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COVID-19 Action Guide: Beyond the Great Lockdown

Emerging stronger to a different normal

This report supplements the COVID-19 Action Guide we released a few weeks ago. We will continue to update our assessments as conditions evolve. See our current collection of business research on this topic.

All around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away lives and jobs, damaged industries and enterprises, and turned the unimaginable into the usual.

All around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away lives and jobs, damaged industries and enterprises, and turned the unimaginable into the usual.

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This report supplements the COVID-19 Action Guide we released a few weeks ago. We will continue to update our assessments as conditions evolve. See our current collection of business research on this topic.
A return to normal, whenever it comes, will be a different normal. What we do right now will define the future, and yet making decisions and acting with assurance has never been more challenging.
But even though each day brings more uncertainties, there are definitive actions that can improve our resilience and strength. A framework that outlines a path forward, lending clarity amid the uncertainty, can make the difference between organizations that thrive and those that don’t.
It's time to prepare for a different normal. Focusing on seven business imperatives can help organizations build strategies to address new challenges that come in the wake of COVID-19.
This special report provides such a framework, organized around seven key imperatives that will be useful for any organization’s executive team. These seven areas are:
  • Empower a remote workforce
  • Engage customers virtually
  • Remote access to everything
  • Accelerate agility and efficiency
  • Protect against new cybersecurity risks
  • Reduce operational costs and enhance supply chain continuity
  • Support health providers and government services.
This guide is practical and actionable, offering a set of activities that should be addressed immediately, if they haven't been already. It also suggests longer-term consequences and persistent changes that COVID-19 has brought to industries, companies and individual habits. These changes require actions now to ensure companies adapt to what will be a new, different kind of normal.
There’s much to do and it will seem daunting. The entire executive team will need to be engaged. Our different normal will include new habits—organizational, social and cultural. Each leader will have a role to play in preparing the organization for a successful future. Let’s get to it.
Imperative #1: Empower a remote workforce
Suggested leadership assignment:Talent leaders and Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs)
Read time: 4 minutes
Among the many economic costs that COVID-19 has exacted, the workplace impacts have been among the most significant. The already-considerable challenges of human capital management in a typical work setting—leadership, workforce engagement, productivity, skills—have been moved into uncharted territory. The current global crisis is acting as an accelerant for massive, instantaneous change—the ways we work, how we communicate with each other and our teams, how we learn and innovate—all of these have been completely transformed in a matter of weeks.
The work of the CHRO has never been more important—or more difficult. Sustaining communication, collaboration, capabilities and culture in a virtual operating model is now the work of HR leaders around the globe. How are they shifting to a full “work-from-home” model that keeps the workforce engaged and productive, setting up virtual agents on the fly, keeping track of essential workers in the midst of a crisis, and standing up a robust online learning platform, all while simultaneously planning for re-entry and an unknown new normal?
One of the essential first steps must be addressing employee health and safety. New IBV research indicates that employees working from home are most concerned about their own and their families’ health. For many companies in crisis mode, this has meant shutting down offices and workplaces, rapidly identifying essential workers, and implementing remote work policies with the associated tools and technologies.
But empowering a healthy remote workforce goes beyond providing network-access tools and group-meeting software. Equipping employees to work productively outside a traditional office is also a cultural challenge. For example, how can leaders reflect the values of the company to employees working in their homes? How can teams be equipped to work together when physically separated? How are organizations communicating with the workforce globally and locally?
"Communication is key. Be aware that what leaders think they’re communicating isn’t always being perceived the way they intend."
Leaders who focus on building trust, flexibility and resilience into an adaptable workforce culture are helping their employees be the best versions of themselves—both physically and mentally—whether they are working face-to-face or screen-to-screen. At Citrix, the Chief People Officer has noted that increased public and targeted communications about both the known and unknown have helped instill a sense of calm among their workforce, enabling employees to stay focused and productive. Some organizations have turned to virtual assistants and chatbots to promote frequent and consistent messaging. Even before the current crisis, Siemens enabled an AI chatbot for its HR function called Carl that was answering one million employee queries a month. Virtual assistants can be set up quickly, making them an attractive option for many organizations at this time.
Communication is key. Be aware that what leaders think they’re communicating isn’t always being perceived the way they intend. Our research shows that 74 percent of executives say they are currently helping their employees learn to work in new ways, yet only a third of surveyed employees said the same: a 36-point gap. Clearly, we need to build feedback loops into all interactions.
Here are the near-term measures that talent leaders and CHROs should have in place now to help their remote teams be productive and engaged:
  • Digital channels and information services that provide employees with 24/7 information, and crisis-related answers to COVID-19 and workforce questions
  • Clear identification and authorization of essential employees
  • An assessment, with their general counsel, of any legal implications or liabilities associated with current or revised policies for their organization
  • Revised policies that specify remote-working expectations and flexible working arrangements with visible, clear support of employee mental health and family obligations
