Automation during a pandemic
The pandemic forced businesses to focus on how they could enable their employees to function outside of the office, sparking investment in solutions that could enable this. Initially, there was panic as businesses had to get people home and working with very little notice. A few key issues quickly came to the fore: did their employees have a device, did they have connectivity, and did they have power – load-shedding quickly became a key factor of work-from-home during lockdown.
Barry Venter, CEO of Nashua, says: “Businesses soon discovered that not all of their employees had the requisite equipment to work from home. Interestingly, the companies that were best equipped to empower a remote workforce had already put in place collaborative cloud-based tools such as a document management system, collaboration and digital signature tools and the like.”
It is important that any tools adopted by the business be easy to use. Sometimes businesses have the necessary tools, but employees never use them to the full capability, barely scraping the surface of what they can do. “The solution might be a good one, but businesses get caught up in the complexity of getting people to use it properly. Managing these environments and systems is not always easy: if a tool is cumbersome to use, then people tend to create their own processes.”
However, with the remote workforce, businesses still needed to get things signed off and authorised. The reality is that the world didn’t fall apart, people still managed to run their business from any location where they had connectivity. On this point, connectivity was key, and it had to be sustainable and a decent connection. Businesses discovered that their processes needed to be digitised and automated, and that everything that had run previously in a paper-based format simply didn’t work.
While many employees had tools on their phones or tablets that enabled them to take photos of documents and digitise them, new processes were required to accommodate this. Digital processes have more intelligence than paper-based processes, resulting in fewer things going missing. Typically pieces of paper can be left on a desk or taken home and forgotten. You don’t have these drawbacks with digital processes. While business has been advocating for automated processes for years, the pandemic has made this a reality. People who may have been reluctant to adopt digitised processes initially now have no choice but to embrace them.
But how did a business decide which processes to automate? Venter says that all processes in all divisions required automation in order for the business to continue to function during lockdown – with a caveat that processes be optimised before being digitised. “Certain checks and balances can be removed as the digitised processes have intelligence to determine aspects of the process, which is not necessarily available in offline paper-based processes.”
He cites the example of an invoice that goes into an accounts payable process. Previously this may have been done manually, with the invoice going through one or more approvals depending on the value or delegation of authority. This becomes a daunting task when people are distributed remotely, as does ensuring the proper delegation of authority is followed, as well as multiple levels of sign-off, if required.
Companies faced several challenges when automating their processes, the primary one being that a lot of people don’t know what the processes in their business actually entail. “Usually, a process has a lot more steps than one thinks because people tend to introduce their own steps into manual processes. Digital processes are a lot stricter than manual processes; they generate reminders and escalate if the process stalls for whatever reason. For this reason, businesses need to be wary of which processes they choose to digitise. Digitising a poorly designed process simply makes a bad process faster, not necessarily more efficient, which is why it is key to understand the process and decide which steps are relevant and which can be left out. Sometimes steps are introduced to minimise shortcomings that were part of the manual process, but these are no longer an issue if it is digitised.
A cloud-based system enables the business and its employees to be able to access everything remotely, from leave applications to expense claims to HR onboarding. All too often some of these processes are either run on manual or homegrown systems that just do not work with a distributed workforce. “Today’s businesses need ready access to their information and to be able to control who can access what, which is especially relevant from a compliance perspective, with POPIA coming into effect,” adds Venter.
Digitisation is key and businesses that have overlooked it are now being forced to hasten this journey and are realising it is far less daunting than they imagined. COVID-19 has had the effect of pushing people and companies out of their comfort zones.