In A Pandemic, You’re Only As Adaptable As Your Workflows

By Doron Youngerwood, Director of Marketing at SysAid Technologies

When the COVID-19 lockdowns began in March 2020, everyone’s personal “workflows” changed. Suddenly, we had to rethink the processes of daily life—where to go, what to touch, in what order, and with what precautions. Just visiting the grocery store required a ten-step workflow (and copious amounts of hand sanitizer). We’ve become the emergency process managers of our own little domain.

In other words, everyone has gotten a taste of how IT people design, modify, and adapt workflows during a crisis. Hopefully, your colleagues are adjusting to the workflows you’ve created for deploying Zoom, setting up VPNs, or purchasing home IT equipment. More than a month into this crisis, one might hope that the remote work preparations and digitization is done. Now we just wait until everything goes back to “normal,” right?

Hardly. The world is not about to go back to normal. In fact, business workflows will become more complex as economies attempt to reopen. Workflow adaptations we made for lockdowns won’t necessarily age well in the coming months. To grow rather than merely survive, your company needs to be adaptable. In a fast-changing pandemic, adaptability hinges on your ability to create, modify, and evolve workflows in response to the unexpected. 

Normal? Nowhere Near

Numerous articles have been written about how or when life will become “normal” again after coronavirus. “Normal” captures all the hopes we share—of eating out at a restaurant again, of hugging grandma and grandpa, of not feeling those dry, crackly hands that have been soaped and sanitized ad nauseum. If that’s normal, well, we might want to lower expectations, especially at work.

Why? Because millions of homebound, unemployed, or furloughed people want to return to work, and we don’t know how that will go. The coronavirus has not disappeared, and companies will only manage to restart operations if they perform rigorous testing and contact tracing. Re-onboarding employees and keeping them safe will not be easy. 

Furthermore, the global recession will force most business departments to slash their budgets. They will be under pressure to substitute slow, manual workflows with faster, more efficient ways of getting things done. Plus, businesses that rely heavily on in-person commerce, group gatherings, and face-to-face interaction will have to pivot their business models, at least temporarily. That, too, calls for digital workflows to support remote collaboration and drive productivity.

To be fair, some of my customers at SysAid have used our Workflow Designer to build remote work enablement processes that will stand the test of time. But no, we’re not done changing workflows. In fact, that job is about to become more frequent and more difficult.

Chess Game #1 – Manual Version

Let’s say that in a few weeks, your company plans to reopen a manufacturing plant. It must do everything possible to keep new infections out of the workplace. That means the company needs a workflow in place for a situation in which an employee contracts the virus. 

Picture this like a chess game against COVID-19, where a workflow determines the opening moves. If this workflow were manual or undetermined, it might go like this: 

  1. Employee gets a positive COVID-19 test result and calls her manager.
  2. The manager is away from the phone, so the employee leaves a voicemail.
  3. An hour later, the employee is worried about her colleagues and unsure of what to do. 
  4. She contacts a coworker who happens to be at the plant. He panics and tells everyone. 
  5. As rumors spread on the manufacturing floor, the lines shut down. Is it even safe to be there? Who’s been exposed?

In this case, there’s no assurance that the sick employee will get information to the people who need it. If she doesn’t, there’s no backup plan. This manual workflow leaves employees exposed to danger and threatens business continuity.

Chess Game #2 – Digital Version

Now, let’s consider the same situation with a workflow that is more digitized and automated. 

  1. Employee self-reports a positive COVID-19 test result online, through a self-service portal.
  2. Her manager, HR, and facilities are all alerted in real-time by text and email.
    1. The manager informs anyone who works in close proximity with the infected employee. They are asked to go home, get tested, and await results.
    2. HR notifies local health authorities, initiates paid sick leave for the quarantined employees, and fills their time slots.  
    3. The facilities department disinfects any areas where the infected employee was known to have been. 
  3. The manager, HR, and facilities each confirm that these steps have been taken.

The contact tracing and response workflow is tracked, and all stakeholders are notified automatically, ensuring that everyone is on the same page. These opening moves address the immediate danger and create many follow-up choices. Perhaps the safety manager should interview the sick employee. Did she expose a flaw in the company’s protective equipment or sanitization procedures? If the positive employee is hospitalized, what steps will HR take next to support this person? How will HR temporarily replace quarantined personnel for the next 14 days? 

Speed and Visibility

In a pandemic where regulations, science, and facts on the ground can change quickly, process managers and IT need to think several moves beyond the present. They need to create workflows fast and adapt them to malleable circumstances. 

It’s not just about making a process fast or repeatable, although those are good attributes. It’s about accounting for the if-then situations that are bound to come up. It’s about digitizing workflows such that information is guaranteed to reach people who will take follow-up actions when response times matter.

For something like contact tracing, the stakes are high. The speed of the workflow has life and death consequences. For less consequential workflows, like software procurement, there is still immense value in speeding up the flow of information and reducing costs. Many companies are going to stretch their cash to the absolute limits in the coming months.

Even as economies reopen and strive for “normal,” expect the way we work to be disrupted again, sooner rather than later. We may reopen now only to see a seasonal resurgence. The virus can mutate. We still await reliable antibody tests, proven treatments, and a vaccine. So, prepare yourself to keep changing workflows. We’re not done yet.

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