The world is changing at a rapid speed as new regulations come into play, customer expectations change, and global competition grows – and that’s without considering how COVID-19 is compelling everyone to use digital technology rather than physical processes when they can, writes Gerhard Hartman, Vice President: Medium Business, Sage Africa & Middle East .

As the pandemic forces organisations to put digital transformation on steroids, it is important that they don’t allow their workforces to fall behind.

The silver lining amid the devastation of COVID-19 is new working model. Yet business leaders are asking their people to show extraordinary levels of resilience and flexibility as we all try to come to grips with the changing environment.

People and organisations accustomed to face-to-face interaction and manual processes have needed to master digital tools in double-quick time. This has no doubt left some gaps in capability because we have not had as much time to invest in change management and training as we usually would.

Don’t leave the workforce behind

Amid the technical discussions about the infrastructure we need to support the connected economy, we risk leaving vast swathes of the workforce behind. People need to be empowered to use digital tools to work efficiently for the remaining months the novel coronavirus is expected to be a part of our lives. But this simply speeds up an existing trend in the market: customers and competitors have been moving online, technology change is accelerating and organisations need to keep up.

Indeed, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that as many as 375 million workers – or 14% of the global workforce – will have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of automation and artificial intelligence (AI). We are already seeing automation and digitisation affect many professions and occupations, and organisations are trying to come to grips with what this may mean for their future skills mix and for their people.

The Internet of Things, cloud computing, advanced robotics, intelligent software, and a range of other technologies will enable companies to automate more and more of the tasks humans do on factory floors, in financial call centres and even in hospitality and retail. Many traditional job roles are changing or disappearing, and digital culture shock is setting in. Organisations need to prepare people for a world where many old hierarchies and job descriptions no longer exist.

Fear and anxiety on the rise in the workplace

Organisations will see levels of fear, anxiety and antipathy grow in their workplace as they automate more processes, tasks and roles – their employees will be struggling to meet the demands of the customer and to use the tools they have been provided. People will worry about losing their jobs and their self-esteem may suffer as they feel unable to perform – compounded by the economic fears raised by the pandemic.

To keep up with the demands of a digital customer – one who now expects more from online services – South African organisations need to modernise ageing legacy systems as well as automate manual business processes. However, they will not be able to drive through digitisation without reskilling employees not just to use a new application, but also to do their work in new ways.

Time constraints, physical distancing and, for many people, adjusting to working from home for a while, mean that old models of training are no longer optimal. Today, it’s important to also deliver experiential, bite-sized, in-the-moment learning as people do their jobs. This could take the form of mentoring from colleagues, building tutorials into the applications people use daily, and embracing immersive technologies like augmented and virtual reality as training solutions.

Make users part of the journey

Automating processes will change many job descriptions and require workers to learn new skills. In some cases, process workers will see their roles change as paperwork is digitised – they will focus more on work that requires judgement, empathy, and problem solving rather than processing the work. In others, workers will need to leverage data from the system to make operational decisions.

Giving people access to technology and the skills to use it effectively helps them to perform at their peak, in turn, enhancing customer experience and talent retention. That’s why end-users should be involved in the implementation, and why adoption marketing and change management are key. It drives end-user adoption of technology and helps to build an agile workforce that can keep up with a changing world.

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