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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, companies faced an unprecedented series of shocks. Leaders scrambled to scrutinize everything from how and where employees worked, to how they engaged with customers, to which products and services were viable.

As the pandemic progressed, digital touchpoints with customers, employees and suppliers were essential survival tools. Businesses with deft, data-driven capabilities had a head start; it was clear that organizations with data mastery at their core were best able to pivot, adapt and reinvent themselves on the fly.

We believe that the future-forward script for businesses has crystallized: Flexible, data-intensive and digitally oriented ways of working will be indispensable for weathering a potential global mega-recession. As the virus recedes, savvy businesses will scrap traditional ways of working, reset their workforce and double down on technology investments.

We’ve long studied the long-term business implications of our expanding digital world. As the pandemic took hold, we extended our research to assess how the crisis impacted the strategic calculus at organizations worldwide. (For a deeper look at this research, including its methodology, see our white paper, “The Work Ahead: The End of Work as We Knew It.”)

Our “Work Ahead” research series, due later this year, will interpret those findings. In this preview, we’ve analyzed interim findings to define five key takeaways for how to best prepare for the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.

1    Employee needs take center stage

When asked how the pandemic would impact their business and workforce over time, leaders said they will prioritize employee welfare and safety. Greater recognition for employees is job one. Leaders will value and pay their frontline workers more as a result of the virus (58%), and will prioritize workforce safety (57%). The prospect of reopening any business depends on guaranteeing worker health and well-being.

What it means: While employee compensation and safety are understandably top of mind right now, these priorities may fade over time as new economic and labor dynamics shape workforce strategies. Designing new compensation models when millions of workers have faced layoffs, furloughs or other uncertain employment futures will prove daunting.

Our study reflects respondents’ sense of a moral imperative to better value workers on the front line, but there’s also the economic imperative to survive. What organizations can do is ensure that the workplace inspires trust and confidence for the workforce that occupies it. Real-time sensors, for example, can yield data insights that ensure safe conditions, such as ventilation rates and occupancy restrictions protecting the health and well-being of employees.

2    The WFH boom is a temporary blip

Surprisingly, only 26% of respondents expect employees to spend more time working from home in the aftermath of the virus. Beyond a clutch of industry outliers, most leaders, it seems, still want the workforce physically co-located. At the same time, respondents also revealed greater openness to allowing employees to work from home as a result of the pandemic, with many leaders expecting to adjust HR policies to account for more remote work (43%).

What it means: Having employees onsite in the office, factory or shop floor delivers benefits that long-term working at home cannot match. People like the camaraderie of working alongside one another, and conversations around the watercooler provide insights that hours of online meetings do not. Moreover, those at the start of their careers need mentoring and guidance on navigating company dynamics – discussions that might not be committed to an email but warrant a quick question with a nearby colleague.

  Digital, data-intensive ways of working will accelerate

Half of respondents expect accelerated adoption of data-intensive, digitally oriented processes and work tasks. Data, analytics and machine learning are set to be critical competencies for the successful business of the future. The influx of these technologies into enterprise process work will drive an unprecedented expansion in the need for highly skilled labor as organizations meld humans and robots into a cohesive workforce that enhances individual, personal and collective corporate productivity.

What it means: New relationships between people and machines will emerge as organizations look to harness the power of both together. The most significant performance improvements will be realized when people and machines are brought together for their complementary strengths — the judgment, teamwork, creativity and social skills of the former, and the speed, scalability and quantitative capabilities of the latter.

Emerging human-to-machine workflows will demand robust people management processes, so that workers feel invigorated by these new tools and secure in their use. Organizations will need to reimagine tasks and restructure teams, ensuring that the current workforce has the hard (job-specific) and soft (communication) skills to thrive. New jobs will emerge that require a fundamental reexamination of how organizations develop, source and retain talent.

  Agile teams focus corporate firepower

Nearly half of respondents (49%) expect flexible and multidisciplinary teams to emerge as a lasting impact from the pandemic. In this work model, agile processes are executed by networks of teams, operating in a work culture characterized by flatter management styles and more autonomy. Rapid learning and short decision cycles are enabled by a strong IT foundation and a common purpose of co-creating value for stakeholders. For example, during the pandemic, we witnessed the rise of public-private alliances between governments, regulators, life sciences companies, healthcare providers, startups and scientists, all coalescing in an attempt to find effective treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

What it means: Agile organizations emulate the speed, dynamism and customer centricity that distinguish digitally native competitors that can pivot as quickly as customer needs do. These businesses empower teams to swarm around specific challenges. For example, instead of concentrating technology professionals in a centralized IT department, leaders will embed software designers and engineers in independent teams, where they can be quickly deployed on high-priority goals.

Expect to see multi-disciplinary teams emerge across functional departments. These teams will comprise a diverse mix of expertise drawn across functional boundaries: Product and marketing specialists will work alongside commercial experts, data scientists and user interface specialists on common strategic goals.

5    Industry disruption intensifies

Nearly half of respondents believe that supply chains will need to be reconfigured (49%), especially as the pandemic accelerates the destruction of many traditional, non-digital businesses (48%). As the virus progressed, supply disruption hit businesses across industries, adding to the challenge of responding to shifting customer behaviors.

Previously, digital alternatives existed; there just weren’t many incentives for businesses or customers to use them. The pandemic provided these incentives. Many COVID-19-inspired changes to consumer and business behaviors are expected to persist, disrupting conventional ways of working. For example, retailers had to rapidly innovate, quickly adopting “try-before-you-buy,” “pay later” and curbside pickup services as a result of the virus, even among new demographics such as senior citizens.

What it means: Supply chains built for cost efficiency rather than resilience were stretched to the breaking point as the virus started to shut down the world. Now, expect moves away from “just-in-time,” component-based manufacturing, for example, and significant shifts toward systems and processes that reinforce resilience (stockpiling, excess capacity, duplicated systems) rather than efficiency.

The way that consumers engage with and consume products and services has irrevocably changed as a result of the virus. In just a few painful weeks, elegant, secure and scalable online content with a plethora of digital touchpoints went from nice-to-have to essential for every consumer-facing industry. Linking digital and physical channels to identify, engage with and activate, consumers will be a necessary capability as businesses move forward.

For more information, read our white paper “The Work Ahead: The End of Work as We Knew It,” or visit the Center for the Future of Work.