What Post-COVID “Back to Normal” Really Means for CIOs and IT Teams

While most CIOs and IT departments certainly desire a return back to normal business conditions after the current COVID-19 crisis has abated, we will really be transitioning to a “new normal” – not back to the old normal. Understanding what that new normal means for businesses can mean the difference between success and failure.

CIOs and IT departments play a crucial role in transitioning to the new normal, since the impending economy will rely much more heavily on digital technology than the current one.

In this guide, we will cover such concepts in detail, including:

  • Why returning “back to normal” really means evolving towards a “new normal” that will be quite different from the one leading up to 2020
  • How the current global crisis has catalyzed digital innovation in a wide number of industries, which will create a new set of business conditions that we must adapt to
  • What the world’s leading business research firms have to say on the topic and how they recommend preparing 
  • Why CIOs and IT must aggressively pursue digital transformation agendas in order to successfully adapt to the new normal

To start with, however, we should first establish clearly why the economy will not simply return to the same state that it just left.

Why There Is No “Back to Normal” for IT Departments – Or Businesses

Many experts and leading business research firms strongly believe that the current state of affairs will produce lasting effects on the business landscape. 

We will not, in other words, return “back to normal” once the crisis has passed.

There are a number of trends and observations that back up this perspective:

  • Health concerns dominate the current global landscape and will continue to do so
  • Digital transformation has accelerated disproportionately in a number of industries
  • The COVID-19 crisis has had too large an impact for too long a period of time

Naturally, there is no way to be 100% certain about what the future will look like, but it is possible to develop accurate forecasts by projecting out current trends.

Since certain trends have already taken such significant steps forward – such as remote working and robotics – it is a near impossibility that they would revert once the crisis has abated. After all, industrial, economic, and technological developments progress forward, not backwards. 

For this simple reason, it is easy to conclude that the current trends will only continue to accelerate and make progress, which will inevitably land us in a rather different economy than the one we just left.

To better understand what this economy will look like, let’s look at some of the common questions and answers about the new normal.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the “Next Normal”

We have already learned why it is nearly impossible for the economy and the world to return to its former state, but what does this imply for businesses?

Let’s find out by digging in to some of the most frequently asked questions about how businesses can transition to the next economy:

Why is it important to accelerate digital transformation efforts?

McKinsey has made the claim that businesses should accelerate their digital transformation efforts rapidly, compressing long-term initiatives into just a few months.

As if in response to this claim, Accenture has done just that, compacting three years’ worth of digital transformation plans into just three months. Their highly ambitious program aims to transform the company culture, business processes, and much more.

According to Accenture’s Paul Daugherty, one of the main reasons they are implementing such an aggressive transformation program is that the current crisis is widening the gap between digital laggards and leaders.

As ZDNet reported, “COVID-19 has highlighted and increased the gap between the high performers’ digital-savvy companies and the under-performers.”

When can we expect the “next normal” to arrive?

Most public health experts and governments are claiming that the current state of affairs will continue until a vaccine is found. 

At the time of this writing, many predict that this could take a year or even longer, which means that a vaccine could arrive in mid-2021.

Of course, this is still just best-guess estimates, and there is really no way to know exactly how effective the vaccine would be. Also, once the vaccine is developed, it would take time to manufacture, distribute, and implement at the global level.

At best, in other words, we could hope for a vaccine in 2021, which could hopefully spur economic recovery soon after.

In the meantime, however, the entire world will still be operating under the “new normal,” which will then transition into the post-viral “next normal” – the next evolution of the current economic conditions.

How can CIOs and IT departments prepare for the next normal?

Later, we will cover these steps in far more detail, but here is a series of actions that businesses can take to begin preparing:

  • Understand what the new normal and the next normal will entail
  • Focus heavily on digital transformation, IT modernization, and digital savviness
  • Accelerate transformation efforts in order to meet the accelerated pace of change being spurred by the current crisis
  • Stay agile and adaptable in order to keep pace with the current shifting business conditions

Each step will be expanded upon in the sections below, beginning with a description of what the new normal will look like.

