Early Lessons in Operations from COVID-19


3 min read

Now that almost everyone is working from home (WFH), it is increasingly clear that:

  1. The transition is smoother than expected for most
  2. There is likely a significant loss of productivity
  3. In B2C, customers are not receiving the same service levels they have grown to expect
  4. Managing is more intense

Let us review these points.

The transition is smoother than expected.

While contingency plans had been drawn and tested for decades (pre-Y2K), no one believed that the deployment of these plans could result in a new normal where (almost) everyone works from home for an unlimited or undefined period. Despite serious difficulties (for example, anxiety at closing quarterly results across sales, delivery and finance), employees are quickly getting used to work from home. It presents some challenges, particularly when children and parents share a home. But in the end, most operations are operating in a way that is smoother than expected.

There is a significant loss of productivity.

We, like many of our clients, are experiencing a certain loss of productivity. While we always had staff working from home, the recovery of urgent issues was often best addressed through a combination of physical and virtual teams, not only virtual teams. In addition, the dangers associated with COVID-19 are impacting the psyches of people in ways where — understandably so — fear and uncertainty about tomorrow are affecting people’s job performance. Finally, the processes in place in operations were relying on digital data combined with some physical teams. There is no human blind trust in data which makes some virtual communications necessary and which renders processes more complex. Whether the productivity loss is permanent or temporary is not yet known.

In B2C, customers are not receiving the same service levels they had grown to expect.

The sudden changes in goods and services provisioning has upended all existing processes to serve customers. It has resulted in very long queues despite added resources in a variety of locales, WFH or even hangars near airports (for example, call waiting time at travel businesses exceeds two hours several weeks after confinement started). The processes in place are overwhelmed by the volume and duration of calls. Every operational manager is falling short of his/her SLA requirements. And there is no planned return to normal in the short run. It is increasingly an area where humans have not been able to regain control by using the methods that worked so well, before.

Managing is more intense.

For most managers, the need to operate through focused meetings, including video in some cases, is making the work more intense. Over the years, managers had become accustomed to attending meetings and to focusing selectively during them. In the new WFH context, the rules are still new or are being created, and the lack of body language makes management work more intense. The change to “always-on” is real, since there are few breaks in a WFH day for a manager. Managers are either “booked” or “available,” and access to them is often not shielded by an army of executive assistants. Finally, managers have to relearn to show humanity at a time where everyone needs a lot of it, which requires energy.

What will the future hold?

While no one knows for sure what the future will hold despite all the daily messages we all receive from well-intended consultants, we can be sure there will be a tomorrow based on a new normal. If we were to extrapolate from the lessons above, organizations might accept to be less dependent on physical and centralized locations, offering options to their employees. It will require working smoothly between physical teams and virtualized environments because both are likely to remain. Organizations will regain productivity when everyone trusts the data, and once processes are seamless between virtual and physical teams. Interpretation of data by gurus will be de-emphasized to the benefit of data clarity provided by the systemic application of AI and data science. Managers will be re-emphasized and will be informed in real-time about all dimensions of the operations they manage. This includes human (e.g., mood), end-to-end processes (including all of them from front to back office), or instantaneous reallocation of resources when bottlenecks or errors appear. It is likely that the world will be increasingly digital but will also re-integrate its human dimensions for decision-making.

Stay safe and let us have hope again.

Pierre Buhler is the CEO of CKM Analytix, an AI and data science product company focused on deploying AI in operations to improve efficiency, increase customer care and mitigate risks. CKM Analytix is also supporting state and local health organizations with analytics to match COVID-19 PPE needs to supplies in real-time.

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