Most individuals and businesses have had to adapt very quickly to deal with COVID-19 - a crisis that has not only impacted our health, work and the economy but also our relationship with technology.

Video conferencing apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams allow people to stay connected. AI and automation create efficiencies and increase productivity. Voice and facial recognition increase security and help detect fraud. It is because of technology that many of us are able to continue to work during the most significant pandemic of our lifetime.

David Goad, Adjunct Faculty member for AGSM @ UNSW Business School and Chief Solution Architect for the Automation and Innovation Hub presented at a recent AGSM webinar focusing on the relationship between COVID-19 and technology: Leading Through Times of Crisis: The Impact of Technology in a COVID-19 World.

He was joined on the webinar, hosted by Nick Wailes, Director AGSM and Deputy Dean UNSW Business School, by fellow experts Kristine Dery, Research Scientist with MIT's Centre for Information Systems Research (CISR), and Nigel Phair, Director at UNSW Canberra Cyber and influential author on the intersection of technology, crime and society.

"For a lot of organisations, digital strategy has been secondary to technology. Now it is an imperative as digital becomes the primary channel for communication," said Goad.

And this newfound status has exposed shortcomings in many organisations.

"The digital channels most organisations built are not well designed. Now that digital has become the primary channel, businesses are struggling under the pressure," he said.

With increases in online shopping, poor integration and inadequate supply chains have led to delays for many customer orders. Call centres have struggled with the volume of calls because they’re operating with reduced staff due to COVID-19 restrictions. And while we can manage productivity remotely, it’s the physical bump factor that helps us develop new ideas to their full potential. With many processes still largely manual, many organisations weren't ready to adjust workflows overnight to remote and digital operations.

The current environment has raised some significant technological challenges, opportunities and threats for businesses. Here are some important things to consider for effective operations - now and in a very different future.

Enabling digital capacity isn't just about technology

Some teams have shifted from having 1%-20% of their people working remotely to 100% of them working from home almost overnight. And while technology is central to our ability to function during a crisis, enabling people (and technology) to be effective requires much more than a piece of software.

"COVID-19 has shifted one very important lever in the employee experience framework: the space where work is done," said Kristine Dery. "This shift not only requires new digital capabilities, but a different way of leadership in these organisations."

Leaders need to understand the speed bumps their people are encountering and the technologies available to overcome those. "Timely personal coaching and support becomes even more important," said Dery.

Many organisations assume that their people can set up the technology and manage their internet while working from home. But often, this is not the case.

"Organisations should provide guidance about what the at-home infrastructure should look like. You're going to be relying on the technology in people's homes and their internet connection for a long period of time. You need to support them and help them upgrade."

Leaders should also look at their processes, and assess how they can make data more accessible so people can work more effectively.

"The impact of the crisis has really put a spotlight on processes that have, for a long time, needed a lot more digital support," Devy said.

Creating new cultures and new collective behaviours that define what it means to work in virtual environments are also important moving forward.

"I think shifting the employee experience from just simply connecting people to creating an experience that's relevant in a virtual world is where companies are heading - and finding it one of the greatest challenges to overcome," said Devy.

Changing rules of digital security

Now that people work on different devices from different locations and at varying times of the day, protecting corporate information may mean re-thinking existing security controls.

"Organisations need to look at changing technical business rules when it comes to a control framework, to allow remote log ins," said Nigel Phair. "My advice for organisations coming out of this is to spend at least half a day going through scenarios with your internal and external stakeholders."

Cybercriminals look for any opportunity to exploit weak digital security. They target big corporates with intellectual property or trade secrets, while phishing scams and business email compromise scams go after small to medium organisations. Phair said organisations should get regular briefings from security and information officers to keep abreast of potential threats and changing situations. Setting up metrics across the organisation allows them to check performance across its information assets.

Educating employees about cyber safety is also critical in this new age.

"Your people are the ones that keep the enterprise going, so they need to develop good digital habits. Teach them how not to fall prey to scams and spam. Phishing and business email compromise will continue to be the biggest things going around this year, enabled by a remote workforce."

New digital privacy concerns emerge

Privacy has been a major topic of conversation from the early days of digital. However, as the majority of the workforce is pushed online, it has become a more urgent concern.

"We used to take solace in the fact that if we weren't online, we had our privacy. The fact is, now that we're almost 100% online, our privacy is impacted," said Goad.

Many of the practical online tools that enable us to remain productive raise some new privacy concerns. ‘Zoom-bombing’, where people hack into other people's Zoom calls, has become a popular way to pass the time. Google announced that it is providing mobility data to governments to help manage and understand movements during COVID-19. And many organisations are turning to online tools to monitor their employees as they work remotely.

Tools like Sneek are designed to create connection and culture in a virtual environment. They are built to encourage watercooler moments and collaboration remotely. This, however, means that people’s cameras remain on throughout the day or they’re photographed by the software every few minutes.

So how will this affect us in the long-term? We are likely to get used to it.

"We have this thing called the privacy paradox where people demand a lot of privacy, but when it comes to them actually taking action, they don’t," Goad said. "People got used to giving out financial information online and they’re giving away other data in exchange for services or information. We're still a little bit sensitive around locational and health information, but people are becoming accustomed to it."

A holistic way forward

A mere two decades ago, the majority of businesses would have struggled to keep up productivity during a crisis like COVID-19. Thanks to today’s technology, most are able to remain active and working. However, leaders must realise that plug-and-play solutions are unlikely to work in the long-term. They need to keep employees engaged through new approaches, provide more hands-on training and mentorship, and address changing security and privacy concerns quickly and effectively.

As Dery said, "We have to become learning organisations. Every one of our leaders has to become a teacher to develop workforces with the right level of digital fitness."

To listen to a recording of the AGSM Webinar ‘Leading Through Times of Crisis: The Impact of Technology in a COVID-19 World’ and the other webinars in the series, click here.

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School, click here.