Understanding the New Normal and the Next Normal

Since “the new normal” and “the next normal” are both recent terms, they may be used interchangeably by some, both referring to the post-virus era.

The new normal is being used by a wide variety of government entities, businesses, and research firms, often with the implication that many of the conditions we are experiencing during the crisis will become normalized, at least to a certain extent.

It is worth noting, however, that the new normal was originally used after the financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent recession, so this term is not unique to the current pandemic.

The next normal, a term coined by McKinsey, is used to describe what the future world will look like in the coming years. Currently, they frequently use this term in conjunction with the COVID-19 outbreak, describing what steps businesses must take in order to transition successfully through the crisis.

In short, the distinction between the terms often boils down to semantics and word choices. 

Organizations should be more concerned with the actual conditions that they will be facing in the coming years, rather than the term used to describe those conditions.

What the new normal – or next normal – will look like

Here is what we can expect to return to after the current crisis has subsided:

  • Changed customer expectations. Customer expectations normally evolve alongside other changes in the marketplace. For instance, when mobile technology became commonplace, customers soon began to expect businesses to deliver mobile-friendly experiences. The current crisis will also change customer expectations, both in terms of health and safety as well as digital technology, which is being fueled by the outbreak.
  • Different employee expectations. Employee expectations will also transform as a result of the current crisis. They will be far more concerned about their health and well-being in the aftermath of the current crisis. Also, in the wake of certain workplace trends, such as remote working, organizations can certainly expect to see a greater demand for telecommuting from employees and potential new hires.
  • A new competitive landscape. In the coming years, the business landscape will undoubtedly look different from the one we are used to. There are several observable factors that will contribute to tomorrow’s altered competitive business environment: accelerated digital transformation, the collapse of businesses across multiple sectors, the collapse of certain industries (such as travel and tourism), shifts in customer expectations, and so forth. 
  • Increased regulations around public health matters. Government mandates and regulations will also become more common in the post-viral era, as public institutions enact measures aimed at protecting citizens from potential health hazards. These measures will vary from region to region, but they will all impact businesses to some degree or another. 

Taken together, it should be clear that we will be facing a somewhat different global environment during the 2020s.

Once this has been understood, business leaders will be in a far better position to develop suitable organizational change agendas.

Tips for Preparing Forwards Instead of Backwards

Since we will not be returning back to normal but instead forwards to the next normal, it is important to rethink existing business strategies, organizational change programs, and digital transformation efforts. They should be modified, changed, and accelerated in order to fit the shifting landscape.

Below are a few tips and strategies for making the transition forwards to the new normal:

Learn from the world’s leading research firms

Many of the world’s most reputable and well-known consultancies and research firms have been exploring the concept of the next normal, and they have a wealth of information to draw from.

Here are a few examples:

Accenture 

Accenture, as mentioned above, has chosen to compress three years’ worth of digital transformations into just three months. Their insights regarding digital technology are compelling: the crisis is widening the gap between digital leaders and laggards, as mentioned above. 

They also point out that a digital foundation is essential for adaptability and crisis management, which could be a major cause of the widening digital gap. 

Humans plus machines are the future of work, but humans matter most – in particular, during such a trying time, the health and safety of employees should be the top priority.

Gartner

Gartner has also explored the next normal, reiterating the perception that the world will not simply “go back to normal.”

They claim that it is impossible to predict exactly how this will play out, but with the right predictive modeling, we can narrow down the possibilities. A good place to begin is with the virus containment and economic recovery efforts, since these will point business leaders towards the most likely scenarios that we will be facing in the coming months and years.

Once these possibilities have been established, assessments should be made of the demand, supply, and go-to-market situation specific to the context of each business.

The cited article, written by Gartner’s Stan Aronow, goes on to explain the value of building resilience, then concludes by emphasizing the point that we will not go “back to ‘normal’” after the crisis has ended.

