The dynamic environment fueled by the COVID-19 crisis caused many leaders to review and overhaul their business strategy. They were forced to re-evaluate their mission and goals, the evolving needs of their employees and how they'd get work done through a newly remote and distributed workforce.

Many businesses made immediate changes to normal operations when the COVID-19 crisis hit, and more than a few have decided they're never going back. They've become used to daily rather than monthly planning cycles and are engaging with customers and employees in new and dynamic ways. A resilient digital workplace strategy will play a central role in their success or failure.

Distinct from sustainment, which is often focused on keeping the lights on during a tough time, resilience is the ability to not just survive but rather thrive amidst disruption. A resilient digital workplace strategy helps a business attract talent, increases workplace efficiency and employee productivity, and facilitates revenue growth.

Resilience Goes Beyond Continuity

Enterprise businesses typically have a plan for troubled times. A disaster recovery plan spells out how a business will recover critical infrastructure following a natural disaster such as a flood or hurricane, while a business continuity plan guides how a business maintains operation during a crisis.

Business resilience takes it a step further. A resilience plan is aimed at helping a business not just remain in operation but actually adapt and remain profitable. It’s a proactive plan that seeks to avoid the ramifications of a disaster rather than recover from one.

Creating a digital workplace strategy to boost resilience requires leaders to identify and prioritize business risks and have a plan to minimize or eliminate the negative repercussions associated with those risks. Businesses that were proactive in creating an adaptive digital workplace strategy were affected far less by the COVID-19 pandemic. The specifics will vary but the mission remains the same.

"Every company is different so organizations must create tailored approaches to determine the optimum digital workplace strategy for their specific business needs and cultures," said Sarah Pope, vice president of digital workplace and future of technology for Capgemini Invent. "However, the fundamentals of designing a digital workplace strategy are always the same — to ensure employees can continue to create, collaborate and communicate easily."

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Employees Come First

The emphasis many businesses put on technology in digital workplace strategy often comes at the expense of the people who use that technology. “The human side of a digital workplace is just as important," Pope said. "Leaders need to be conscious of employees’ emotional well-being and personal circumstances."

A successful and resilient digital workplace strategy revolves around people, and not just the tools, intranets and apps they use, said Tim Stahl, vice president of design and strategy at Rightpoint, a global experience company. It supports the workforce with experiences based on the entirety of their employee journey.

"You need to know your employees — their preferences, expectations, tolerances to change and most of all how the experiences you implement will empower them to be their best selves wherever they may call ‘the office’ today and into the future," he said.

Related Article: Digital Workplace Success Isn't About the Tools, It's About Employee Value

Provide Ongoing Reskilling and Upskilling

Empathy should be a guiding factor but resilience also comes from an agile and motivated workforce that is continually learning new skills, advancing in the company and taking on new challenges. By providing ongoing learning and offering reskilling and upskilling initiatives, a business is more prepared to deal with any eventualities that come its way.

“While managers need to lead with empathy, they also need to ensure they are connected to their employees in a way that supports and pushes their growth, focusing on career development and skills education to ensure they are growing within an ever-changing environment,” Stahl said.

By continually looking forward, businesses are proactively ensuring their survival and growth. "Employee strategies and learning and development programs need to prepare employees for jobs that currently don’t exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve customer problems we don’t yet know are problems," Stahl said.

Reskilling refers to learning initiatives that teach employees new skills that prepare them for different roles in a business. Employers typically do this when they are looking to transition an employee to a new position. A reskilling initiative accommodates regular transitions as well as those that occur during upheaval and crisis.

Upskilling, on the other hand, is a learning initiative that improves employees' existing skill set and adds to their capabilities and knowledge. Businesses upskill employees to give them additional or higher level responsibilities and prepare them to take on roles that may be needed during a crisis or disaster.

By continually evaluating the abilities and skillsets of employees, a business can future-proof itself and continue to operate and thrive even as it changes operational goals and procedures. It also makes it ready to transition to new business models in response to the needs of customers.

