The impacts of COVID-19 have not been limited to public health. The ongoing pandemic has caused significant economic problems - problems which digital transformation can help businesses mitigate.
As millions of people across the world limit their movement and avoid public gathering spaces to slow the spread of COVID-19, supply chains and cash flows have seen massive disruption. More than 100,000 small businesses have closed permanently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, Harvard Business School, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago found that at least 2% of small businesses are gone.1
The skyrocketing unemployment numbers provide another clear indication of the severity of COVID-19’s economic toll. As of this writing, the number of unemployment claims in the US since the beginning of the pandemic in mid-March has surpassed 40 million, meaning about 1 in 4 Americans are out of work.2
It’s clear that COVID-19 is exacting a heavy economic toll. What steps can businesses take to lessen the blow and facilitate a speedy recovery in the wake of such a disaster?
How Businesses Survive Crises
Disaster can take many forms, but they really all boil down to two central problems﹘loss of assets and restricted cash flows. Luckily, there are several ways businesses can protect themselves and their assets.
For example, most businesses have some form of insurance to protect property assets from physical damage caused by fires, floods, or vandalism. In many cases, the government will also offer various forms of aid for business impacted by a disaster. In this particular crisis, the US government is stepping in to help small businesses with initiatives like the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program, but these stopgap measures will only go so far, and businesses will have to take their own steps to ensure their long-term well-being.
Still, it’s best not to let your disaster recovery plan depend too much on insurance payouts or government assistance. A rainy day fund can help keep your business afloat until you’re able to get up and running again. Another viable long-term option for maintaining business continuity is investing in business process automation technology and your company’s digital transformation.
Digital Transformation as a Path Forward
For years, digital transformation has been a subject of interest for business leaders, yet the current conditions are making it more appealing than ever. With COVID-19 causing widespread business disruptions, the cost savings, efficiency gains, and disaster recovery protections digital transformation can bring to bear look particularly attractive.
There are several types of business process automation that can help companies adapt:
COVID-19 has spurred immense progress in remote work, as organizations who once may have been reticent to allow it have been forced to work around or remove old barriers to enable their employees to work from the safety of their own homes. A Deloitte survey found that around 25% of people were working from home at least once a week before the pandemic, while 34% expect to work from home at least once a week post-crisis.3 While the number of people working from home is likely to fall as regions ease social distancing guidelines, remote work will permanently be more common in the next normal.
Digitizing paper-based processes is a key step to enabling remote work. For example, switching from traditional mailroom services to a solution like Exela’s Digital Mailroom transforms all incoming paper mail and other documents into fully digital assets, centralizing communications in an electronic format that can be easily accessed by employees no matter where they are.
2. Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
Robotic automation isn’t just for manufacturing assembly lines. The digital bots that perform RPA tasks can be programmed to perform a wide variety of repetitive, rule-based software tasks quickly and efficiently with high levels of accuracy, freeing up their human coworkers for more engaging, higher-value work.
RPA is a cost-effective quick-to-implement solution that can benefit many facets of your business. Everything from data entry, data normalization, and multi-database search, to CRM data management and sales lead prospecting can be performed by bots with greater speed and accuracy than humans. And in the wake of COVID-19, when employees may not be able to perform all of their vital functions remotely, RPA presents a potentially business-saving value.
3. Cognitive Automation
Robotic process automation can help businesses survive disasters by putting bots to work on basic digital functions, freeing up workers and ensuring that critical functions continue to operate. Cognitive automation takes it a step further, performing more complicated tasks like context-driven decision making and data handling based on complex relationships. Utilizing advanced AI and machine learning, cognitive automation programs are capable of performing tasks that would typically require human-level reasoning abilities.
A basic use of one type of cognitive automation is how smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home use natural language processing and machine learning to do things like interpret questions and search databases for the most relevant answers. One of the most common ways businesses are putting this kind of technology to use is incorporating it into their customer service experience. While a chatbot or automated helpdesk may not be quite on par with a human representative, this kind of system can help businesses manage surges in requests and extend their operating hours.
Cognitive automation can provide a significant boost to productivity and speed up important workflows. It’s value is likely to increase now that we are seeing an uptick in remote work and distributed teams.
COVID-19 has presented major new challenges for individuals and businesses alike. However, the trajectory of business towards digital transformation remains the same. As economies open back up and stabilize, we’ll continue to see more automation and digitization of business processes, not only as a means to increase productivity, but also to protect against an unknown future.
Digital transformation can help businesses handle uncertainty - and not just from global pandemics. To learn more about how similar solutions can be applied to navigate other major world events, check out One Thing the Pandemic and Brexit Have in Common.