From a business perspective, the global COVID-19 pandemic has provided the IT sector with an unwelcome and unlikely but effective proof of concept of the benefits of digital transformation (DX). The whole selling point of DX has been making enterprises agile and flexible enough to adjust to sudden market shifts and disruptions quickly. And even though the disruption that DX evangelists had in mind was more along the lines of digital-first start-ups taking a sledgehammer to traditional market paradigms, a global pandemic shutting down supply chains and forcing customers and employees alike to stay home turned out to be another powerful example.
Enterprises that were ahead of the DX curve when COVID-19 first emerged are now testifying that the transformation initiatives they launched years ago helped them mitigate the impact of coronavirus-enforced lockdowns on their business operations. Indeed, this was the theme of a customer panel at a virtual VMWare event in October, in which companies ranging from telcos and banks to aerospace manufacturers explained how DX enabled them to adjust to pandemic, and discussed what this means for the future of the workplace.
DX pays off
Choon Boon Tan, managing director for cloud engineering and services at the T&O division of DBS, says that the bank saw a number of massive shifts in its business when COVID-19 kicked in. On the retail side, during the lockdown period between March to July, DBS saw about 200,000 new customer sign-ups, which included a 3.3x increase in elderly customers, while it also saw a 12% year-on-year increase in the use of digital cash. Online banking usage for corporate customers saw a 4x increase, while online loan applications increased 4.5x.
Tan credited DBS’ decision to undergo full digital transformation seven years ago for helping it adjust quickly to these shifts, despite the fact that a global pandemic was the last thing on the board’s mind at the time. “What started out as a trigger and fear of competition from the big tech companies, it helped us to handle the COVID-19 situation quite well. We are probably lucky to have done what we did seven years ago.”
As another example, Tan noted that the bank was able to maintain delivery of application services via its CI/CD pipeline at pre-COVID rates
“We have close to half a million of automated applications built on a monthly basis, and 325,000 code releases,” he says. “Even when all the developers were on lockdown, we still managed to maintain that level of delivery. All of this is only possible because we have done aggressive automation, virtualizing everything and moving into a cloud-native platform.”
Carlo K Nizam, CIO of Airbus India & South Asia, said that his company’s adoption of virtual computing helped to keep its design center in Bangalore running even with remote working – and this despite the fact that airplane design by nature involves heavy, graphic-intensive workloads.
“These are employees that use typically heavy 3D applications like CATIA or 3DX, who make up almost half of our workforce,” he explains. “Without virtual computing, our designers wouldn’t have been able to work remotely due to the bandwidth constraints. It’s also allowed those employees to work remotely with high-end computing but using low-end computing devices like laptops and tablets, even Chromebooks, as opposed to heavy, expensive workstation laptops. If they need more higher-end computing power, they don’t need to arrange for a new laptop or desktop and waste time ordering them and waiting for them to be delivered – software can rapidly adjust their computing power very quickly to their needs.”
Nizam says virtual computing enabled Airbus’ design center in Bangalore to swap out clunky docking stations on desks with tons of wiring for hot desks with a monitor and a thin client connected to virtual servers. “And that means that anybody, anyone that comes into the office, can log in at any desk and move around – which is incidentally quite important today because when you come into the office today, you need to respect social distancing requirements, so people need to be able to move around and hot-desk.”
That said, Nizam admits that the COVID-19 lockdowns did force Airbus to embrace that level of flexibility more quickly than it was prepared for.
“There’s nothing like a burning platform to create a sense of urgency,” he jokes. “As the lockdown was approaching, we were primarily a workstation-based organization and we were just rolling out remote working, and we thought, we don’t have enough laptops for all these thousands of employees, how are we going to get them to work from home? You can’t work with 3D or high-end engineering on a corporate VPN. In the end, we basically had to securitize hundreds of workstations and make them more secure and we also had to do little tasks like finding UPS devices because in India, the electricity supply is variable – you don’t want them blowing up and burning.”
For telecoms operator Spark New Zealand, the impact of COVID-19 was quite naturally seen on the traffic shifts on its network, says head of IT infrastructure Siddharth Kumar.
“What used to be our peak broadband traffic – let’s say from 9pm onwards when all the Netflix came on – that shifted completely during the day when we had work-from-home scenarios all across the country,” Kumar says.
Spark’s own transformation initiative focused partly on the network it uses to serve customers – enabling it to quickly adjust and scale capacity to serve those shifts in traffic demand – but also on its own internal operations, which came into play in its customer care division.
“Contact centers were an interesting scenario for us, because we could see that there were no more building-based contact centers,” Kumar says. “Everyone was working from home, which we had trialed way back with our agents at home working. But that was a small number, and now it was everyone. We were set up to work from home, but not at that scale – but it helped.”
Kumar says Spark had its work cut out for it in making sure that its enterprise and government customers could connect their remote workforces with enough bandwidth to support videoconferencing. Ironically, one unintended result was that many people returned to the office to find that their videoconferencing user experience at home was much better.
“When the lockdown was over, people were going back to office buildings and some people were working from home, and the network couldn’t cope because the office network wasn’t designed for videoconferencing, but when people were working from home, they had better internet at home,” Kumar says. “So there was a push for upgrading networks on the enterprise side as well because they were not designed for that kind of thing.”
The new normal?
As for the inevitable question of whether things will go back to normal once COVID-19 is under control, Nizam of Airbus says: “I hope not. I think there are a lot of positive things that can come out of this from a pure IT perspective, the focus on network and connectivity and remote working. Actually, we’ve seen our productivity increase.”
That said, he warns that it’s important to maintain human engagement both now as the pandemic persists and well after it’s subsided. “If we’re not having that pressing the flesh and not having that ability to see that we’re human at the end of the day, we need to be careful about how we manage and continue engagement. Also, the way we lead also has to evolve in this new context.”
Kumar of Spark agrees. “In many ways, I would like for a few things to go back to the way they were, but then again, that’s wishful thinking. In my teams, I’ve seen that there’s been a much higher level of engagement because we felt a lot more connected during these times, even though you were in the same office, same building versus having a quick check-in on how you are doing, it has helped us a lot, and that’s something we will continue and will not change.”
Tan of DBS says the real question of whether things will go back to normal is less about corporate management and processes and more about the customers. “Are the customers going to go back to the way they were? From what we are seeing, I don’t think that trend will reverse. Transformation, changes and digitization are here to stay, and we just have to prepare for that.”
The future of remote working
The same goes for remote working specifically, Tan adds, although he says remote working is more likely to be an option rather than a default mode.
“When the lockdown first started, people were generally quite happy to be able to have a chance to work at home right, but two or three months into it, we start to see cases of employees showing symptoms of mental health and fatigue. Some of them are even starting to want to come back into office,” he says.
Tan envisions a hybrid approach where the mix of working at home and working in the office depends on the job role and the individual. “When things are task-based, the strategies have been worked out fully and you’re just executing a task, we can do that from home. If you’re trying to generate ideas and having discussions and need views on things, we still find a lot of value of that being done in the office.” Nizam of Airbus agrees. “I think [remote working is] here to stay. I just think that the balance needs to be addressed for each company, given the nature of the work. For some people, they may struggle – they need to be in the office, they want to be in the office. People are coming into the offices to do team boosters and see each other. It’s a subject we’re debating quite intensely in our company as to what makes sense and where to find the right balance.