Business leaders recognized the value of reskilling and upskilling during the current COVID-19 crisis. According to a report from TalentLMS, 42% of businesses increased their upskilling and reskilling efforts after the outbreak began. The benefits are far reaching: 91% of businesses and 81% of employees surveyed said the training they received increased their productivity at work.

"Employees are key to your business success, so it is always important to foster a culture of learning and skill development," Pope said. "A move to a digital workplace may create some fear and unknowns about individual roles and expectations but if the predominant message being shared is clarity on objectives and supporting employees to continually generate excitement about learning, naturally there will be fewer gaps in digital skills.”

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Institute a Work from Home Policy

Work from home, or WFH, policies were part of the digital workplace strategy of many businesses long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the world began shutting down due to the lockdown restrictions, WFH became part of the new normal and industries were forced to immediately switch from in-office workers to a remote and distributed workplace. As a result, many businesses scrambled to come up with a plan, adopting new ways of working and learning from their mistakes as they implemented that plan.

Learning Opportunities

A clear work from home policy helps organizations define which teams are eligible to work from home, the process for requesting work from home privileges and the infrastructure needed to support it, said Alexandra Zelenko, digital strategist at DDI Development, a digital solutions company.

Zelenko said her company's WFH policy ensures that all employees understand what is required of them and addresses business resilience. "Not only does it help us clarify employee and manager responsibilities in any difficult situation, but we also managed to limit the risks,” she said.

Those businesses that were already employing remote workers before the COVID-19 crisis had an advantage, as it was business as usual for them. Others that had a portion of their workforce working remotely had to adjust to a 100% remote workforce, which brought challenges.

Communication and collaboration tools are often cumbersome and tedious and workers can feel isolated and lonely. Workplace culture is affected, virtual meetings take on greater importance, and getting the job done, rather than counting the hours spent in front of the computer, is paramount. Additionally, many employees are now accompanied by their children who themselves are displaced from their normal school routine. 

A poor choice of communication and collaboration tools can shatter the ability of remote workers to effectively perform their duties. A crisis is not the time to find out that communication and collaboration tools are inefficient. Businesses should nail down their technology stack before a problem arises, test it routinely, listen to feedback and make adjustments until employees can communicate and collaborate easily and effectively.

Even then, it's not enough. Employees need to be trained how to use the tools provided to them, Pope said. “There are a wealth of tools available today for communication and collaboration but to be effective, organizations need to ensure employees know how and when to properly use the tools their organization has implemented,” she said.

Leaders have to change, too. With the new relevance of the remote and distributed workplace, leaders have begun to recognize that a new way of thinking is required.

“As organizations embrace remote working, a new management framework is a must to handle the new digital workplace and foster collaboration, creativity and productivity," Pope said. "Leaders need to focus on promoting a culture of autonomy and accountability."

All of these issues should be covered by the WFH policy. Having a policy that covers flexible hours, communication and collaboration methodologies and protocols, security requirements and what is expected from remote workers takes the guesswork out of a stressful period of change.

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Invest in Diversity and Inclusion

Effective leaders recognize that employing people from diverse backgrounds gives a business more opportunities for innovation and creates more resilience. Diversity brings greater creativity, flexibility, versatility and productivity alongside a broader set of skills, wider range of cultural insights and greater level of employee engagement.

A report from Great Place to Work showed that during the recession of 2008 publicly traded companies with highly inclusive workforces gained a return on their stocks that was four times greater than the S&P 500. The report also indicated that businesses that employ a diverse workforce grew revenue three times more than non-diverse businesses.

Diversity also enhances team decision-making skills. A report from Cloverpop showed that all-male teams were able to make better decisions than individuals 58% of the time. But when the team included three or more diverse employees, their performance was even higher, outperforming individuals up to 87% of the time. The report also showed that diverse teams make decisions twice as quickly.

Those statistics indicate a diverse workforce is more resilient during crisis and is better able to adapt without disruption or loss of operational capacity. The workforce has a broader knowledge base that helps them deal with unexpected issues and remain operational in rapidly changing environments.

The COVID-19 crisis underscored what successful leaders have long understood. Business resilience is vital in a dynamic environment. By building resilience into digital workplace strategy, a business can proactively increase its ability to remain operational during a crisis while retaining and even increasing its ability to profit.