In the short-term, the pandemic has been disruptive to nearly every aspect of normalcy worldwide. The pandemic has forced much of the workforce to change how we work, shifting to an entirely remote workforce. Companies were forced to decide on technological and workforce strategies quickly, and many-faced supply chain issues on the way. Technology has become a focus, even for companies that are slower to adopt or typically are resistant to change. This adjustment has been a requirement in 2020. But what will happen in 2021 and beyond? Will companies revert to normal operating procedures once things are “all clear”?
Most of the technology needed to work remotely is not new. For example, Skype launched in 2003. The difference is that the current technology is peaking in its access and usability. Zoom and other video chat companies didn’t do anything revolutionary per se, as we all already had the technology at our fingertips for free. What the pandemic did was force widespread usage for business and personal use. A survey of 800 global executives by McKinsey found that since the start of the pandemic, 85 percent of companies have either ‘significantly accelerated’ or ‘somewhat accelerated’ their digitization efforts. Most of the remaining 15 percent of companies either had no change or did not adopt new technology. This report simply confirms what we already know: almost every company has been forced to adjust. Interestingly in the same survey, 67 percent of those companies reported an acceleration of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) technologies. The adjustment to remote working has sparked the adoption of other technologies that can drive efficiencies and productivity. This adoption sets the stage for 2021 to push further advancements as companies realize the tremendous opportunities from AI and ML.
For many companies, the next step in technology progression has been to realize and deploy new solutions that can provide competitive advantages on costs and productivity. Srividya Sridharan at Forrester predicts that 2021 will be a big year for AI and ML. She notes that “the grittiest of companies will push AI to new frontiers, utilizing on-demand holographic meetings, personalized manufacturing, gamified strategic planning, and board room simulations.” Some current AI examples in the workplace include; chatbots for internal services, sentiment/engagement tools, and career development tools (Forbes). These tools are in their infancy but have room for significant advancements as more people work from home. The utilization of AI and automation is certainly ramping up and gearing up for exciting new developments. This trend is confirmed by the McKinsey survey, which showed that 80 percent of companies that were pushed to remote work also emphasized some form of AI or automation. My personal experience of remote reflects this trend as well, as we have explored and deployed AI and automation across functions. The upheaval delivered by the pandemic has required competitive companies to at least explore and push for change. Sridharan notes that AI can be enhanced and made more powerful through ML. “Using no-code automated machine learning (AutoML) to implement five, 50, or 500 AI use cases faster, leapfrogging their competitors with capable, entrenched data science teams that take a traditional, code-first approach to ML.” Pairing AI and ML will generate significant enhancements to AI effectiveness, further pushing the boundaries on what is possible.” As adoption and usage continue to grow, the possibilities with AI and ML could be exponential.
The world is heading into 2021 with so much hope and optimism, with the feeling that a return to normalcy is on the horizon – there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel. With a vaccine now approved for emergency use in the United States and in several other countries, it feels like we are rounding the corner on the pandemic. Once we can control the pandemic, will everything go back to normal? Will we go back to commuting and going to the office five days a week? This year’s experience has proved that remote working can be just as, if not more effective, as working in person. I would welcome a hybrid approach where the opportunities we realized in 2020 can still be utilized, mixed with some in office time. I suspect this approach will become the accepted norm at many companies. Even before the pandemic, companies were rethinking office footprints and remote working policies, with some embracing a fully decentralized staff with little to no office space, others contemplating a hub and spoke model. Technology will continue to change the way we work, and specifically, AI and ML will continue to push the boundaries on what is possible. The pandemic proved to many that utilizing current technology and thinking beyond current limitations has delivered benefits and is much more approachable than once thought. Life may start to feel somewhat more normal than it has the past 9 months, but how we think about work will be changed long-term.