Working from home is the new norm. But why are companies so reluctant to do so?

Digital transformation & virtual learning have always been a must for companies, even before the government made working from home compulsory.

Nigel Chua | Sponsored | May 16, 2020, 11:00 AM

Among the many lists where Singapore ranks first in the world is Cisco’s 2019 Digital Readiness Index, which measures how favourable a country is to adopt technology and infrastructure.

This essentially means that Cisco thinks Singapore is the best place in the world to go digital.

It’s interesting to observe, therefore, the fact that quite a number of companies here dragged their feet when it came to implementing work-from-home arrangements in February and March this year, despite the strong advice from health authorities.

Such was the gravity of the situation that the authorities ended up turning the work-from-home guidance into law, particularly as the island entered Circuit Breaker mode.

To make sense of this strange situation, we spoke to a Digital Transformation Consultant who specialises in helping businesses to digitalise — Dr Samuel Lee, who has advised more than 500 companies over more than 20 years, and is also the Programme Director of the part-time MBA programme at the University of Roehampton London.

Is going digital — or indeed, going through a digital transformation — something that every company must do, though? What does it even mean, really?

This is, after all, a topic that’s especially relevant in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic compelling society and business to get online, whether we are ready for it or not.

But yet, in this is a time of uncertainty, Lee is optimistic about our prospects on this front, as well as for Singaporeans, provided we tap on the right resources.

Here’s what he had to share with us:

What’s the deal with working from home, and why were some companies so slow to implement it?

To be honest, many organisations (especially SMEs) are stuck on the basics. Their “go-digital” plans aren’t much more than getting employees to use smart devices, and digital communication platforms such as email, WhatsApp, Facebook etc.

In order to work effectively from home, a system and network of technologies and software needs to be implemented, to ensure the seamless change from an office-based working environment to working from home.

However, when it comes to new (or, emerging) technologies, many business leaders are unsure of the impact that they can have on work. They might also be unwilling to manage the cyber security risks. That’s why they have been slow to implement clear strategies of digitalisation to their business models and operations. They don’t have a system to understand and implement these new digital technologies.

Image via Salesforce Memes on Twitter

So how can these companies catch up with their peers?

In short, digital transformation.

It is a little overrated as a buzz-word. When people hear about digital transformation, they think, “oh wow, the use of technology will change your business.” This is not necessarily true.

That’s because digital transformation is a business concept that’s all about change, and how it has become a necessity to transform a business or organisation into a digital company. So it goes beyond technology.

We need both technology (in terms of hardware and software) and training. The right digital product, as well as the mindsets of people, and the culture of the organisation, are all equally important.

Another important aspect is whether a company constantly evaluates and improves its processes and systems.

So all three areas – Products, People and Process have to ultimately come together, to add value and improve the user experience.

I like to say that “every business today is a software company”. For business leaders, there is a need to reimagine how you bring people, data and processes together to create value for customers in the digital-first world.

These companies have to look into deepening skills such as interpretation of data, and usage of that information for their business environment, so that they can cultivate a proactive and adaptive mindset towards digital transformation.

What are they actually missing out on, though?

Frankly, what some businesses in Singapore (especially SMEs) are actually missing out on is entire waves of changes in digitalisation.

For example, in the retail sector, many companies have adopted digital technologies by moving into cashless payment modes, such as mobile and credit card payments for transactions. I would call this “transformation 1.0”.

Cashless payment at a cafe. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on unsplash.

Unfortunately though, they failed to move into “transformation 2.0” to improve productivity of their staff through the use of technologies like inventory management and e-commerce. Because of this, they will then lose out on their competitiveness in “transformation 3.0”, which involves going international. In this way, they have missed their chance to expand the scalability of their operations.

For all industries, there are different levels of digital transformation that comes in 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 phases or stages. Each requires different strategies and new skill sets to be adopted by the employees of the organisation.

The reality is that many companies are not prepared to invest the money, time, effort and training to ensure that they are updated with rapid changes in technology, consumer trends and marketplace processes. And meanwhile, the business environment today is much more digitalised.

If businesses don’t adopt a digital and data-driven approach to doing business, they will eventually be left behind.

This might be a little cliched, but it seems like the journey is the destination.

That’s true, actually. Digital transformation must be understood not as a destination, but a journey of constant transformation and change. A new system and process today gets outdated tomorrow.

I think what is often misunderstood is that digital transformation is a one-off investment. It’s not! It has to be an ongoing investment in change and improvement. It involves much trial and error.

