The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) released the results of an in-depth study commissioned by Microsoft of how the relationship between technology, business, and people evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic. The EIU heard from business leaders across eight distinct industries about the challenges and opportunities the disruption created for organizations and how digital initiatives shifted to confront a new reality.
Overwhelmingly, business leaders cited digital preparedness as key to their ability to adapt. The mass move to remote work also led to a heightened focus on employee engagement – so much so that empowerment topics like skill-building, well-being and creating lasting benefits for society at large now lead the transformation agenda for many organizations. Researchers connected the dots between organizations’ digital maturity and their ability to weather the unprecedented disruption and found a strong correlation: The more focused companies were on digital transformation, the faster they were able to recover operations and empower people to move forward.
The study showed a renewed focus across industries toward engaging and connecting people to each other, to their work and to a shared sense of purpose. The percentage of all respondents citing employee engagement as a technology imperative shot up from 24 percent pre-pandemic to 36 percent in the COVID era, and was up by 10 or more percentage points in manufacturing, financial services, retail and education. Concern for people and society showed up in other ways as well, with most companies saying that the pandemic has highlighted the need to contribute more powerfully to social outcomes – 75 percent said digital transformation should go beyond business success to support societal improvements like creating a more inclusive, accessible workforce and addressing carbon footprints and climate change.
Digital tools became indispensable infrastructure across industries. Those with robust digital footprints reported more agility in facilitating remote work, supporting distributed roles, recovering disrupted supply chains and transacting with customers in new ways. But although digital transformation enabled business continuity, the study also revealed gaps in skilling, privacy, security and compliance as organizations apply new technologies.
Prepared or not, organizations across industries accelerated their transformation initiatives and began to rely more heavily on digital tools. Cloud technology led the way, with 50 percent of organizations saying it played a critical role in their COVID-era operations. That was followed by technologies to enable remote work (40 percent), artificial intelligence and machine learning (33 percent), and the Internet of Things (31 percent).