Deloitte

One analysis by Deloitte focused less on the post-viral “next normal,” but on the period in between.

Between now and the final return to relative normality – whatever that normal ends up looking like – there will be periods of restriction and relaxation as governments implement public health measures.

Though these periods will involve a great degree of uncertainty and disruption, the changes can be predicted to a certain extent. These disruptions, after all, revolve heavily around government-mandated restrictions. By planning around those restrictions – before and after – organizations can stay more adaptable and flexible.

McKinsey

McKinsey outlines a series of stages that every business must go through when transitioning through the current crisis:

  • Resolve – Respond to the current crisis
  • Resilience – Build broad resilience plans to counter impending industry disruptions
  • Return – Restoring operational health
  • Reimagination – Redefining business models and operations
  • Reform – Rethink business systems at a deep level, as the world itself shifts its approach in order to mitigate such future disasters

Like many other research firms, McKinsey acknowledges that we cannot predict precisely how the crisis will unfold, but they suggest that we may very well be on the cusp of “an imminent restructuring of the global economic order.”

If this is indeed the case, then business leaders should begin developing strategies for the next normal as soon as possible.

Pivot existing business strategies and develop new ones

Chances are, an organization will already have a digital transformation plan in motion or there will be one in the works. 

For reasons discussed above, however, it is important to push these plans forward quickly, since the entire global economy has begun to adopt new digital technology at an accelerated pace.

Here are a few steps to follow:

  • Perform assessments and analyses
  • Reformulate existing plans
  • Accelerate digital transformation efforts
  • Develop and implement appropriate organizational changes

Of course, since organizational changes can vary widely in scope and purpose, it is useful to look at what types of plans can benefit companies during these difficult times. We’ll look at some of those next.

Accelerate and aggressively pursue organizational changes

As has been mentioned several times, the current outbreak has vastly shifted the current business environment and when we emerge from the crisis, we will be entering a different business environment.

Organizations that continue existing as they are – that is, ready to operate in the pre-2020 business world – will be unprepared for the next normal

The assessments and analyses mentioned above can then be used to inform organizational changes and new strategies, such as:

  • Business continuity plans
  • Organizational resilience strategies
  • Organizational culture changes
  • Industry-specific strategies
  • Digital transformation and adoption plans

Since digital transformation will play such a critical role in the coming months and years, as Accenture and others have pointed out, we will devote the next several sections to understanding digital transformation in detail.

What to Include in Digital Transformation Agendas

Though we’ve discussed the importance of accelerating digital transformation efforts, what are the best ways to prepare for the post-viral era?

image source: sloanreview.mit.edu

Let’s look at a few strategies that are essential for any business in the digital era, especially the current one, which is characterized by so much uncertainty and change.

Digital adoption

Digital adoption refers to the complete integration of software into a workplace and leveraging that technology to its fullest extent.

Unlike software implementation, which only implies deployment and use, adoption implies the full utilization of that software in the digital workplace, which is a prerequisite for realizing a product’s true value.

Digital adoption platforms (DAPs) are digital training platforms that use in-app walkthroughs and contextualized training to offer automated, continuous user training. 

Core features of these platforms include:

  • Product walkthroughs. A product walkthrough takes users one step at a time through a series of actions in order to help them complete a particular task or workflow. Pop-up bubbles and fully automated guidance provide users with the information they need, exactly when they need it, ensuring that they can stay productive without calling technical support or researching answers online.
  • AI-powered chatbots. Most organizations know full well that the customer experience matters. Many organizations are also beginning to understand the value of the employee experience, since the employee experience directly impacts engagement, sentiment, and productivity. Chatbots provide a user-friendly interface within any software platform or system, helping to reduce software frustration and improve the learning experience.
  • Workflow automation. Automating tasks, either fully or partially, can result in staggering productivity gains wherever it is applied. Automation can reduce errors, lower the costs of business processes, accelerate process timelines, and much more. 
  • Software analytics. Behavioral analytics track how users interact with a software platform or a website. This information can help training managers better understand common stumbling blocks and learning needs. In turn, trainers can improve software walkthroughs, reduce errors, and increase the quality of their adoption efforts.

