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

The pandemic led many companies to invest large sums of money in state of the art technologies, but they failed to match their objectives with the vision of their employees.

 By  Behnam Tabrizi* © 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.
From HBR.org Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate Photos: Shutterstock

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, many companies’ long-term plans and strategies were thrown out the window, as everyone from the front-line workers to senior executives shifted into firefighting mode. Many worked around the clock by leveraging remote technology. Each day seemed to bring new challenges and obstacles to overcome. As a result, the past six months have felt more like six years for many of us.

This pace isn’t sustainable. While you may have needed your organization to run at 200 mph while you learned to adjust to the new realities of the pandemic, you’re now risking serious burnout among your team members. 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 COVID-19.

This is becoming a serious threat to organizations, including those that have already had to lay off staff or downsize. The paradox is that while many organizations have gained new efficiencies from embracing digital transformation — using technology 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.

That’s why it’s time to rethink your digital strategy in the context of people. It’s not just about adding new technologies like quantum computing or artificial intelligence, but how that tech will help your employees connect more effectively with their work. It’s also time to shift from the “here-and-now” and look toward the future, revisiting your long-term strategies. To get the most out of your technology investments, you need to pause and think more about how you can connect your people to the goals you hope to achieve with that technology.

I’m particularly interested in the impact of digital transformation and how organizations can leverage technology for growth. I’ve learned 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.

I’ve been researching how the model I developed in 2019 (the Brightline Transformation Framework, created in partnership with the Project Management Institute) can be applied to COVID-19 and its impact on organizational efforts to embrace digital transformation. This approach aligns the “inside-out” — which means aligning every employee’s most important personal aspiration with the “outside-in,” where employees understand and embrace the company’s strategic vision, so that everyone is working toward the same objectives.

The Company Transformation Framework

Outside-In Approach

Employees must first understand and embrace the company’s North Star, including customer insights and megatrends, so everyone is working toward the same objectives.

— The North Star: The company needs a crisp, inspiring expression of its vision and strategic objectives for the transformation.

— Customer insights and megatrends: It’s important to embed a deep understanding of the customer in every change you make, and in every employee. This includes the customer you may have today, the customer you want tomorrow, and the megatrends affecting them.

Inside-Out Approach

Aligning every employee’s purpose with those of the company includes:

The transformation operating system: The company should utilize a flat, adaptable, and cross-functional organizational structure that enables sustainable change.

Volunteer champions: Have a mechanism for recruiting volunteers to join cross-functional transformation teams to harness leaders from across your organization to drive transformation.

Inside-out employee transformation: To make the transformation personal for your employees, deploy a framework — a personal vision statement that helps identify each person’s strengths, evokes meaning, and uncovers what makes people happy. The ultimate goal is to connect their aspirations to the company’s North Star and your customers.

A Call to Action

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 important than other elements like technology or business processes.

For organizations to thrive in a post-COVID-19 world, while simultaneously tackling the challenges of burnout and the threat to employee retention, there is an urgent need to rethink two key areas:

1. Bring the Outside In

The pandemic 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. To help engage their team in adjusting to the new realities of the marketplace, leadership embarked on an “outside-in” transformation exercise that helped them identify their new North Star: the transformational goal that could help propel the company forward for the long run.

As CEO Brian Chesky framed it, the company’s 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 period of time.

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 company’s new North Star by creating personal/team vision statements that aligned with the greater goal. This helped create the “human connections” that so many people miss these days. The idea was to enlist employees’ help in rebuilding the business, gathering their feedback on how they could directly affect the company’s efforts to prosper again.

Making the Connection

COVID-19 has taught us how connected and integrated we all are with each other — and with the communities where we operate. It’s now time to give your employees the opportunity to understand how your organization’s North Star aligns with their desire to contribute to a meaningful cause. That’s how you get them to re-engage while recharging their emotional energy. 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, no matter how much you spend on technology.

*Behnam Tabrizi the managing director of Rapid Transformation, LLC.