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CHAPTER 2
Emerge Stronger - Navigating the immediate future post-COVID
We cannot really delve into an issue about the future without discussing the immediate past and the massive step changes that brought about in our industry and beyond.
COVID-19 caught everybody by surprise across all industries. No amount of 2020 business strategy planning could help that. The word ‘disruption’ is often used relatively loosely when we discuss rapid industry change. COVID-19 might just be the biggest external mechanism for mass industry disruption that the world has seen since WW2. What began as a seemingly isolated incident in Wuhan province, China became a global pandemic. What happened next depended on a variety of factors. In financial services, many organisations were required to act expeditiously in order to solve immediate issues both internally in terms of loss of revenue and externally in terms of helping clients and customers navigate through the immediate storm. COVID-19 re-wrote the rule book on how governments and businesses operate and re-defined the relationship between business and end-user. It was clear very quickly that the pandemic was not going to go away quickly. It was not a case of ‘let’s ride this out for two weeks and get back to normal’ but rather ‘lets fight the fire, then regrow the forest’ Out of the woods (fighting the fire) Like many organisations, we stepped to action during the immediate COVID-19 impact period (lockdown, change of business, change of client need) and used expertise in data solutions to provide immediate remedy for our clients. Post-lockdown, we put together a dedicated COVID-19 Data Solutions stream which was tasked with focussing on tackling immediate client problems. The COVID-19 Response and Business-Continuity team (CRAB) for instance, worked closely with the Accenture Client team on 3 demos created exclusively for one of our banking clients during this uncertain period.  Furthermore, our Data Solutions team was split across 3 additional top priority areas based on potential business impact. These focused on: 
  1. Augmented Customer Journey Insights - customer analytics dedicated to enhancing the customer experience plus increasing retention and acquisition
  2. Nerve Centre and Virtual Digital Boardrooms - to promote faster executive decision making 
  3. Intelligent Data Management - Improving the functionality of the Intelligent Data Management portal to reduce pressure on the back office and improve compliance. 

The team acted swiftly to prioritise and de-prioritise projects according to need. With a firm focus on both business impact and growth - we ensured that firefighting (short-termism) did not come at the expense of longer-term growth.  This is a pertinent point - because we only benefit from the gift of hindsight after the fact. In this sense, there really was no right or wrong approach to fixing the immediate issues that COVID-19  presented. There are several cases across different industry sectors where immediate pivots and a focus on business innovation has salvaged industries which had been ravaged by the COVID-enforced lockdown - in the small business hospitality sector for example.  However, a collective consensus of foresight quickly emerged that this ‘new normal’ was going to be a matter of fact for the long-term. Our focused Data Solutions streams were designed to ensure that we covered the now and the next - whatever the ‘normal’ was going to be.  
"COVID-19 has ushered in new ways of perceiving and doing things and caused us to intrinsically challenge our values and our assessment of what is important"
Regrowing the forest
The fight against COVID-19 is not over and the dynamic landscape is constantly and rapidly shifting. The verdict is still out as to what doing business and living our lives will look like in what has come to be known as the 'next normal.' The immediate firefighting may have been done but we are not out of danger yet. Even if we ignore the strong Macro trends that are still in play - Brexit, a potential second wave, trade wars, sustainability, rapid changes to cross-industry org structures- there are the practical elements of a shift in our daily lives and the need to return to growth and profitability for businesses that need to be considered. COVID-19 has similarly ushered in new ways of perceiving and doing things and caused us to intrinsically challenge, on a societal level, our values and our assessment of what is important.  For businesses to thrive in the muddied circumstance that COVID has brought to us we need to have a long-term view of the new world we want to build.  There are two clear themes that present themselves:
  1. What does return to work look like? E.g. remote working, managing the office vs home - the new hybrid of working
  2. Security and delivery of long-term business growth while handling the new challenges that remote and flexible working bring.  
Some of the solutions will be technology-driven, some people-focused  and all of the answers are not yet formalised as different governments and organisations trial new models for 2021 PC (post-COVID).
Remote enablement
In our Accenture FS Return to work survey 73% of respondents asserted that they would keep some of their remote workforces permanently remote.  We have seen this borne out across the industry, a state of affairs that would have been unheard of pre-crisis. However, there are certainly concerns that exist surrounding productivity and whether this can be preserved in the long-term and how much extra load there will be on managers to preserve levels of productivity.  Shifting perceptions is key to achieving a balance between people’s desires to work from home or more flexibly and in the ability for teams, especially cross-functional ones, to function. Getting the balance right so that colleagues are connected, able to do their jobs, and empowered to manage the competing demands of working from home without being burned out or having their productive time disappearing into endless video conferences will require new metrics and new ways of managing teams. The shape of the organisation and how individual and cross-functional teams are setup are questions that will need to be answered quickly not only to preserve productivity but in terms of maintaining high levels of corporate culture in the long-term.  Tooling and processes will need a re-think to new ways of working with new technologies explored, invested and scaled in order to be a fluid transition to a hybrid model. Along with the physical kit and connectivity to work from home, companies will need to put in place training, monitoring, data management practices, and develop a resilient and remote-friendly data culture.  Organisations that do not tackle the remote working environment from the perspective of culture will find themselves in difficulty down the line.  Within Accenture there is a good understanding of task to role mapping - which tasks and roles can be done remotely. This skill has been translated into an app to aid businesses in their decision-making. Understanding pain points and what needs to change is crucial here, given the disruption and the changes to visibility. Automated process mining, for example, would allow you to identify unknown blockers that have arisen in this greatly changed environment. It may be that backlogs of work generated during the lockdown period need to be quickly assessed using anomaly detection methods to determine if anything was missed or if new risks appeared in this period.
