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A year of change: business leadership lessons of 2020

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By Andrew Duncan, Partner and UK CEO at Infosys Consulting

The global business landscape has dramatically evolved in the past year and changed in ways no business could have predicted prior to the pandemic. Leaders have been forced to move from the conventional working model, realising as a result the benefits, and challenges, of remote working. In order to ensure business continuity through the volatile environment of 2020, businesses have had to show agility in adapting to multiple lockdowns and restrictions, whilst continuing to innovate in the face of an economic recession.

Digital transformation has undeniably been the watchword for success throughout all of this, and as we look to the year ahead, this will underpin most business strategies in the new future of work. However, the pandemic has also led to a number of significant other changes that are likely to remain permanent. In this article, I reflect on four of these, the lessons we’ve learnt and how this will impact companies of all sizes as we transition into 2021 and beyond.

Prioritise the employee experience

As we navigated a sudden shift to a new remote working model, leaders were tasked with creating loyalty and confidence among stakeholders – their employees, customers and ecosystem partners – in a completely unfamiliar virtual environment. At the same time, productivity measures and KPIs are being overhauled as we moved from lag indicators and traditional feedback mechanisms to outcome-based performance metrics.

Forrester predicts remote work will rise to 300% of pre-COVID-19 levels, and consequently we will need to remain transparent and overcommunicate with all employees wherever possible. Seeking out stories of anyone in the organisation who is going the extra mile can be a breath of fresh air and reason to spread positivity. Equally, I encourage my leadership team to address employees directly wherever possible instead of focusing on mass emails or communications. This concept of building trust will be increasingly important as companies adopt advanced technologies and ask their staff to adapt accordingly. Many employees are being asked to change direction; don’t ask them to do it blindly.

Evolution of the business model

Before COVID-19, most organisations operated on an annual planning cycle, with management collectively deciding on strategies, budgets and operating plans once a year and minor amendments between this. However, the radically changed circumstances now call for new forms of leadership, new ways of working, and new operating models.

This year, we have seen networks instead of silos, flattened structures instead of hierarchies, and speed over precision. Existing operating models no longer effectively address the challenges this crisis presents. The agile methodology, with its focus on empowered frontline teams and clear outputs, will be fundamental to any future business structure. Agile shouldn’t be limited to technology teams only – sustainable and optimal benefits will most likely be realised if the entire organisation is on the journey. This means that rather than making period reviews of a static plan, we should adopt dynamic resource allocation, with a tolerance of ambiguity and a culture of constant testing and iteration.

Mitigate risk with digital agility

The effort to maintain operations during COVID-19 made cloud computing a winner of 2020, and organisations that have delayed making the move to the cloud in the past have had to rapidly upskill in response to challenges to their business model. Digitally agile firms are adapting to the ongoing crisis more successfully, and it is highly likely that we will see a new cloud-first model become the standard.

As a result, security strategies and practices have been tested like no other. Malicious actors have used discontinuity of IT operations as an opportunity to attack systems and exploit weaknesses. And while cyber risk is often thought of more in terms of technological vulnerabilities, it is often the human dimension that leads to breaches – particularly in the new remote working model, where bad actors have leveraged human-centric tactics, such as phishing, to open the front door. It will be vital for cybersecurity to be included in both the dialogue and actions of C-level executives to make business continuity and crisis management plans fit for purpose, backed by the right resources and investments.

Turning your business green

As companies make decisions about where and when to cut costs and where to invest in response to COVID-19, they need to start using a green lens to make sure that their strategy also enables them to lower their carbon footprint.

Before the crisis, many corporations had already been stepping up to greater environmental and social responsibilities. Now, as we embark on the recovery phase of the pandemic with an emphasis on sustainability, concerns about climate change are intensifying. We’ve seen significant interest in advanced technologies that reduce emissions in hard-to-abate sectors, and initiatives that help CEOs reach a net-zero future. Interestingly, while companies have seen resiliency and financial benefits from cloud computing, sustainability is also an outcome of switching from on-premise. Greater flexibility, better server utilisation rates, and more energy-efficient infrastructure make the public cloud often preferable to enterprise owned-data centres.

Creating a more resilient future

In 2020, businesses have had their resilience tested to the limit. The pandemic shone a light on the fragility of traditional day-to-day routines and adapting at pace has been essential to stay afloat. Going forward, the past year has been full of invaluable learning opportunities. Technology has proven critical to business success and without it, many more organisations would not have survived the harsh reality of the pandemic. Building trust with employees, embracing more agile structures and showing greater concern for the wider environment have all come to the fore. Continuing to apply these learnings into the new year and beyond will help us ride out the waves of uncertainty and shape the next generation of business.

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