  • Safe passage letters for essential employees to allow them to travel to critical sites in the event of ongoing travel restrictions
  • Identification of outside service providers that could temporarily provide virtual skills and services to supplement staff who may be infected or need surge capacity to handle the extra load.
Next up for many companies is the move from crisis mode to a different normal, with the return to the workplace an inevitable hurdle to address on the way. An IBV survey of global executives currently in the field indicates that they expect to have two-and-a-half times more remote workers two years from now than they had prior to COVID-19. Thus, the vital longer-term focus for CHROs and the C-suite is building an organization that moves the workforce past crisis-neutral status toward becoming globally resilient and more able to predict crises in the future.
Talent leaders and CHROs should be developing a long-term plan spanning re-entry and remote work while we move toward a different normal.
Among the attributes of a future-focused enterprise:
  • Strategy and company policies that support remote and distributed work, with specific guidance and rules in place
  • A clear vision of how culture and management systems are expressed and balanced in a remote setting
  • A culture that applies the underlying principles of agility across all aspects of the business, enabled by strong digital communication methods, tools, and ways of working
  • Flexible design of both physical and digital workspaces, and workflows that encourage a collaborative culture, rapidly adaptable to change—and as effective in a remote, distributed manner as in a co-located environment
  • An accelerated online, personalized skills and development strategy for employees to adapt to new needs and reshaped business
  • A renewed vision of talent sourcing, and how work gets done in a remote environment where all resources are now equidistant and accessible digitally, such as job sharing, crowd-sourcing and distributed talent sourcing
  • An innovation mindset that takes the opportunity to step back and assess where work could be reimagined, refined, or rededicated.
"Communication is key. Be aware that what leaders think they’re communicating isn’t always being perceived the way they intend."
Imperative #2: Engage customers virtually
Suggested leadership assignment: Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs)
Read time: 3 minutes
In this pandemic, with its extreme social distancing requirements, customers have questions—many unique to this situation that haven’t been asked before. Service centers, government call-in lines, and healthcare providers have been swamped with massive call volumes. Though many of the questions have motivations in common, they invariably can’t be found in a typical FAQ on the website. And training a large group of service representatives to deliver accurate answers in a rapidly changing environment uncovers stresses in the current contact center model.
Exponential demand can be met by the exponential power of digital tools. Conversational AI needs to become pervasive, whether chatbots, virtual agents and other automated processes, which have been gradually making their way into business and government operations in recent years.
Back in 2018, Vodafone deployed a virtual agent called TOBi to supplement its human customer-service agents. Now, that same approach is being used to address COVID-19-fueled outreach to hospitals, health agencies, government services lines, and more.
"CMOs are realizing that sales and services practices have been indelibly altered. Customers aren’t likely to give up on speed-of-response that virtual engagement formats offer."
Given the resource efficiency and effectiveness of these tools and procedures, and the speed with which they can be embedded (virtual assistants can be stood up in a matter of hours, in some cases), they are likely to become core business tools in the post-crisis era. Indeed, 97 percent of executives say their organization will deploy more AI tools in the next two years than they had prior to COVID-19.
Here are virtual-engagement efforts that CMOs should already have in process:
  • Effective digital messaging on websites and apps that clearly communicates to customers
  • Shifting customer service representatives from call centers to work-from-home
  • Automation of high-volume requests, voice and chat virtual agents and cloud-based interactive voice response (IVR)
  • Deflecting from voice to messaging to improve response times, automation and agent efficiency
  • Measurement and testing mechanisms, to gather data on effectiveness and outcomes, and refine processes
  • Building, training and deploying conversational functionality into a wide a range of applications, devices and channels as possible.
Even as face-to-face interactions are reestablished, CMOs are realizing that sales and services practices have been indelibly altered. Customers aren’t likely to give up on speed-of-response that virtual engagement formats offer.
Virtual engagement with clients and partners will remain a core part of doing business even as we reestablish face-to-face interactions. Sales and services practices will be indelibly altered. Customers are becoming accustomed to the speed-of-response that virtual engagement formats provide. At the same time, businesses will want to generate differentiation in the digital space, creating real-time experiences that are authentic, relevant, and distinctive.
Here are the attributes CMOs should expect and work toward over the longer term:
  • Develop a center of excellence for virtual customer engagement that can be transitioned to core business post-crisis
  • Expand agent-at-home practices, even when in-office work restrictions are lifted
  • Explore next-generation contact centers “as a service”
  • Adopt messaging versus voice as a scalable, lower-cost service channel
  • Establish a digital self-service environment with relevant, timely communication that provides the value, data, and insights that customers need and want
  • Develop new digital business models, in response to re-shaped marketing and behaviors, as well as new cost structures and ecosystems
  • Accelerate the redesign and integration of customer digital experiences across the enterprise and create end-to-end virtual client journeys, with high specificity, individuality, brand personality, and satisfaction
  • Focus on data architecture and AI transformation to deliver new, integrated, and real-time personalized experiences
  • Leverage cloud-based commerce platforms augmented with AI, blockchain and other advanced technologies to execute a digital transformation
