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Job losses are currently at record highs, yet business continues in many sectors as remote teams are learning how to work together. Here is a look at three ways automation will help us navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic to our “next normal” — from cost cutting to returning to the workplace, and ultimately, to distributed teaming.

A Not So Perfect Storm, Revisited

Our current challenges are unprecedented. The pandemic is impacting our families, neighborhoods, schools, governments and businesses. We have seen the single worst job losses report in the US since the Great Depression with an unemployment rate of 14.7% and devastating impacts across retail, leisure, hospitality and ironically, healthcare.

Restoring jobs and our economy is a daunting and complex task. And we will perhaps never return to the normalcy we knew before.

First though, businesses will need to drive cost efficiencies.

There are lessons to be taken here from a previous time: the global economic turmoil of 2008. Consider McKinsey‘s executive economic survey conducted in November 2008, where results revealed the top two steps companies were taking to manage through the global economic turmoil were: 1) reduce operating costs and 2) increase productivity — in essence, battening down the hatches to weather the storm.

A decade ago, companies responded with automation to manage costs. Investments in business process management helped to drive efficiency efforts applying agile principles and implementing straight-through-processing for critical functions.

Digital automation technology investments have continued and increased over the past several years, with a focus on business performance improvements. According to the 2019 Gartner CEO and Senior Business Executive Survey, 85% of CFOs increased their investments in digital capabilities in 2019 as compared to 2018.

More importantly, organizations have increased their ability to deliver digital solutions quickly by selecting low-code approaches that include full stack automation: workflow automation, RPA and AI. According to Creatio CEO Katherine Kostereva, results from the implementation of a low-code platform “can be realized in a matter of days and weeks, not months and years, making them a more competitive solution in the fast-paced business world.”

Related Article: Business Process Management vs. Robotic Process Automation: How to Choose

Regaining Our Equilibrium at Work

In the wake of the great recession, business revived, and people returned to work — at times in new jobs and often in a workforce of humans beside humanoids. A year out from the crisis, McKinsey’s survey snapshot found that executives were now “managing in a new normal” with the original priorities now joined by a renewed focus on driving new product and service innovation and “ensuring organizations can respond nimbly and quickly to changing economic conditions.”

This time, digital solutions to automate and manage an efficient and safe return to the workplace will be critical to regaining equilibrium.

A recent CIODive article, "Planning a Return to the Office," looks at different approaches and tools, including low-code automation, that consider “waves of returns, alternate scheduling and continued closure of shared common spaces.” Low-code automation solutions can help by providing:

  • A unified command center to help HR manage the health and work status of the workforce in real time.
  • Fast, easy workforce screening to enable employees to securely submit and update personal health and risk data required by local law and by corporate policy. 
  • Support for phased return-to-workplace with return certifications by geography, team, role, personal health risk, workspace capacity or other factors.

Related Article: Is Low-Code Technology Right for You?

The Next Normal Is Distributed Teaming

Returning the world to the workplace will be a complex undertaking critical to our recovery. The pandemic has wiped out employment gains made since our decade-ago crisis, and we now face both a health and economic crisis impacting how we work.

At the same time, under the difficult circumstances, we have learned new skills … how to work as distributed teams.

As McKinsey puts it: “Imagine a crisis that forces your company’s employees to change the way they work almost overnight. Despite initial fears that the pressure would be too great, you discover that this new way of working could be a blueprint for the long term.” 

McKinsey cites one company that switched in February from an offline model to a 100% remote-working one. The company now plans to make a 30% online — 70% offline working model permanent.

Research from University of California Irvine professor Judith Olson found that the most successful remote work situations are those in which workers have similar work styles, know and like each other, have technology that allows them to collaborate, and know how to use that technology. While you might not be able to control all those variables, “now's the time to explore your digital options. That's how people will meet the expectations you set.”

Earlier this year, I wrote about "Why Case Management Needs to Be Part of Your Automation Plans." Case management has been contributing over the past decade to bring teams — human and now humanoid — together to accomplish work in an effective decision-making environment. The need has only escalated now to support both a return to the workplace with exception management and incident response, as well as continued distributed work across teams that provides visibility, scheduling and assignments, and digital collaboration.

Related Article: Has Digital Transformation Left Your Business Continuity Plans Behind?

Quickly Adapting for the Future

McKinsey’s "Digital strategy in time of crisis" found that “Businesses that once mapped digital strategy in one- to three-year phases must now scale their initiatives in a matter of days or weeks.”  

Process automation techniques and tools are as fit for purpose now as they were a decade ago. But a decade ago it might have been problematic to achieve the speed and flexibility with the available automation tools. Especially for a newly distributed and collaborative workforce. Not so today.

We have a difficult road ahead. But in many ways have already proven we can do this. Now we need to show we can sustain it through to our next normal.