Digital workers may just save us in the most unexpected ways

By Ryan Falkenberg, co-CEO of CLEVVA

Published in Techfinancials on 22nd May 2020

This pandemic offers us the opportunity to reimagine a future that allows people to step away from the ‘non-thinking’ production line and to hand this task to digital workers.

COVID-19 looks to be the tipping point for the world of work. Traditional organisations, which for so long demanded their employees’ physical presence have been forced to rethink their views. Thanks to South Africa’s lockdown, the impossible has rapidly become the new normal.

Take sales. It’s becoming clear that you don’t need to be in the same room as your customer to have a successful sales engagement. Customers can and do adapt. What they really want is to have their situation properly understood, and a solution shaped to their needs and context. They are tired of being treated as a generic – they want to be treated as a unit of one. And if this can be achieved digitally at a lower cost of sale, then so be it.

The same applies to service and many other business areas. Humans have not proven to be great at delivering this. But digital workers can.

Digital workers can navigate customers through context-rich engagements and offer hyper-relevant experiences that deliver meaningful outcomes. They can read hand-written application forms and capture data into operating systems sourced from multiple structured and unstructured data sources. They can not only fetch any data that digital sales and support workers require, but they also execute resulting actions in real-time. As a result, customers can engage with your business almost entirely via digital workers.

But, what happens to staff who are now trapped at home, and are already feeling vulnerable? The type of work they do in a digitally-enabled business will change and become more valuable.

Rather than performing rule-driven, repetitive tasks, people will be asked to connect, reflect, innovate and create more, problem-solve, interpret and communicate more. This is not work that is done from a desk to the clock. It can be done while walking, brainstorming, showering. Time is not a measure of output. Impact is.

To get the most out of this shift, organisations will need to rethink a number of things:

  1. More flexible workspaces – with the rapid improvements in productivity technologies, companies can source better quality teams from remote locations than be limited to recruiting people happy to live close to their head office. Flexible working environments should be embraced, supported by technologies that enable diverse teams working from different locations and time zones.
  2. Greater adoption of digital workforces – all prescribed work, constrained by rules and processes, should be handed over to digital workers that can execute against prescribed formulae at scale without error or training. Plus, they adapt quickly when rules change, so you don’t have to deal with ongoing change management.
  3. A willingness to re-imagine human work – humans are better at being than doing. The problem is that we have been trapped in a state of doing for so long that we struggle to change our unconscious mental state. We wake up, eat breakfast, commute, perform our tasks and come back home on pure auto-pilot. Luckily digital workers are increasingly able to lift this burden from us, and give us the breathing space we need to ‘be’ again.

This is what some of us have tasted during lockdown. Given time to reflect, think, and ideate, we are starting to raise our consciousness levels and become aware of how human, business and global systems operate.

We are becoming more aware of what makes us happy and healthy. We are becoming aware of our impact on the planet. We are seeing things differently because we have the time and space to.

Imagine if this was what we paid people to do? To think more, to analyse systems, to re-imagine supply chains, or ideate ways to disrupt ourselves before someone does it for us. Imagine what this could have done for airlines, travel companies and restaurants 6 months ago? It may have allowed them to see the train smash before it was too late. It may have enabled them to pivot using the adaptive systems they had put in place. Instead, like the Titanic, they kept their people busy below the decks while they steamed straight for the iceberg in front of them.

This pandemic offers us the opportunity to reimagine a future that allows people to step away from the ‘non-thinking’ production line and to hand this task to digital workers. This frees us up to focus our attention on designing adaptive, sustainable systems capable of thriving in our highly interconnected and complex world. A future where our value comes more from the questions we ask than the answers we give. Where our deep consciousness, our inner being, is valued and rewarded far more than our ability to perform rule-based tasks from a desk in an office in the centre of a city.

May this be the lasting gift of COVID-19. Our planet and our souls desperately need it.