“We’re all in this together.”
For the past five months, that has been the message of the United States and all around the world. Governments are saying it in their press speeches. Companies are saying it with their ads. People are saying it on social media. But unfortunately, “We’re all in this together” is only the beginning of a long road ahead.
I don’t believe we will return back to any sense of normalcy until the end of 2021 at the earliest. This begs the question, what are we ultimately trying to return to? Working in offices and not working from home? Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, has already announced that employees will be allowed to work remotely forever—with many other tech companies such as Facebook, Zillow, Square, and others following suit, stating employees will be able to work remotely through the end of 2021. And this is not going to be a temporary decision. This is a signal of the future of work.
Soon, “We’re all in this together” will become “This is a crisis and we’re fighting it together.”
After that, it will become “We’re fighting this. We’re winning. And we’re on the path to recovery.”
Until eventually, the message that will resound will be “We made it through, we have recovered, and we are back stronger than ever.”
But what are the things that are going to need to happen in order to get there? And what does that look like for companies that haven’t prioritized aggressive digital transformation?
Here are five observations about digital transformation in a post-COVID-19 world.
1. Digital transformation by choice and by need are completely different things
There is a joke on social media that says, “What led to the digital transformation of your company in the last year? A new CEO? A new chief digital officer? Or COVID-19?”
- The reality is when all physical events get shut down across the country, or even globally, you have to transform digitally.
- When your 30,000 salespeople are suddenly working from home, you have to learn how to sell digitally.
- When you are a small bookshop and you can’t remain open anymore, you have to quickly navigate to be able to operate in a digital world.
There is digital transformation because you want to, or think you should. And then there’s digital transformation because you’re on a burning platform and have no other choice but to change to survive. That’s where almost every company in the world is right now.
If you’re in the grocery industry and you’re Kroger, for example, and your biggest competitor is Walmart, then their decision to offer free curbside pickup for groceries means you have to build out that process too. And what most companies realize in that moment of decision is they don’t actually have the expertise or resources in order to transform in the ways they need to.
2. New processes, new skill sets, and new technologies—all at the same time
Right now, at SAP, we are transitioning our entire marketing events over to digital, while at the same time creating the processes, acquiring the skill sets, and building the new technologies in order to do so.
This is no easy task, for any company.
Hindsight is 20-20 (no pun intended), so of course, many businesses wish they had been more prepared for COVID-19. It’s much easier to see how or where your business was vulnerable after the fact. Which is why so many companies are now focusing on many of the same types of things: remote functionality, digital broadcasting, distributed events, etc.
3. A remote-first workforce and culture will transform “work”
Any business that thought their industry wasn’t built for remote work has, in the past few months, changed their stance.
Nearly every company in the world, in some sense, has realized that aspects of their business can (and even should) be performed remotely—whether it’s to achieve higher levels of productivity or reduce overhead costs and expenses. The reason this has so many implications is that the realization that “remote works” will open so many new doors of opportunity for businesses all over the world.
- You can find better talent at a fraction of the cost by being able to recruit outside of your local community.
- You can employ more contractors and fewer full-time employees for roles that don’t require full-time commitments.
- You can provide employees with more flexibility and remote-first benefits (that can attract interesting new team members you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to attract).
4. Companies will have to evolve—which will reshape entire industries
Even as streaming has taken over the entire television and movie industry, big movie houses such as Disney have still been releasing movies for theaters first.
Three months later the film would be released on DVD and streaming platforms.
If you’ve been following the entertainment industry at all through this, then you know Disney’s Trolls World Tour movie was supposed to be in theaters—and instead, it had to be released digitally. As a result, the movie has been breaking digital streaming records left and right, and more importantly, is proving a different business model for moviemakers.
In this new world, what role will movie theaters play? Will they play a role at all?
5. A way to mitigate risk and diversify
T.J. Maxx has a fascinating story.
What’s unique about their business has always been its “egg hunt” sort of business model. They buy discounted clothes from brand-name retailers such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Nordstrom and sell them at reduced prices in their stores. The attraction for the customer is that every time you step into a T.J. Maxx, you’ll find a new assortment of items.
For years, the retailer has doubled down on the loyalty of its customers, prioritizing the in-store experience because “People love shopping in-store.” Now, remember, this is one of the largest clothing retailers in the United States. They have been tremendously successful. And yet, as soon as the coronavirus lockdown hit, not only did they have to shut down their stores, but they also made the choice to stop taking orders through their website.
Because they probably didn’t have the ability and infrastructure to support business at that scale.
The root problem here is that many businesses don’t think, when things are going well, that they need to invest in other aspects of the business. Even here at SAP, the conversations we were having at the end of 2019 were “How can we turn our 25,000-person event into a 50,000-person event?” It’s not until physical events get shut down altogether that you realize you should have been asking a different question.
The true benefit of digital transformation has always been to come up with a different business model for the betterment of the company. And so, over the next 18 months, what we are going to see are companies big and small, all over the world, transforming themselves into a business that is more digital, more remote, and more nimble—should something like this ever happen again.