How to engineer resilience in a post-pandemic world

AhmedBy Ahmed Mazhari, President, Microsoft Asia.

There will come a time when this pandemic will be behind us, shrinking quickly in our rear-view mirror. However, what will never be forgotten, like the influenza catastrophe of 1918, will be the year 2020.  When we get to feeling that the pandemic is history, will we be ready and fortified for the next crisis? The last year will serve as a painful reminder of how we were caught off-guard by a health crisis, one that wreaked havoc on millions of lives and the global economy, with the highest impact on livelihoods.

The optimist in me is sensing some momentum to the re-imagination of a post-Covid-19 world. A year ago, being in Asia-Pacific, we were the first region impacted, and we are now leading the world on best practices to emerge from the crisis. Some parts of Asia are gradually returning to a semblance of life before the pandemic. Places like China, Taiwan, and Vietnam are either reporting some very minor economic contractions, or even modest growth.[i] In other parts of Asia, the situation seems to be stabilizing, and citizens are starting to feel safer.

Approved vaccines are also reaching many parts of the globe, with the hope of making the world safer and healthier. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum has decided to hold a special edition of its annual meeting away from its legacy home in Switzerland. The global economic and business conference will organize its 2021 annual meet in Singapore in May, thanks to the country’s relatively low rate of new Covid-19 cases, and successful experimentation with modified versions of large-scale conferences.[ii] I have personally attended one such event with several dozen participants, and I can describe the experience as unique and quite surreal.

For better or worse, the crisis has given us a laser focus on what is important. The changes to the way we live and work are neither temporary nor short-lived. We need to reframe how we view successful, resilient organizations, and the infrastructure, relationships, and processes that make them tick. I am confident we are prepared for the ‘next normal’ and the future of work.

A call for operational, technological, and emotional resilience

They say a rising tide lifts all the boats — big and small — in the harbor. I would argue the same for organizational empowerment, and economies of all sizes. How do we future-proof our businesses from the inside-out? How do we set them up for longevity and success? We need an integrated approach to resilience, and unwavering commitment to this vision.

hybrid workplace
Analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute found that more than 20% of the workforce could work from home (three to five days weekly) as effectively as they could if working from an office.

1. Operational Resilience – The backbone of productivity

The pandemic has fast-tracked digitalization, exposing the vulnerabilities of businesses with traditional, offline systems and low-skilled workers.[iii] If teams can foster a Culture of Innovation (COI), they can stand up to disruptions. COI is the synergy between four important dimensions in an organization — its People, Processes, Data, and Technology — that births sustained innovation.

When these four dimensions are cognizant of the bigger enterprise mission, they can work alongside —not against — each other to produce integrated value across the organization. Subsequently, the more we migrate business processes and workloads onto cloud platforms, the more we can scale innovation and productivity in times of uncertainty. This is operational resilience.

There is a myth that the aggressive adoption of technology will cut jobs, and automation will decimate entire industries in the future. Over the next five years, an estimated 149 million technology jobs will be created. This is exciting news from a sociological and an economic standpoint. While it is estimated that 50% of jobs will be impacted by automation in a decade, the data shows that only 5% of them will be eliminated. The most tedious and repetitive aspects of work might be managed by programs, but at least 90% of available jobs then will require digital or technology skills.[iv] Sadly, these skills are currently in short supply, and it would be challenging for anyone to gain meaningful employment without them.

In a study on employment and talent in the digital economy, the Boston Consulting Group posits that there will be some 400 million jobs created by 2035.[v] It becomes mission-critical then to train the young and upskill vulnerable groups to enable them to thrive in the future.

Trust underscores operational resilience. Trust informs all decision making. At Microsoft, we are challenged to think broadly about our responsibilities as technology leaders. How should we lead in a way that reflects our accountability, while growing the confidence of workforces and partners?

We protect customers while empowering them with enterprise-grade technology. We make no compromises when we build partnerships that advocate for security policies.  By creating responsible, transparent, and reliable use of technologies like AI, we are building trust with everyone in the value chain.

It is demanding work which we believe will pave a better future for everyone.

2. Technological Resilience – The power tools of a digital world

Just as a carpenter needs a claw hammer, hand saw, and chisel to fashion beautiful shelves, an organization needs precision tools to withstand the shocks of crises. If we can fortify our businesses with integrated technology architecture, and leverage platforms to optimize for service delivery through and beyond the next severe disruption, we will have won the trust of our customers. This is technological resilience.

Data is now the mercurial lifeblood of our digital world. It swims, ebbs, and flows borderless between servers, the cloud, and information systems. Unlocking this data in a practical, meaningful way for our businesses will create a myriad of opportunities. We must share and make data transparent across the organization and utilize it for extreme personalization and rapid value creation — for your teams, partners, and customers. Invest in the building of accurate, trusted, and secure data sources for real-time insights and reliable decision-making. For both buyers and sellers, quality data begets quality solutions.

Given the ubiquitous and powerful nature of data, it must be wielded and possessed by responsible entities. As malicious software attacks increase around the world, we need “power tools” to reinforce our digital infrastructures. These robust security systems will protect our businesses’ most potent assets — intellectual property, enterprise data, and personal information — as they rest behind firewalls. The success of a technologically resilient organization must include a significant local and global cyber security strategy.

Beyond security measures, we need to continuously enhance our workflow to optimize our technology processes. When troubleshooting, we need to go beyond triggers to look for root causes, detect issues earlier, and ensure solutions have structure and teeth.[vi] The goal is to respond more efficiently to customer incidents and enhance our resilience in the process.

Shopping from home
Shopping from home will become a post-pandemic norm, as retailers migrate online and live-streaming picks up among digitally savvy sales associates and consumers.

3. Emotional Resilience – The courage to innovate

In romantic relationships, how do the broken-hearted (an actual condition called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy) eventually learn to love again? What gives them the emotional courage to brave the stressors again?

In the business sense, what if we normalized digital readiness? What if we expand our diverse talents’ capabilities and constantly reskill them as part of their jobs? Even reward them for up-skilling? When we encourage inclusive, multi-cultural, and multi-generational talent, we are “training” them to withstand the stress of future disruptions. That is emotional resilience.

The ‘next normal’ calls for us to pay attention to the social cohesion of teams. We need to rethink what leadership looks like when we work in remote, or hybrid worlds. We could review the metrics for productivity and speed, compare outcomes and results. Make employee and customer satisfaction a key metric, for example.

We could review the spaces for productive work, like a large office with micro hubs. We could even temper our limited face-to-face interactions with staff, so that these are less formal and more inspirational.[vii] I am confident that these learnings would foster better coaching and creativity among our organizations.

We should also inculcate a culture of hope, optimism, and engagement with our teams. Connect sincerely on issues like employee wellness and mental health. This creates conversations that benefit growth and camaraderie.

As we embark on constructive recovery this year, let us pledge to bridge productivity with human connection and empathy. We are all on different paths striving for the same destination.

The road is long, but our commitment to resilience will get us there.

















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