Sidebar
Return to work survey
AI - the great enabler
The good news is that organizations do not have to go into the new normal blindly. Remote working will reveal greater data signals that were previously unseen and these signals can be used to improve the employee experience but also business productivity.  Anything that was previously done in an office from sidebar conversations, at desk conversations, impromptu ideation sessions and so on have been lost. But other data points have entered into the equation that can be measured. It is also important to highlight that some sidebar conversations from ‘how’s your dog’ to ‘yesterday’s sports news’ may have no immediate business relevance until we consider important hidden measures such as company culture and avoiding employee burnout.  All new generated data must be viewed in context as questions as to its relevance and quality must be answered before it can be utilized but similarly seemingly inconsequential data should not be immediately dismissed out of hand for its potential hidden ‘watercooler’ importance.  When it comes to productivity, again it must be iterated that AI isn’t ‘spying on employees,’ it is using AI to make the scenario better and organisations must receive that transparency buy-in from employees if they are to make headways in understanding this new remote data.  AI must be used, first and foremost, for the benefit of employees. For instance, AI will be able to map employee interactions across a day and tell you how these interactions relate to organisational outcomes. But the results that need to be measured are ones such as burnout, risks of employee isolation and so on. If people are not having calls, or messages - what are the underlying reasons for this - where can the organisation help out?  When the organisation is transparent about AI being used in this manner - to measure staff safety and wellbeing - it becomes an enabler.  When it is an enabler it can then be used to decide what to focus on, what to manage and prioritise and therefore feel like a productivity partner. AI can be a way for organisations not to lose the cultural equity which they have built up over time and which was dramatically knocked off course by the COVID aftermath. As culture is viewed through the observable behaviours of its members at times such as now when culture is not able to be observed  how is it defined? AI is a way to continue to measure and observe in order to retain corporate and data culture in organisations - even now.
"Organisations that do not tackle the remote working environment from the perspective of culture will find themselves in difficulty down the line"
Sidebar
Microsoft/Accenture joint research
AI can be your hindsight
All organisations have spent the last few months navigating the way through unplanned and unprecedented disruption. This has effectively generated a backlog of work that was done through untested processes. In financial Services, the immediate shift in behaviours meant that acting quickly was paramount. Whole change programmes such as auto-mortgage payment holidays and increased lending needed to be introduced at scale. But at what cost? 
Now is the time to triage the past 6 months of decisions to influence the foreseeable future. It is impossible to manually navigate this past 6 months to check for new types of fraud, triage decisions that were made, to course correct if and where necessary. While humans cannot do this, AI can. In this manner, AI can act as an augmented hindsight for organisations to use the ‘benefit of hindsight’ quicker to ensure that any inefficiencies or wrong decisions can be course corrected. Many businesses were required to make decisions quickly and often reactively in this current climate. When asked ‘how to move forward?’ Some businesses chose walking, some chose swimming and some hopping. None were wrong as all helped businesses move forward. But now is the time to triage, using AI as your hindsight to move forward in the right manner and the right direction. AI - The way forward While COVID-19 has changed the way we work, it also changed the immediate business landscape from growth to survival. This paradigm shift has altered behaviours and adjusted, for many people their relationships with many industries. Financial Services has not escaped this shift. COVID-19 took us all by surprise - for its speed, for its impact, for its long-term implications on how we work and how we live our lives. However, it is also an opportunity to add further impetus to digital transformation, reassess business priorities at micro and macro levels - incorporate new technologies into BAU business functions, scale Proof of Concepts and change the face of what is possible in the industry.. Protecting the bottom line from a cashflow perspective will, of course, be necessary but there is a new dynamic that there is more to growth than the balance sheet meaning there is an opportunity to experiment and build differently than we have before.  AI can be a facilitator of this change, enabling organizations to rapidly learn and therefore navigate through unprepped for scenarios. People on the ground will still be needed to help fight the immediate fires - return to growth, help end users with issues and shifting dynamics, promote your brand, deliver great customer service etc. and so cannot be expected to see the bigger picture.  While you will be focused on your team structures and organizational design in the new operational landscape AI can help deliver the heavy lifting and augment your requirements as you return to growth.  The time is now to act quickly to embed AI across the organization, at a time when people are best prepared for it. The current situation has been terrible but not taking advantage of the AI silver-lining of this COVID-shaped cloud would be a mistake.