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Business in 2021: achieving digital actualisation

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By Andrew Duncan, Partner and UK CEO at Infosys Consulting

As we entered 2020, no one could have predicted what was on the horizon. COVID-19 has seen changes of historic proportions. The pandemic and the resulting economic recession have affected every company around the world, with businesses having to rapidly adapt in a matter of days.

Now, with organisations forced to embrace digitalisation in order to facilitate all business activities, from sales to employee engagement, there’s no doubt that significant transformation will continue to underpin most business strategies in 2021. While this pandemic has shown us how quickly our existing assumptions can be shattered, there are a number of changes and developments we can expect to emerge as a direct result of this new digital era.

Prioritising mental health

The challenges of 2020 have been potentially detrimental to employees in many ways. According to a recent research report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the top three challenges employees have cited during the pandemic have been anxiety over layoffs, burnout and mental health. From these tough challenges, however, we are likely to see some positive outcomes.

Next year, we will undoubtedly see organisations invest in better understanding and support of employee mental health. Where employee happiness may once have been considered a bonus, it is now a corporate responsibility – and one with a significant impact on productivity. Equally, the workforce has come to expect more from their employers as we navigate the era of COVID-19. The pandemic has shone a light on the vital role employees play in business success – leaving talent confident enough to express their needs to their employers.

To meet this new awareness, we will likely see the rise of the Chief Human Resources Officer or Chief People Officer – and even Chief Happiness Officer – whose priority is creating a culture that supports workers and grows the business while helping foster a sense of community. Technology could also have a role to play in supporting mental health, especially as remote working continues to be the norm. The question every leader should ask as we enter 2021 is: “What can we do to better support our employees, mentally, emotionally and professionally?”

The new, digital skillset

AI will come to the fore as a fundamental part of building resiliency in the near future, helping us better navigate uncertain supply and demand, adjust to interruptions in operations, and adapt to sharp changes in consumer priorities. As a result of this heightened focus on disruptive technologies, we’re about to see a major skills gap emerge over the coming years. IDC predicts that business automation and other digital initiatives will be slowed or stopped by lack of talent through to 2023.

Consequently, employees will need to adapt to this rapid digitalisation – and quickly. In 2021, we will start to see AI ownership and accountability embedded within teams of all levels and permeating almost every industry. Talent of the future will need to be open-minded to using technologies that they hadn’t ever considered and may not initially be comfortable using. The new agile and all-purpose skillset will include a curious mind, a hunger to learn, and the ability to seek out answers to radically different questions.

To support this, business leaders will need to invest as much in their people as they do in technology when scaling AI and automation initiatives across their organisation. While this requires revision and reorientation of training programs, I believe that firms that lead in this area will come out of the crisis stronger and better able to win in the new and evolving market.

Flexible working models

With the rise in anytime, anywhere work, we can achieve the speed and agility needed to ensure business continuity, even in the midst of ongoing lockdowns and restrictions. In 2021, organisations will look to create seamless working experiences regardless of employee location. Rather than considering offices vs. remote working, leaders will seek to find the best of both worlds, creating more flexible hybrid models of co-located and distributed work.

These new work practices will prove their worth in multiple ways, from increased resilience to a better work-life balance for employees. For example, a virtual working model can offer a unique opportunity to tap into different pools of talent, which may have traditionally been harder to access due to location and geography restrictions. If a hybrid model of near-shore and off-shore teams is utilised, major transformation projects can be achieved with multi-geography launches and enhanced collaboration.

Looking back at 2020 and the pandemics devastating impact on organisations worldwide, it’s difficult to predict what the future of work will look like as we begin to recover. Nonetheless, as technology advances, its role in our revival has been clear to see. In these unfamiliar times, it is flexibility and human compassion that will help guide the next generation of business as we progress into the new, digital era.

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