Using these tools for digital adoption can deliver a number of advantages, such as:

  • Streamlined employee onboarding. Employee onboarding is the process of familiarizing new employees with the workplace and their job duties. In the digital workplace, software onboarding plays a larger and larger role. Improving the digital onboarding process, in other words, helps to improve the employee onboarding process. In turn, employees will become more productive in less time – and there is also evidence that suggests better employee onboarding reduces turnover.
  • More effective employee training. Employee training is another fundamental stage in the employee life cycle. Not only is it mandatory for new hires to receive a certain amount of training as they integrate into the workplace, it is also essential during organizational change programs. Digital transformation, for example, usually entails the adoption of new technology, which means that training will directly impact the effectiveness of the transformation program.
  • Accelerated time-to-productivity. Employers fund employee training programs, which is an unavoidable necessity in most cases. However, as learning curves increase, so do training costs – which include not only the actual training efforts and the employee’s pay, but also the lost productivity costs, which must be borne by other members of the organization.
  • Increased software ROI and product value. Software value directly reflects employee proficiency and productivity. Strategies aimed at increasing software ROI and value, therefore, should begin with strategic training and adoption efforts: improving overall proficiency, shortening learning curves, streamlining the onboarding process, and so forth.
  • Enhanced adaptability and agility. Employees that are more digitally savvy will be able to adapt more quickly to technology-related business changes, such as digital transformations or other types of disruptions. And the more adaptable the workforce is, the more adaptable and flexible the organization will be, resulting in improved organizational resilience and agility.

Today, digital adoption has become a central fact of everyday business operations – in order to stay relevant and productive, organizations must regularly adopt new software.

Having the right digital adoption strategy and software, therefore, is fundamental for any digital organization, particularly as we move into the post-viral digital era.

Digital maturity 

Digital maturity is a model that measures organizations’ overall digital capabilities, including people, processes, and the technology itself.

At the bottom of the scale lies organizations that have limited technology, poorly integrated IT systems, and a relatively untrained workforce.

At the top of the scale are organizations that possess digitally savvy workers, a well-integrated set of IT systems, a modern IT infrastructure, and so forth.

The concept, though abstract, can be very useful in gauging a company’s current place on the digital continuum, as well as what changes should be made to move forward.

When CIOs and IT leaders want to build a more digitally mature organization, they will focus on areas such as:

  • IT modernization. Many experts proclaim that “digital transformation is about people, not technology,” which is absolutely true. As we have discussed, after all, software value is directly proportional to employees’ digital skills. However, tools can only deliver value if they are actually adopted and implemented in the first place. IT modernization, therefore, should represent the first pillar of a digital maturity strategy.
  • Digital skills and digital savvy. Technology is one pillar of digital maturity and people is another. Both must be developed in parallel for an organization to actually realize the value promise being presented by a specific solution. In today’s fast-paced digital era – especially one that is transitioning through an unprecedented global crisis – it is vital to train, upskill, and reskill, in order to cultivate a digitally savvy and productive workforce.
  • Modern, efficient digital business processes. Another key area to focus on is how technology is utilized in the organization. Modern technology presents enormous innovative potential for businesses, but in order to achieve that potential, it is necessary to adopt new processes as well as new technology. If an organization implements new software, but continues to use legacy business processes, then software ROI will only deliver at a portion of its potential.
  • A fully digital workplace. The digital workplace represents the hub of the modern organization. It is here that employees, digital tools, and modern business processes work together to drive business operations. A modern digital workplace will develop all of the pillars mentioned so far: people, processes, and technology. 

Digital maturity is a useful model that can help organizations holistically understand their digital capabilities and develop a well-rounded approach to improving those capabilities.

