It’s an interesting time to be a CTO. All of us, and our organizations, are starting to settle into a very different world than the one we knew before COVID-19. Those responsible for developing, building, maintaining, and evolving technology face a raft of challenges.
Working from home is quickly becoming the new normal. Dispersed employees need new kinds of support and tools to collaborate and work together effectively. While it feels like we’re spending much of our day on video conferences, the more capable, purpose-built tools we need don’t even yet exist. Meanwhile, new business technologies continue to emerge rapidly, and smart organizations must embrace them urgently.
It was challenging enough before the crisis to take full advantage of new technologies like 5G wireless, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and augmented and virtual reality. With technical staff now dispersed and working remotely, organizations will face new challenges to onboard and implement the new technologies, tools and support structures needed to keep business moving.
Here are three key ways the corporate landscape for tech and skills will change in the aftermath of COVID-19.
1. Tech will evolve even faster
A portfolio of critical and interrelated new technologies are evolving at warp speed. Here are several:
- Cloud computing: Moving closer to the edge to accommodate the speed and latency of 5G, and infrastructure architectures must adapt.
- Data analytics: Understanding and manipulating data won’t be confined to programmers and IT analysts. It must be embraced by employees across the enterprise. How can we embed it into every sort of decision-making?
- Artificial intelligence: Expertise in AI is now table stakes for business success, but many organizations remain behind. Without it, organizations can’t benefit from the 5G and IoT data explosion.
- AR and VR: Its development will surely accelerate, as pressure grows for tools and “contactless” applications that accommodate health concerns for both consumers and workers.
- 5G wireless: The biggest single new change in the landscape. Now it will develop faster, as organizations take every means to increase their resilience, and to make work more boundary-less.
- ·Internet of Things: Capabilities are emerging everywhere, accelerated by 5G.
2. Employees must work in new ways, and learn new skills
How are your employees going to keep up, so you can accelerate your own embrace of these new tools? A central challenge for companies is that physical proximity matters, but now people are working dispersed. Ideation and knowledge-sharing happens informally as people stand around the water cooler–‘What are you working on?’ ‘What is this new technology?’ Now people must more actively seek out the insights and tips they got in person before the pandemic.
Historically companies worked in a simple manner – all employees reported to an office or any other workplace and did most of the work. Employees had the complete context around the work. Over the last decade, we saw the rise of the gig economy where you could carve out some work and flip it over to an unknown person in the crowd with no context. What may emerge now is a mix of both –employees who work as in a crowd much of the time. They will visit the workplace sometimes, and work from anywhere the rest of the time.
But this requires significant changes both for the employer and the employee.
Employees need to be more flexibly aligned. In many companies, employees develop deep roots with the teams or department they belong to. This does have advantages in a traditional office set up, but not so much when they are working remotely and connected digitally. In a digital world, you can be two places at the same time: working on an assignment for the New York team this week and then working for the Boston team next week.
When you look at this mode at a company-wide level, at the level of productivity for the company and opportunities for an employee, both are significantly higher. However, this is both a process change and a cultural change where you do not have a dedicated supervisor of employees.
Automation becomes key. The above scenario can become chaotic if there are not strong systems for discovering, assigning and mentoring work across the workforce at a more granular level than what exists today. Work assignments and monitoring within a project on a daily or weekly basis is largely manual in most companies currently, and at best involves time sheets and weekly reports. It is necessary to bring in not only more data and dashboards but also more analytics and intelligence to manage it all effectively.
Bonding matters. What really leads teams to work effectively together? At Wipro, we learned an important lesson not long ago. A dozen engineers were working on a big project for a client. But the client was unhappy, there was churn on the team, and we weren’t meeting all our SLAs. We tried all kinds of fixes, but they didn’t work. So we completely changed out the team.
After a quarter or two, the client became very happy. It turned out the younger team had all gone to the same college. If anybody had a problem, several of the others gave moral or technical support. It was really a team, not a bunch of individuals. We realized anew how important it can be for people to be emotionally connected to each other. This is one example showing people need to come to the workplace occasionally – one or two days weekly or fortnightly, with the focus on team meetings and interactions.
3. We need new tools to support the new ways of working
People need to think and behave and learn differently, but we also need to offer them new tools to collaborate better virtually. We need software and infrastructures to help echo the serendipity and spontaneity of the workplace.
Collaborative technologies: Networks, tools, and platforms to enable collaboration are still today mostly elementary. Happily, I’m sure they will evolve. Slack is a good example. It gives us excellent chat-like communication in the workplace. But today it’s still mostly non-visual. We need tools that engage all our senses, even when we’re working remotely. The informality of Slack was initially highly attractive, compared to the formality of email. But the sessions we schedule with today’s video tools like Zoom or Webex or Teams still feel like very formal meetings. We set them up in our calendars. They are not a replica for water cooler talks or going out for drinks after work.
We may need some kind of hybrid software platform to bring GitHub-like collaboration to every workplace, combined with Zoom-like video conferencing, but all of it effortlessly integrated into our workspaces.
Better connectivity: Everybody is going to need better wireless and wired networks. We’ll need it for collaboration, for training, and for just about everything we do. We need more bandwidth, lower latency, greater reliability, and the ability to slice the network into different signals based on various kinds of priorities. A surgery needs preference over a group chat, for example. Voila! That is what 5G offers! We just need it to happen faster.
This lockdown will not continue indefinitely. We certainly hope the worst of the COVID-19 virus will pass in the next few months. But this won’t be the last crisis. In the future it may be another virus, the political fallout from this one, or a whole different sort of business continuity and workplace challenge.
Every organization has the responsibility to change so if a situation like this one repeats itself, it doesn’t find itself in disarray. We all have to redesign our processes to presume disruption in the future. It is understandable that so many organizations didn’t know how to respond to COVID-19. But next time, if you cannot respond, it will be unpardonable.