them identify their new north star; the transformational goal they wanted to achieve that could help propel the company forward for the long run.

As CEO Brian Chesky framed it, the companys new goal was to get back to our roots, back to the basics, back to what is truly special about Airbnb everyday people who host their homes and offer experiences. One of the trends Chesky and his team identified was that, as a result of the pandemic, there is a growing acceptance that people can now work from anywhere which could open up new opportunities to service customers interested in traveling and experiencing unique communities and cultures for an extended time. At the same time, the company has begun winding down activities that werent core to the business such as scaling back on investments in transports, hotels, and luxury properties.

2. Align Your Inside-Out with the Outside-In

Once Airbnb had established where it wanted to go, the company embarked on an inside-out journey with its employees helping them connect to the companys new north star by creating personal/team vision statements that aligned with the greater goal to help create the human connections that so many people miss these days. The idea was to enlist employees help in rebuilding the business, and to enlist their feedback on how they could directly impact the companys efforts to scale and prosper again.

Another Outside-In/Inside-Out transformation effort has been occurring at Kasikornbank (KBank), one of the largest banks in Thailand. [Disclosure: they are a client of mine.] The companys north star was not only to save jobs they kept all their workers during the pandemic but also to save their customers: small and medium-sized businesses. KBank and its employees worked closely with thousands of their clients to help them weather the storm by offering to delay their loan payments, as long as those businesses also avoided layoffs the kind of program usually only initiated by governments. Its estimated that KBanks efforts saved some 41,000 jobs, which gave their employees a sense of purpose, confidence, and loyalty as a result of their organization making such a positive difference to their country.

Covid-19 has taught us how connected and integrated we all are with each other and with the communities in which we operate. Its now time to give your employees the opportunity to understand how your organizations north star aligns with their desire to contribute to a meaningful cause. Thats how you get them to re-engage while recharging their emotional energy stores. The longer you wait to make these connections, the more your organization is at risk of losing the human capital it requires to thrive into the future, regardless of how much you spend on technology.

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Put Employees at the Center of Your Post-Pandemic Digital Strategy - Harvard Business Review

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