Let’s talk a bit about the future. What do you envision the business landscape to be like after travel and other movement restrictions are lifted?

The world will be a very different place for businesses.

There will be increased restrictions on international travel and more machines and technologies used to monitor movements and data. For example, we will probably need to track the number of people in malls and restaurants very closely in future.

Changi Airport. Photo by Shawn Ang on unsplash.

Many firms that are solely brick and mortar may end up shutting down operations permanently, leaving only the fittest and the most agile businesses to survive.

That’s quite grim… do you have hopes for positive change after Covid-19? And what do you define as positive change?

Yes, I do have hope for positive change. For one, this virus situation has sped up the need for changes in work culture. For example, accelerated demand for remote working environments. It’s been a necessary change to ensure business continuity in these times.

And it will be a change that lasts longer than the pandemic, because we can’t just go back to “business as usual” — it will be a positive change for companies to use technologies to be faster and smarter, ultimately improving the productivity of everyone, and all businesses — big or small.

Would you say that the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing change on businesses?

Yes, the Covid-19 outbreak has forced most companies to “transform or perish”. The pandemic has disrupted businesses because employees and workers are now required to operate in a very different manner. They have no choice but to adopt digital transformation and technologies.

Businesses will need to really understand how their customers are going to use technology to access what they need, when they need it. And so, some businesses will need to invest in more, or better technology.

For others, they will have to look at new ways of engaging with customers digitally. And for others still, they may need to look at an entirely new way of doing business.

Can you share some related observations or stories you might have about this?

One simple observation is that restaurants and food outlets that had already transformed and collaborated with online platform sites like ShopBack, Fave, FoodPanda and Grab, for example.

These are the ones which managed to convert more of their customers quickly to order delivery and make online purchases, and they’re the ones that have been able to remain viable during this challenging period for the F&B sector.

Covid-19 has also created a lot of uncertainty in the economy now, and companies seem to be more laying off and putting people on unpaid leave than actually hiring. What’s your advice for fresh graduates during this period?

An attitude for change is what fresh graduates must be willing to adopt. What is learnt in schools and universities may be academic, so it is vital that you are willing to take on internships and contract jobs that involve different types of work — so you can understand the practicalities of today’s changing business landscape.

A key characteristic these days is an attitude of agility; to be flexible and adaptive to new jobs and opportunities — not just the majors that you have learnt in school.

On that note, all employees will need to start understanding and learning new skill sets and new subject areas that they have not been taught in schools and universities. Subject areas like Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Digital Marketing, Content Marketing, Data Analytics are all courses and programmes that can improve our understanding and adaptation of the new normal today.

Aventis Learning Group Career Coach, Dr Christopher Fong teaching Positive Psychology & Mental Wellbeing Online.

Should we expect video conferencing & online learning to be the new norm?

Yes, definitely. At Aventis Learning Group, where I teach digital transformation and innovation, we have been experimenting with online learning since 2017, and our university partners are also adopting these online learning and video conferencing technology extensively.

The new norm for many businesses will be less business travel and more video conferencing.

Businesses are also likely to encourage staff to do e-learning or attend virtual live stream training rather than face-to-face training sessions.

At Aventis, we offer over 200 live stream training courses to meet the learning needs of PMETS and organizations.

What can individuals do to prepare themselves for the new work norm and environment?

As individuals, we need to upskill ourselves whether through the training programmes at our companies, or through self-sponsored courses in topics like digital transformation, innovation, and design thinking, all of which are offered at Aventis.

These courses and programmes will put us in a better position to contribute to our companies.

Dr Samuel Lee (centre), with graduating students at the 2019 Roehampton University Graduation ceremony.

Aventis Graduate Diploma in Digital Transformation & Innovation

The Aventis Graduate Diploma in Digital Transformation & Innovation is a 6-month part-time online programme for:

Professionals seeking to acquire digital transformation skills and credentials for their career progression

Managers and senior executives involved in their organisation’s digital transformation process

Business owners, managers, and executives seeking to develop digital transformation capabilities for their business

Details of the programme, including the course syllabus and faculty members, can be found on the Aventis website.

Find out more about other e-Learning courses, as well as live stream workshops at Aventis here:

About Aventis Learning Group

Aventis Learning Group is a leading Corporate Training and Education Provider in Singapore. Established since 2008, Aventis has trained over 30,000 learners across Asia. Aventis offers a suite of over 200 courses, certifications, graduate diploma and part-time masters programmes.

This sponsored article by Aventis School of Management helped the writer get schooled in digital transformation.

Top photo via Campaign Creators on unsplash