It’s not lonely being a robot anymore

Two years ago, I wrote about the loneliness of being the only virtual participant in many international meetings. For years I’ve fought against the constant tyranny of travel and used every collaboration technology available as often as possible. Even so, I’ve spent much of my working life on a plane almost every week.

In my original post, I shared that the familiarity of in-person meetings made the transition to virtual hard. I felt that even in groups I knew well, there was a natural bias against the minority who were connecting remotely even using the best technology we had such as telepresence robots.

See Sometimes it’s lonely being a robot.

The COVID-19 crash course in virtual working has suddenly changed almost everyone into a virtual worker for at least some of their job. Re-reading my post from two years ago, I realise that it could have been written last month and in just a few weeks it is completely out-of-date. The world has changed forever, although my original post does have some important pointers on making this new world a success, such as the importance of making the inclusion of all voices a priority.

In a matter of weeks, the adoption of technologies into business meeting culture that have been resisted for years are suddenly completely mainstream. Cameras that had been stubbornly kept switched off are now on. Meetings that had to be in-person are turning out to be just as much of a success when run virtually with the appropriate active facilitation. I am suddenly a digital avatar in a sea of digital colleagues.

We must not make the move to virtual simply a temporary response. COVID-19 is the greatest health emergency in decades or even a century. It is also rapidly turning into an economic emergency of the same magnitude. One way that we can mitigate some of the damage is by finding new ways of reengineering businesses for greater productivity as we transition back to semi-normal working arrangements in the months to come.

The advantages of working digitally could go far beyond the COVID-19 crisis and enable the transformation agenda that many of us have pursued for many years. This is the time for technologists to shine, enabling the organisation not only to continue to function during the crisis but also to recover and be more productive beyond the crisis.

Once technology leaders have covered the basics, ensuring continuity of core systems and enabling remote work, the focus can move to establishing the foundations for a future recovery.

By moving to a more digital way of working, it is possible to take the opportunity to digitise previously analogue business processes. The staff who always had to travel are suddenly perfectly able to do virtual meetings into the future. Those functions that could never be structured for more efficient work practices are suddenly fair game. The teams who couldn’t automate their routine and low value activities are able to codify their workflow in a way that is much more addressable by artificial intelligence.

These changes will apply to almost every industry. Teaching will never be the same with our best communicators now able to reach a greater audience. Engineering will now be even more global in expertise and local in application. Manufacturing is going to be looking to improve the certainty of their supply chains through advanced manufacturing techniques. Even the health sector, long reluctant to embrace the efficiencies of technology such as telehealth, will likely come out of this crisis more efficient and more user friendly.

I miss travelling but I accept it is likely going to be a long time, if even in my lifetime, before I will be as free to jump around the world as I have been in recent decades. Although, on the upside, I have discovered this month that you can watch a movie without fastening your seatbelt!

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