There’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work. When employees were sent home and in-person interactions were restricted, countless organizations suffered, and companies have had to rapidly adapt their business strategies and operations to survive.
While the past few years have seen an acceleration in automation and digital transformation, in 2020 this ramped up enormously, with 85% of participants in one McKinsey survey reporting that they had increased the adoption of virtual technologies.
Moving forwards, it seems as though this rapid transformation will continue, with businesses having to adopt emerging technologies if they want to stay profitable. So how exactly did 2020 speed up digital transformation – and what does this mean for the future?
Back in May, Forrester predicted that the pandemic would force businesses to accelerate plans to replace jobs with automation. Faced with sudden lockdowns, social distancing and budget cuts, reducing the dependence on manpower seemed to make good sense. In the wake of a global pandemic, the strategic value of automation technologies has rocketed, “putting unprecedented pressure on companies to accelerate their pre-existing trend towards automation.” So while the wheels were already in motion, COVID sent them rolling faster than anyone anticipated.
As we approach the end of the year, Forrester’s predictions for 2021 echo their earlier sentiments. According to their research, “35% of companies will double down on workplace AI”. With millions of people continuing to work from home, new technology will be needed to support this way of working, and there will be a sharp rise in conversational artificial intelligence, machine learning, and hardware advances. This is surely a positive – but as the rise in automation investment continues, old fears that robots will displace humans have resurfaced.
When you consider that the cost of machines and automation is swiftly declining, these concerns seem to make sense – and by the end of this year, there will be three million new industrial robots at work, more than double the amount seen in the seven years since 2014. But Forrester believes that rather than displacing humans, the role of automation will be one of support – and by the end of next year, they predict one in four remote workers will be supported by automation.
Considering how intense the acceleration of automation has been – and will continue to be – it’s clear there will be some hiccups along the way. The increased investments in automation tech will compel businesses to quickly patch in automations. As a result of these rushed actions, failures will occur that not “only damage company reputation and customer trust but draw media scrutiny.” Consequently, another prediction for 2021 we can be pretty sure about is that many organizations will turn their attention to quality and testing before enrolling new automation tech.
Another big advance this year involved remote work tech. Businesses have quickly undergone remote digital transformation to keep their teams visible, coordinated and supported. The need to collaborate and interact with customers virtually has also led to increased investment in data security and a fast-tracked migration to the cloud. It has also highlighted the importance of investing in tech that has the ability to support multi-cloud environments.
According to Forrester, workforce analytics is one of the “fastest growing segments of the human capital management market”, and is expanding at such a rate it will approach one billion by 2021. Businesses will need to adopt remote work tools that analyze and act on workforce data, and allow employers to use these insights to achieve better outcomes. But these insights won’t only be used to improve profits and productivity; they’ll also be used in areas like employee wellness, to help manage the new compliance issues of working remotely, and to satisfy the new importance companies are placing on cultivating a more human-centric relationship with their staff.
Post-pandemic, remote work is predicted to rise to 300% of pre-COVID levels. With that will come an increased need for remote work management software and remote team tools. Remote tech that aids collaboration will be enormously important, particularly as companies become more dispersed. Organizations will look for the tech that helps everyone stay on the same page regardless of location, and tools that help them foster a healthy remote-first culture – even though increasingly, fewer and fewer people will have met face to face.
Ultimately, the past year has pushed society to the point where embracing automation and digital transformation is no longer just an option, but a vital necessity. The year ahead will continue to require immense flexibility in how companies configure their resources, technology, processes and planning. Failure to adapt and future-proof digital infrastructures now will make it extremely hard to respond and survive in an uncertain business landscape.