After the digital rush: it's time for people to shine

Johannesburg, 24 Feb 2021
Read time 6min 30sec
Muggie van Staden, CEO, Obsidian
Muggie van Staden, CEO, Obsidian

When you go to a restaurant, you don't want the kitchen to get your order wrong. So it can be concerning if the waiter doesn't write down your choice. Yet if they succeed, well, it's pretty darn impressive! And succeed they do – a recent study by The Guardian found that experienced senior waiters in some Buenos Aires eateries can remember the orders of 10 people at a table without writing down anything. That's food and drinks, in case you were wondering.

Of course, a machine can do the same and do it even better. There is no noteworthy limit to how many food orders the average computer could recall. So why not just replace the waiters with computers? The answer is obvious: computers clinically remembering your order aren't impressive, but a waiter that can do it all creates a remarkable experience. Technology cannot replace the human touch.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world and accelerated digital adoption beyond everyone's expectations. Yet while there has been much backslapping over how well computers have saved our collective behinds, the harder questions are now emerging around people.

"I think for most businesses, it's a challenge in this new world," says Muggie van Staden, CEO of Obsidian. "So the big business risk is, how do you really transition to remote work? And it's a business opportunity as well. The things that we thought would not be possible – and we always came up for reasons why it can't be, those are now the norm."

Not about technology

If we're honest, we rarely talk about what's not possible technologically. When we worry about what's not possible, it's usually in terms of people. For example, there was ample scepticism and resistance to remote working before the pandemic. Deemed too risky because people can't be trusted to do their jobs, such views were rarely challenged successfully. Then, one virus changed the conversation overnight.

"Sitting in front of your PC doesn't make you productive. We should measure staff on output, not on how much time they spend in the office. COVID has forced everybody's hand. The only way to measure people is to ask: 'Are they doing the job that we expect them to do?' If they are getting it done, we actually don't care if they're sitting in front of the PC or not," says Van Staden.

But there are problems that we didn't consider. Remote working has led to several internal disruptions that need attention – and with some urgency. The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation, but not people management. If anything, it has exposed significant weaknesses in how we engage people and proliferate cultures. Technology can provide the answers, but only if it's willing to listen.

Creating a post-pandemic workforce

"People realise that from an HR point of view, we have to rethink things. We have to find new ways of measuring stuff. There are also other challenges. How do we keep the social part of a team going with things like Zoom? And how do these things affect different people differently?"

Van Staden points out that the very dynamic of being an employee has changed. It used to be a standard interview question: are you more of a loner or team player? But now, people have to be both. Workforces are undergoing changes that society had not had to deal with at this scale, if at all.

The people topic covers several areas that are both risks and opportunities. Tackling these are paramount to bringing people forward by the same leap digital technology had just made.

Infrastructure: From Internet at home to even alternative energy allowances to mitigate load-shedding, the migration from a regular office to home office has tremendous implications on employees. How these are handled will have a direct impact on employee capacity and productivity.

Well-being: People no longer benefit from the relocation detox when attending an office. They now perpetually live and work in the same space – and during a global event that puts their loved ones and financial futures at risk. Employee well-being is under assault and needs soothing.

Culture: One of the impacts few predicted was remote working's negative impact on culture. For example, how does a new employee adopt a culture when other employees aren't around to project it? Culture also relates to team and project dynamics. We've never missed the water-cooler more than we do now, and it may be the greatest existential threat to companies coming out of the pandemic.

Collaboration: Tying to the culture matter is a question of collaboration. Fortunately, many collaboration technologies can help create vibrant remote interactions. But just as the world hardly knew about Teams and Zoom until a year ago, many still need to discover collaboration platforms' potential.

How technologists can help

If you're yearning for the days when technologists hid in the back, and the rest of the people just did whatever they did, you are in the wrong industry. More than ever before, companies rely on technology experts to make sense of their choices. More simply put, people's problems need technology solutions.

There are obvious contributions, such as finding the right applications for the right needs. In this light, technologists should be reaching out to other parts of the business and ask what their challenges are. People-centric parts of the business, such as human resources and marketing, have rarely been near the forefront of digital transformation. Now they need that same magic, but they don't know what's possible. The modern technologist must close those gaps.

Yet it's not just about technology products. Technology culture is a blueprint for remote collaboration, says Van Staden: "We've had lots of development and IT teams who learned to work distributed in a distributed manner. They use things like service desks or source code repositories. Other people in a company may never have been exposed to that. So that's definitely something that the technologists can do. They can reach out to other parts of the business and say: 'You know, we actually have a few tools that we've been using the last while to get our technical teams to function together. Can we maybe sit with you and maybe build you a confluence page so that HR can work better? Can we maybe implement an HR service desk?'"

People are critical to success. Some jobs can't be done by machines and other jobs we don't want machines to do. The digital era has jumped forward technologically, but it's yet to bring people along. This is the big challenge for companies in 2021 and arguably for years to come. Technologists have many of the answers, in terms of solutions but also culture and experience. The real digital transformation starts now, with people transformation.

See also