Last week, mayors representing over 750 million people, across the world’s leading cities, published a statement of principles, warning against a return to “business as usual” as the world recovers from COVID-19.

This advice is as relevant for enterprises as it is for society as a whole. COVID-19 has exposed a lack of resilience, severely impacting operational continuity. Indeed, Eurozone business activity fell to an all-time low in April.

With the pandemic impacting every part of society, there are human considerations to every decision we make. While clearly the most important factor, public health professionals are already doing a great job of covering this issue. So in this piece I intend to focus more on the business decisions organizations should make to improve their resilience.

For many, responding to the pandemic depends on acceleration of digitization initiatives. By focusing on the following six areas, organizations will optimize their approach to COVID-19, while readying themselves for any similarly disruptive events in future:

1. IT Resilience for business continuity

With so much business value in data, one of the first priorities for organizations is reliable access to data centers. Those with large amounts of data on tape should consider if this is practical. While cheaper than alternative storage methods, social distancing means it may be inaccessible.

IT infrastructure also requires optimization to support shifts in utilization. Some systems may be strained, perhaps by the increase in remote access. Others may be under capacity due to a drop in commercial activity. Burst capacity could be required to cope with volatile peaks and troughs in demand.

Organizations should consider fast-tracking plans to migrate more applications to the cloud to guarantee consistent access. Similarly, deeper automation and virtual workflow orchestration are reliable ways to boost IT resilience.

2. Addressing new cybersecurity risks

COVID-19 has intensified the cyber threat to businesses – IBM has identified over 50 different types of threat campaigns related to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the shift to remote working is exacerbating the issue. Our estimates show security incidents have grown 40% due to remote working and personal device use.

Organizations urgently need to enhance cybersecurity capabilities to align with this new threat landscape. This demands the implementation of a holistic approach to strategy and risk, threat management and digital trust.

The quality of your vendor network is significant here. Organizations supported by trusted cybersecurity vendors operating as true partners, not just suppliers, will find they fare better than their competitors. Many IT departments have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 related threats, so vendors must be able to work closely with in-house teams.

3. Accelerate agility and efficiency with cloud

COVID-19 has required large-scale transition of employees to new ways of working, with minimal disruption. Overnight, operating models suddenly had to accommodate an almost entirely virtual workforce.

Historically, there’s been resistance to moving mission-critical applications to the cloud, but with a remote workforce, most enterprises now understand the value of this approach. By shifting workloads to the cloud, they ensure they have the operational agility to respond to evolving business environments.

Donald Trump has repeatedly called for the economy to be reopened even as the virus kills more than 1,000 people each day in the US Donald Trump has repeatedly called for the economy to be reopened even as the virus kills more than 1,000 people each day in the US Photo: AFP / Joseph Prezioso

Across Europe, there are many accounts of organizations doing this successfully. Government agencies have used it to scale the provision of social services to meet a surge in public interest. Similarly, a major product manufacturer was able to shift operational support from the plant floor to the cloud to cope with a sharp rise in demand driven by COVID-19.

In future, expect to see broad cloudification of service delivery and further acceleration of mission-critical shift to the cloud.

4. Ensure supply chain resiliency

Efficient, resilient supply chains are central to business performance, but COVID-19 has pushed them to their limits, and in some cases past them.

Organizations need real-time insights to adapt. This means using sensors and external data sources to provide hyperlocal visibility of inventory fluctuations and logistics constraints. This allows assessment of the viability of supply networks, including identification of vendor risk.

Technology can also improve alternative supplier discovery and inventory availability. Analytical tools, for example, can be used to speed-up supply decisioning. Using Artificial Intelligence (AI), it’s possible to correlate real-time COVID-19 data with supply chain locations, something which is proving incredibly valuable for organizations as they try to predict disruptions.

5. Empower your remote workforce

It’s one thing to be able to be technologically able to support remote working, but truly empowering a remote workforce goes well beyond the ability to have thousands of people access a single business VPN or having a Webex platform.

Empowerment means ensuring employees have the skills, tools and support they need to excel remotely. It’s about evolving the use of technology from helping employees manage the current crisis, to enabling them to take decisions and improving their virtual capabilities. This encompasses remote working maturity and impact assessments, virtual training to build skills and providing 24/7 information and crisis-related information about COVID-19.

There is also a cultural challenge to overcome, with leaders needing to build trust, flexibility and resilience into an adaptable workforce culture. Some organizations have turned to virtual assistants and chatbots to promote frequent and consistent messaging. Even before the current crisis, Siemens enabled an AI chatbot for its HR function called Carl that was answering one million employee queries a month.

Ultimately, the aim must be to grow a workforce-wide mentality and culture that underpins a new way of working well in a “hybrid normal” moving forward.

6. Engaging customers virtually

In addition to every service center shifting to remote work, the volume of enquiries they handle has increased exponentially. Many businesses have already invested in virtual assistants, and they are playing a big part in addressing customer enquiries. As PayPal’s customer service team has gone from taking calls in the office to working from home, its AI-enabled chatbot has become the first point of contact for many customers, handling about 1.25 million conversations a month.

Post-pandemic, expect to see more organizations embracing the technology, as well as an increase in the number of end-to-end client journeys. Rather than simply using them to route enquires to the right department, the COVID-19 experience is teaching businesses that AI-assistants are an effective way of resolving customer problems.

The road ahead

Of course, the business issues we face are insignificant when compared to the human cost of COVID-19. I could not be any more grateful to the key workers putting their lives on hold and their health at risk. And my heart goes out to everybody who has tragically lost a loved one to the pandemic.

People are making sacrifices every day, and the business world must do what it can to support them. It’s my firm belief that business continuity is a big part of this, as we have a responsibility to ensure there is a healthy economy waiting for them when it is safe to relax social distancing rules.

If COVID-19 has taught business anything, it’s that continuity planning is no longer a tick-box exercise. While we manage the immediate impact of COVID-19, it’s critical we also prepare for the future.

Technology roadmaps that were planned over years or months are already being rapidly accelerated, and leaders will have to maintain this drive to stay ahead of the long-lasting impact of COVID-19. A proactive, forward-thinking mindset is critical to coping with this crisis, and preparing for the next one.

(Martin Jetter is the senior vice president and chairman of IBM Europe.)