Professor Venkat Venkatraman is the David J. McGrath jr. Professor of Management at Boston University Questrom School of Business. He has previously taught at MIT Sloan School and London Business School. He is the author of The Digital Matrix: New Rules for Business Transformation Through Technology, LifeTree Media (2017). He is one of the most-cited researchers in strategy and digital business and has won prizes for his research. He has consulted and/or lectured all over the world.
Here are the excerpts of the interview.
How are organizations leveraging technology to battle COVID-19 especially in the context of the workplace?
I see companies leveraging technology to battle COVID-19 in the workplace in the following ways.
- Reimagine work. For the better part of two centuries, work happened in factories and offices. Now, companies have stepped up to reimagine work in a more distributed manner. The last three months have been a massive set of experiments to test out the limits of work carried out away from offices and in some cases even factories or oil rigs or transportation networks. We will see the results of such experiments over the course of the next year. True, some complex operations require big machineries and systems but even in those cases—such as pharma R&D or oil & gas—companies are now thinking how best to carry out the activities remotely. In healthcare, for example. COVID-19 has accelerated tele-health and remote visits for non-serious appointments.
- Expand the Talent Base. As a direct outcome of #1 above, companies can tap into workers that are not geographically close-by. Universities can tap into faculty from other locations as easily as healthcare companies tapping into certified health professionals in a different location. Labor mobility and high cost of living in certain areas have prevented more seamless flow of labor. Now, I see companies truly explore and accelerate design and deployment of distributed global work.
- Differentiate with Family Friendly Working Conditions. Traditional working hours made sense when humans needed to be at fixed locations to supervise others and manage factories and other physical resources. Working-from-home has allowed workers more flexibility and this has benefited dual-career workers as well as those that had to deliver family support. Without the constraints of being at work for fixed period of time, companies can now be seen as ‘family-friendly’ without sacrificing productivity.
- Experiment with Next-Generation Tools. We have also seen how the current productivity tools are woefully inadequate. Companies are working to develop next-generation tools for personal productivity and collaboration within and across organizations. And some companies are beginning to look seriously at how artificial intelligence and machine learning can be incorporated so that we are not simply overlaying the tools on old ways of working but using this crisis as the trigger for redesigning work with new tools.
It's a changed world. Isn't it? Cost-cutting, retrenchments, job losses are now the reality facing businesses and employees across the world. How do you see the economic impact of the pandemic?
The economic impact of COVID-19 is unprecedented. There’s no other way to put it. Any comparison to prior events—The Great Depression, WWII, 9/11 or the 2008 Financial Crisis—misses the point completely. This is unprecedented in scale, scope and speed. It’s global in scale—hardly any part of the global economy is unaffected. Its scope is deep and wide—pretty much everyone is affected across sectors and demography and for longer periods. And what’s particularly interesting is the speed at which these changes have happened—a matter of months, not years like with previous crises. Certain sectors are more challenged as we see WFH showing much better productivity than feared. Travel and tourism will be affected quite a bit because the clientele’s demographics (elderly, affluent) are particularly high-risk and they may be risk averse to travel with uncertainties associated to health and border closings. Sports—that has long relied on massive attendance in stadiums—will need to be reinvented for the digital fan. Retail moves to hybrid even faster than ever imagined. And, then, there’s my own sector—education—where campuses with high density of students need to reinvent the future of education both on and off campus.
What's your take on the new workplace that is in the making and set to surface slowly as we come out of COVID-19?
I see several trends converging to create the new workplace. One—every organization wants their workspace to be safe, inclusive and productive. But how to achieve this in the immediate two-year horizon? Two—professional productivity hasn’t dropped off as much as feared. At the same time, not all professions can work from home. How do you make WFH productive if you need expensive equipment in healthcare or software or energy or financial services? Three—some workers are quite happy working from home and take advantage of the flexibility to better make their work-life balance work.
Will the new workplace be designed around the need for collaboration and social interactions rather than cubicles that could be replicated at home?
One study recently pegged that the real-estate cost per employee in New York City is more than $15,000 per year on average. How can companies better use that money to redesign work? Facebook is giving the option for its employees to work for home and relocate if necessary. Twitter has decreed that WFH is the new norm. I believe a set of new principles of work will emerge. We may even see WeWork—or other innovators in the real-estate space—pivot to provide workspaces that complement traditional corporate buildings or campuses.
What's your advice for leaders trying to adapt to the 'New Normal' in the Post-COVID-19 era?
My main advice is to mobilize the organization to recognize that we are not going back to the old normal. I tell executives to use this crisis as an inflexion point to reflect on: (1) what should we stop doing? (2) what should we keep doing and stay the course as before? and (3) what should we start doing that we didn’t do before?” This ‘stop-stay-start’ assessment questions those tightly held “sacred cows” and lets them go in favor of embracing new experiments and innovations that take advantage of impressive developments in digital technologies. This is the time to design the new way of work. Treat digital technologies as a tailwind to get to the next, new normal and not just wish that we could go back to the old normal.
How should leaders across organizations respond in the post-COVID-19 world?
This is the leadership test for this generation of managers. The CEOs of the future will arise from the ranks of leaders that have stepped up to this challenge and defined the transformation logic for the post-COVID-19 world.
I believe that the leaders should respond in three stages. Stage 1 is about restart. What’s your value proposition to customers, employees, suppliers, partners, community and shareholders going forward? Is your message one of forging ahead to the next normal or resetting back to the old normal? I hope it’s about the future. Stage 2 is about redesigning the foundations for the revised business and organizational models. If you are Airbnb or Uber, how will you pivot and adapt? If you are Raffles Hotels or OCBC, what’s your new value proposition and how have you changed because of the crisis? Stage 3 is about reinvention. Every crisis offers opportunity for new models and this crisis is no different. Use this crisis to reinvent your business for the end 2020s. The future is not what we thought the world would be when we rang in 2020. Restart with an eye towards redesigning to fundamentals focused on the future. Redesign with a view to reinvent for the long-term.
Read more such stories from the August issue of our e-magazine on 'Performance and Rewards in the New Normal’