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COVID-19 has changed the way we live and work, making digital interactions more critical than ever. Being digital is no longer an option for many organizations, but a business imperative to manage a new remote workforce and relationships with customers that have quickly moved online.

According to KPMG’s latest CEO Outlook survey, 92 per cent of Canadian executives have fast-tracked their digital transformation to rise to the challenges of COVID-19, while 76 per cent believe that investing in technology such as artificial intelligence, automation and cloud-based services, is critical for long-term growth.

“By and large, the transformation is being driven by a growing need for organizations to rethink how they deliver products and services in an era where handshakes and face-to-face interactions are being eclipsed by virtual interactions and digital transactions,” said Stephanie Terrill, partner and national business unit leader for management consulting at KPMG in Canada.

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While the future remains uncertain, Canadian business leaders are sure about one thing – they won’t go back to the old ways of doing business. Digital is the new normal and organizations are working to improve their operations to prepare for what’s to come.

“What the pandemic has prompted is a way to think about the future of work and really allow us to sit back and go 'how do we get even more crisp on what we want to do in the future?” Jane Fedoretz, chief talent and transformation officer at Calgary-based TransAlta Corp. said at the Globe and Mail’s recent Digital Innovation Summit: Adapting to a new reality in the pandemic and beyond, sponsored by KPMG.

“It’s paving the way for other opportunities,” she added, “and we have to be open to it.”

Digital transformation starts in the workplace

For many organizations, the pandemic-driven digital transformation began internally, with a focus on keeping employees safe and connected as they shifted to work from home, or a hybrid home-office arrangement.

Organizations weren’t just concentrated on staying connected through video meetings, calls and online chats, but maintaining the company culture to keep productivity and spirits up.

RBC Ventures, the venture capital arm of Royal Bank, turned to bi-weekly virtual townhall meetings after employees said they missed the in-person office interactions, according to chief operations officer Cheesan Chew.

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She said RBC Ventures has been working on how to “create those collisions” online and listening to what employees need and want to stay connected.

“We have to have empathy for our teams … to ask questions about how they’re doing,” Ms. Chew said. “That piece is so important to understand how to respond.”

Ms. Chew believes employee engagement will be even more essential as the pandemic drags on, and organizations need to be ready to adapt.

“The way that people are feeling isn’t going to be consistent,” she said, “so the ability to understand and feel and be agile and be able to pivot based on the needs of our teams is really important.”

Vidyard Inc., the Kitchener, Ont.-based business-video technology firm, used its own platform as an inspiration to change how and when it communicates with staff working from home.

Instead of regularly hosting live meetings, leaders record video updates and send them to staff to watch when it best suits their schedules, according to Tyler Lessard, Vidyard’s vice-president of marketing.

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“A lot of people … are at home, they have dependents, they have kids [and] their schedules aren’t necessarily aligning with the 9-to-5 workday anymore,” he said. “We found it’s not only more efficient for people, but more inclusive because they can watch the updates on their own time if they’re not able to attend the live meeting.”

The video updates also help reduce the number of live on-camera sessions that can cause many employees to disengage given the overwhelming number of online meetings.

Helping customers find their digital footing

Many organizations are also changing how they work with clients, moving meetings and workflow online and helping each other get accustomed to new technologies in the process.

For instance, Ms. Terrill says KPMG was already well into its digital transformation and worked quickly to help clients that weren’t as advanced. The process included revisiting how they connected with them, using video conferencing and cloud-based software platforms to meet and share information.

“We’ve had to rethink our customer journey from when we start to interact with them,” Ms. Terrill says. “We’re a relationship-based organization. It’s based on long-term relationships and trust: So how do you build that digitally? How do you stay connected with the customer?”

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She says the company also rolled out new digital tools and technologies and used more data and analytics to better connect with and help its clients.

“Customers expect us to know them,” she said. “Everything is faster and more concise, so you have to be agile and we’ve built that into our customer journey.”

The future of work is online

The pandemic has forced organizations to step up their digital capabilities and that transformation is unlikely to reverse even when the pandemic is over.

“We do believe that there’s going to be continued investment and refinement of how to turn that data into an asset,” Ms. Terrill said. She adds that the pandemic is driving long-term fundamental change in the way we work, learn and interact and it is imperative that Canadian organizations make investments so they can adapt and thrive in this new reality.

KPMG’s CEO Outlook shows 80 per cent of Canadian CEOs intend to build upon their use of digital collaboration and communication tools, while 84 per cent plan to prioritize their technology investments to help them become more efficient and meet growth objectives.

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The onus will be on organizations to sharpen their digital skills to help engage with employees and customers.

“To me, there’s a real opportunity here for leaders to rise and to take advantage of becoming even stronger leaders and managing their remote work employees in ways that really allows them to grow and develop,” said Ms. Fedoretz of TransAlta.

“This has been a pandemic – one time in history – but, in the back of our minds, we’re thinking: we may need to implement some of these things for the long term. I think we will probably see another pandemic come again and we want to be prepared and arm our people with as many resources as possible so that, if this happens again, people will be able to thrive in that environment.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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