Last reviewed 9 November 2020

Many companies have made technology advances in recent months that normally take years. As the health crisis continues, practical health and safety innovations plus tech-based management systems are protecting both employee and employer business interests. Jon Herbert reports.

This first of two features considers the new strategic importance of tech in general, why Covid-19 has made digital solutions an indispensable part of business life, and how companies can learn from the experience of others in making an effective transition now and into the future.

A second follow-up feature will look at the wide range of both standalone and integrated systems now available.

The coronavirus has changed many things. Technology, digital and online strategies are no exception. One of 2020’s major surprises has been how quickly new technology has risen up the corporate priority list and how permanent it is set to become.

With necessity now the parent of survival, organisations of all sizes have discovered ― often to their surprise ― that they can reconfigure old offline business models at an amazing speed. With the tech genie out of the bottle, this accelerating pace is likely to continue and expand.

For many firms, this involves unexpectedly deep-rooted changes. However, a growing range of tech-based products and services can help to improve both Covid-19 health and safety and key business and cost efficiencies at a time of uncertainty, greater competitiveness and market instability.

Quickening pace of change

Change is now a way of life for the foreseeable future with basic business functions ― including occupational health and safety ― upgraded and revised for a very different workplace environment.

Just as the 2008 financial crisis made redesigning risk models crucial, coronavirus impacts are expected to do the same, with new much faster remote ways of working with clients, suppliers and colleagues in the modern interconnected cyber world. Being able to support employees marooned at home almost overnight, plus customers anxious to communicate and continue trading online, has been a steep learning curve and cathartic experience.

Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, made the point as the crisis first began to take a hold that two years’ worth of digital transformation had taken place in just two months.

Even without the luxury of time, the tech sector is reported to be growing at a pace six times faster than the rest of the economy, with predictions that some 50% of the UK’s economy will be driven by digital, tech and creative industries by 2030.

Another potential tech advantage is its flexibility and agility to cope with what will almost certainly be an unpredictable and erratic recovery when past data is either unreliable or meaningless.

Healthy change

The challenge is often knowing how to be in a position to make the most of opportunities that were perhaps side-lined in the past but are now unavoidable for very different reasons.

The NHS is an obvious topical example. Before the current pandemic, digital technology was already moving centre stage. Since the start of 2020, tech in hospital settings has quickly been adopted as an effective tool to free up vital space and treatment capacity, make remote working possible for some staff members and reduce infection transmission risks.

The public ― as customers ― have been equally keen to register for the NHS App, NHS login and e-prescription services.

Who else has been making the running?

Banks have also been quick to make their services and sales teams remote while reaching out to their customers with digital services. Supermarkets have made online ordering and deliveries primary business. Many schools have moved to online learning and digital classrooms. Doctors now routinely liaise with and diagnose their patients via telemedicine.

Meanwhile, manufacturers are developing “lights out” factories and supply chain facilities that can function without humans being present.

But while smaller firms may share these productivity ambitions, their path to digitalisation is often less clear if they lack the finance or expertise to determine how new technologies could help to drive forward innovation and productivity. Specialist help may be needed.

Online training

One further challenge employers face is training staff who are no longer office or site-based. Here, remote and flexible learning channels are likely to be the norm.

There is some evidence that the UK is perhaps currently not able to supply the skills demand needed to fulfil transformative projects. Recent data suggests that more than half of companies feel that a shortage of software engineers could be holding back their businesses and a recovery.

There are two options. The first is competing for the required skills in the marketplace; the second is developing new skills in the current workforce.

Fortunately, there seems to be an appetite for online or on-demand learning from increasingly tech-literate employees. The nature of tech itself is also changing fundamentally with the uptake of rapidly evolving technologies breaching many isolated traditional industrial silos.

Tech tipping point

An October 2020 global survey of executives carried out by management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company confirmed the long-term trend in digital technology adoption and highlighted an earlier-than-expected tipping point that is likely to transform business forever.

The survey found that companies have accelerated their digitalisation of customer and supply-chain interactions and internal operations by three to four years. Furthermore, the proportion of digital, or digitally enabled, products in the average sales portfolio has moved ahead by an even more profound seven years, with companies acting 20–25 times faster than expected.

There are instances where remote working staff support projects, which conventionally might have involved a year-long timeframe, were up and running in an average of 11 days.

Investments

Having put temporary solutions into practice swiftly, nearly all executives contacted by the survey were, firstly, surprised by how rapidly their organisations had been able to make key changes, secondly, anticipated the changes being long-lasting, and thirdly, were already making targeted investments to make them permanent.

In fact, funding for digital innovation has increased more than for any other priority category. Technology is now seen to be of strategic importance to competitiveness in the new business and economic environment, and not just a source of cost efficiencies.

Moving forward

McKinsey suggests four priorities for companies to make the most of digitisation.

  1. Refocus and accelerate digital investments.

  2. Consider the use of new data and AI to improve business operations.

  3. Modernise technology capabilities selectively to raise the pace of change.

  4. Simultaneously increase organisational agility to deliver projects successfully.

Conclusion

As part of their response to the coronavirus pandemic, many companies have been turning to tech, digital and online technology solutions that can improve workforce safety while opening new channels of communication and business with customers, suppliers and work colleagues.

They have also been achieving this in record times, compressing previously low priority projects that might previously have taken months or years to implement into weeks and days to not only survive but also thrive in a new competitive, uncertain environment.

This trend is almost certain to continue. However, it means management teams are often having to design and commission systems with limited tech knowledge. Companies will need to call on expert help. Skills training is therefore an important consideration.