For years, digital transformation has seemed like something mostly about computers and software and data. It is what companies undertake for the sake of things like IT agility, deriving new value from data, model software prototypes of physical goods, or improving business processes.
While such technology endeavors are often critical to a business, it turns out that digital transformation is, at its core, really about us. That carries many powerful lessons for how we should think about technology and work, now and in the future.
Something astonishing is taking place. Companies and individuals across the globe transitioned from in-person meetings to video conferencing rapidly, some even overnight. Over the last few weeks Google Meet, Google Cloud’s video conferencing product, saw day-over-day growth surpass 60%. As of March 31, cumulative daily meeting minutes on the Google Meet platform surpassed 2 billion minutes per day, roughly the number of minutes in 3,800 years.
Other video providers have had their own dramatic increases. People met, accessed work, collaborated digitally on all sorts of projects, and drew from apps in the cloud and their companies’ computers via the internet. They transformed into digital workers, making digital products.
To be sure, this has not been a wholesale transition of the workforce, and it certainly does not mean the economy is beyond its current unprecedented challenges. Yet consider the speed of this change for millions of workers against past workplace transitions. Typewriters, carbon paper, and file cabinets took decades to become a standard. Even server-based email and word processing, over many years and many versions, carried icons like scissors and glue pots (for “cut” and “paste,” respectively).
The sound of voices and the looks on faces can sometimes mean more than the most skillful email writing, and checking in on each other has become an important ritual to the start of work at many companies.
More than simple business urgency accounts for the speedy and generally effective workforce transition we’re seeing as a result of the pandemic. People require both some familiarity and a deep need in order to adapt so quickly.
The familiarity is the past decade’s creation of a consumer digital life. It’s become common to not just have a camera always at hand, in the form of a smartphone, but for that camera to have a video option, with easy ways to put the video on social media. Even when they’re not creators, people are accustomed to seeing all kinds of videos that are romantic, sensational, funny, professional, or amateurish—but above all, effective. That had already made working from home, even so-called “remote first” work groups, a reality in smaller numbers.
Likewise, there are the many apps and features on our phones, the streaming audio and video services, the digital entertainment options like podcasts and ebooks, and the digital lives we live on social media. It will be interesting to see if these consumer social behaviors change in the future, by virtue of people now having better developed digital work lives, too.
The deep need in this case is for human contact. Especially during times of uncertainty, we want to be seen and to check in on each other. The sound of voices and the looks on faces can sometimes mean more than the most skillful email writing, and checking in on each other has become an important ritual to the start of work at many companies.
Besides the self- and team-care, perhaps we’ve underestimated what an important social environment the workplace is for people. Feeling close to others and being effective at work turns out to be inextricable much of the time.
We’re already seeing the ways that providers of video conferencing services and digital work are rising to meet the new need. They are increasing connectivity and capacity and creating features that help people feel more connected and participatory. Corporate security has truly left the geographic firewalls and become concerned with people, wherever and however they’re connected.
Where video conferencing is concerned, that means taking steps like combating abuse and blocking attempts to hijack meetings; providing strong access controls; and building on a secure, compliant, and reliable infrastructure. At a time of uncertainty, security and trusted products and environments have a whole new importance—and bad actors, who unfortunately have not gone away, have to be identified faster than ever.
We know the current situation will not last and suspect that how we next organize work may be quite different from what we were accustomed to just a few months ago. Whatever comes next—in terms of reading the market, serving customers, and growing—we can draw important lessons from what’s already happened.
The pandemic will pass, but the lesson may last: When things truly matter, humans matter.
A primary lesson is that technology is fundamentally about people and human experiences. This should have been obvious all along—no office ever bought a computer to have a beige box blinking in a closet, they bought it for the experience that that box could create. It’s easy to lose sight of this against the truly impressive achievements of large-scale cloud architectures, or the thousands of semiconductor engineers who have informally collaborated for years to make Moore’s Law seem like a natural miracle.
Now we see it anew: The technology that matters is the technology that serves a great human need. Digital transformation is about more than just business speed and growth. It’s an important instrument of connection and a facilitator of the ways we come together to solve massive, complex problems, both as businesses and as communities.
It may also be that the fears that digital technology foretells a dehu
Some of today’s heroes are in the physical world of direct patient care. Other critical jobs, such as delivery, agriculture, and maintaining our supply chains, are mostly about human heads, hands, and hearts. They are enabled and augmented by digital technologies in critical ways, however, whether that’s through telemedicine, route mapping, a weather forecast app, or a collaborative tool.
The pandemic will pass, but the lesson may last: When things truly matter, humans matter. One thing to take away from this transition is that working together, tackling tough problems, and getting through difficult times requires connection and ways to embrace one another’s humanity. This is true of people and communities, but also of businesses. Technology that acts in service of that is always invaluable. It may be the most basic rule for the recovery ahead.
manizing future are not borne out by reality. This is more than people accepting kids and dogs as a sometime feature in the soundtrack of a meeting (though that can have its cool points). Some of the most important technology elements of the pandemic response include distributed medical researchers using cloud-based artificial intelligence to develop treatments and vaccines. And Kaggle, a global service for data scientists (perhaps the ultimate in geeky social networks), is running a challenge to help interpret some of the latest information about the virus that causes COVID-19.