With the onset of the nationwide lockdown across multiple countries earlier this year, most organisations were faced with a never-envisaged scenario where all or a majority of their workforce had to be enabled to deliver work remotely, including accessing data from outside the organisation and collaborating more through virtual platforms. According to the International Labour Organization, this pandemic is expected to effect a loss of 6.7% of working hours in the second quarter of 2020, equivalent to 195 million full-time workers. Additionally, the hit on business operations spanning across manufacturing, supply chain to sales and customer service has resulted in organisations reflecting on their ability to respond to such unforeseen situations and thrive successfully not just today, but sustainably in the long term. In our view, these challenges also present an opportunity for organisations to become better prepared for any such events while accelerating adoption of future ways of working and driving increased digitisation.

With the above context, virtualisation as a digital transformation lever is increasingly playing a key role in the way organisations are responding to emerging customer requirements and enabling decision-making in an increasingly distributed network. In the marketplace, we are increasingly seeing examples of organisations across industries that have adopted virtualisation from remote monitoring of physical assets to leveraging cross-trained teams across a distributed delivery network combined with automation and AI technologies to respond to surges in customer requests.

To enable seamless transition between physical and virtual ways of working driven by increased virtualisation, organisations will need to consider taking an all-rounded view of key implications across the dimensions of work, workplace, and workforce.

Reimagining workforce alignment and talent strategy

As organisations start to look at new realities in the post-pandemic world, leaders are presented with an opportunity to reconfigure their workforce profile to cater to evolving business needs. Rethinking work and workforce strategies will warrant a shift in perspective across workforce composition, analysing the impact of digitisation and automation, building digital-ready skills, and revisiting compensation and performance management processes. This will bring its own challenges as organsiations are forced to fast-track their digital transformation in the current environment while still having a significant part of their workforce lacking skills aligned with emerging changes to work.

Redefining the ways of working and the workplace

While working in a virtual environment is not a new concept, having millions of workers work remotely has been the biggest disruption to the global workforce in recent history. During the initial period, organisations focussed more on establishing rules of engagement between teams and ensuring employees had the right technology enablers to minimise any disruption. During a recent survey, greater than 75% of the respondents said they plan to shift almost a quarter of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-Covid-19. To build this virtual workplace of the future, leaders will now need to consider relooking at the construct of the physical workplace, adopt agile ways of working, revisit role definitions to enable flexibility and cross-skilling, and accelerate adoption of automation technologies.

Adopting a holistic change management approach

In this journey to adapt to virtual ways of working, organisations today are generally seen to be struggling to identify ways to effectively manage teams, collaborate and make decisions quickly. Many workplaces today are built around rigid routines and structures; leaders are hence striving to create an optimal balance between the existing culture and ethos, and new practices for the virtual world. Hence as compared to the traditional adoption of change and initiatives, having a dispersed workforce has made organisations think of more collaborative ways to bring change. A key step would be to indulge in dialogues and make employees agents of change, while addressing their concerns and enhancing their morale.

We are at the cusp of a long-term transformation, and virtualisation will continue to be a key enabler that can help leaders address rapidly evolving business needs. However, they need to realise that the change is not just about new ways of working or leveraging right technologies, but it also involves significant workforce and workplace changes to lay the foundation of a virtual-ready organisation of the future.

Views are personal. The author is senior director, Deloitte India. Sushant Kumaraswamy and Nakul Retdhania also contributed to this article.

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