However, as many have pointed out, technology in the enterprise is actually more about the people than it is about technology itself. 

Employees, after all, are the ones operating that technology, so it is critical to focus on employees’ experiences and their training during any digital transformation effort.

Digital organizational culture

Organizational culture can have a profound impact on organizational change programs, such as digital transformation efforts, as well as the everyday operations of a business.

There is no one-size-fits-all model for creating a perfect business culture, of course – every business is unique and every business should cultivate its own unique culture.

However, there are certain traits that can prove very beneficial in the digital age, such as:

  • Pro-learning
  • Being open to change and new ideas
  • Data-centricity
  • Digital savviness

There are a number of ways to initiate cultural changes, some of which are faster than others. 

To implement a radical, rapid change, it may be necessary to actually restructure the relevant business units, as organizational leadership Edgar Schein has pointed out.

Slower methods include long-term communication strategies, reformulating behavioral guidelines, recruitment and talent management, and so forth.

Each business will naturally have to decide for itself the most appropriate cultural change solution, if it is even deemed necessary.

Digital savvy and the digital employee experience

The digital employee experience plays an important role in shaping the digital workplace – positive software experiences, for instance, contribute to a more pleasant work environment and can increase employee engagement.

Since every organization is interested in boosting the bottom line, it is often useful to pay attention to the business benefits of creating good digital experiences.

Better employee experiences, digital or otherwise, can result in…

  • Greater engagement and productivity
  • Higher levels of job satisfaction
  • Lower turnover
  • A better work environment and better employer branding

The employee experience itself is a complex and multi-faceted concept, which is viewed differently by different professionals. Gallup, for instance, views the employee experience as a worker’s entire journey with a company, beginning from pre-hire communications to post-exit surveys.

However, many models of the employee experience fail to take into account the digital employee experience – and this is a big mistake.

After all, in the modern enterprise, employees spend the vast majority of their time interfacing with digital tools and technology. To ignore that aspect of their workplace experience is to ignore the most important component of their daily work routines.

Digital adoption software, covered earlier, offer an ideal method of streamlining and improving digital workflows.

Using these platforms, for instance, can result in…

  • Simplified software experiences. Modern enterprise-grade SaaS platforms are complex and often daunting for new users. This complexity is a necessity, however, since these platforms solve complex business problems. Of course, as most users of these platforms know, they can also carry a steep learning curve. Digital adoption platforms reduce information overload by providing just-in-time information only when it is required, greatly simplifying the user experience.
  • Smooth, effortless onboarding. As mentioned earlier, employee onboarding and software onboarding go hand-in-hand. By improving the digital onboarding process, employers can streamline new hire onboarding, as well as onboarding that occurs during digital transformation and adoption efforts.
  • More effective, efficient training. Ultimately, a digital adoption platform can significantly improve employee training programs. Since digital adoption platforms only deliver practical information in the moment of need, they reduce the waste that comes with other training methods, such as classroom training, webinars, video courses, and so forth. 

Ideally, organizations should dedicate time and resources to improving the digital employee experience by, for instance, hiring a digital adoption manager.

With the right resources and the right digital adoption approach, employees will not only enjoy their work more, they will be more efficient and more productive.

Final Thoughts

As we have seen, there is little chance that the world will go back to normal after the coronavirus outbreak has subsided. After all, given the depth of the impact and the length of this crisis, the trends that we are witnessing today will undoubtedly have a lasting impact in the post-viral era.

In fact, it has become quite clear that the current state of affairs has accelerated the natural development of a number of trends, particularly digital transformation trends.

The adoption of robots in customer service roles, virtual workplace software, and other trends have all seen explosive growth in just a few short months. These and other trends will continue to see more adoption in the coming months, both during and after the crisis has abated.

Such radical transformations have begun to radically transform the business landscape and since these trends will certainly not reverse, it is imperative to adapt to these changes now – if organizations decide to wait until after the crisis has passed, then they will be very far behind the curve.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.