"CMOs are realizing that sales and services practices have been indelibly altered. Customers aren’t likely to give up on speed-of-response that virtual engagement formats offer."
Imperative #3: Enable remote access to everything
Suggested leadership assignment: Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) and Chief Information Officers (CIOs)
Read time: 3 minutes
When shelter-in-place orders were issued, uncomfortable questions arose for many businesses: Can we get everything we need, and do everything we need to do, from out-of-office locations? How do we transition—practically overnight—from our existing model to a virtualized one?
Fortunately, IBM, as a tech-at-its-core business, was already configured to operate in this way. But for many organizations it has been a “can-we-do-this?” situation. Business continuity plans have been put to the test, with often undesirable results.
What’s needed is a technical architecture and operational resiliency that offers maximum flexibility, and supports a virtual delivery model, which is highlighted in Imperative 4: Accelerate agility and efficiency.
As CTOs and CIOs press to adjust to the current reality, here’s what should be in place, at the most basic level:
  • An inventory of high-value assets, including application platforms, services, and datastores organized by availability and criticality
  • Updated roster of crisis roles and responsibilities, to enable rapid, iterative decisions
  • An effective 24/7 support capability for the IT operation, to facilitate remote workforce and partner operations
  • Distribution of mission-critical tools to varied locations and access points, including independent cloud instances
  • Robust platforms for remote work, including virtual private networks (VPNs) and cloud-based productivity apps
  • Back-up capabilities for critical services and tools, including remote work support for clients and customers
  • An ongoing process to assess and address logistical support gaps with customers, employees, partners, and community stakeholders
CTOs and CIOs need detailed business continuity plans that make the most of digital technologies to create operational resilience and flexibility.
"CTOs and CIOs need detailed business continuity plans that make the most of digital technologies to create operational resilience and flexibility."
To enhance IT resilience, some operations have added “burst capacity.” Many financial institutions, for instance, have faced surges in IT demand due to the massive volatility of transactions. So they have provisioned incremental mainframe capacity, to enable high-performance of transactional throughput. Other organizations, operating at or beyond their nominal capacity, have increased reliance on cloud platforms, which can bring added benefits of streamlining operations, lowering costs, and improving scalability and agility.
Adjusting quickly to current conditions, organizations can simultaneously position themselves for stronger competitiveness in the longer term. In fact, 84 percent of executives in our currently fielded surveys expect more customers to interact online more often in the future.
Here’s what should be included in CTO/CIO plans:
  • Business continuity planning has moved from a checkthe-box-practice to an essential strategic capability (and now a vital asset for the organization’s future wellbeing). Large business continuity plans should be broken into smaller sub-plans, tied to geographic sites and locations, which include end-to-end integration with outside providers that could temporarily provide virtual fill-in, and augment focus on cybersecurity risk mitigation
  • Systems and processes will be built and operated to higher standards of responsiveness, including faster test time and recovery
  • Location and scale flexibility, reducing reliance on physical, location-dependent IT assets, resources and operations, with long-term benefits for budgets and staffing
  • Consolidation of infrastructure and simplification of operational support processes around a standard cloud-based delivery platform
  • A permanent shift to cloud archive and storage, including replacing manual tape environments that are location-dependent and difficult to access under shelter-in-place orders
  • Deeper commitment to automation and virtual workflow orchestration, along with a greater commitment to open (non-proprietary), interoperable services
  • Ability to generate whole-of-business insights on demand
  • More collaborative decision-making across organizations along with more agility to drive rapid innovation
  • Governance and productivity monitoring, with faster cycles of leadership updates, more organizational and operational lesson-sharing, heightened cross-functional communication, and decision making.
"CTOs and CIOs need detailed business continuity plans that make the most of digital technologies to create operational resilience and flexibility."
Imperative #4: Accelerate agility and efficiency
Suggested leadership assignment: Chief Operating Officers (COOs)
Read time: 4 minutes
Up through 2019, the standard operating model for businesses, governments and other organizations was location-based: people would go to work, rather than work coming to them. Customers or clients would physically transport themselves to a specific site to get something done—access government benefits, visit a doctor, buy groceries, or attend events, for example.
COVID-19 changed all that. Now, work has to come to us, wherever we happen to be. And we engage with employees, customers, and suppliers virtually. A few organizations have handled this forced “digital transformation” smoothly, others more fitfully.
The key to continuing a successful virtual-to-physical transformation, to taking advantage of new-found agility and innovation, lies in the cloud. Going forward, organizations will need to continue modernizing operations to realize the immense benefits of cloud-native capabilities: location independence, talent flexibility, scalability, resilience, interoperability, and seamless transition to a virtualized engagement and delivery model—what we call cloudified delivery.
Wherever an organization is on the digital transformation path, COOs can find several operational lessons from what we have learned so far. First, where cloud was once a desired future end state, it is now an indispensable, immediate environment. Second, organizations can move faster than they realized and be nimbler than they believed possible. Third, earlier rationalizations that prevented successful—and speedy—digital transformation can no longer be tolerated. Becoming an agile digital enterprise is essential, and it needs to happen now.
This is being borne out by changing attitudes of CEOs and others. Seventy-nine percent of executives say they will prioritize enterprise agility as a central business competency over the next two years.
This shift is especially important in