Human connection is more important than ever as the world battles COVID-19

The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted supply chains and impacted productivity globally. In this period of uncertainty, organisations can still succeed by embracing empathetic leadership and innovative technologies

As we face days, weeks or months of isolation, more and more people are relying on digital technology as a way to stay connected with others. This is a basic human need, and technology is playing a crucial role in fulfilling it for many of us

We are all dealing with a new normal. Each one of us has been affected – directly or indirectly – by the global coronavirus pandemic, and in the midst of it, we are being forced to adjust to a new way of life. Millions of people are now working from home, countless others have lost their jobs, and thousands of people are dealing with sickness. We all need to work together as companies, governments and communities – and, most crucially, as humans – to get through this crisis.

The biggest challenge is that, in order to work together, we must stay apart. As a result, technology has never before played such a vital role in human connection. Whether it’s reaching out to friends and loved ones through social media, finding digital ways to stay productive at work, or connecting with new networks to keep your supply chain going, we are all
relying on digital solutions more than we ever have before.

As we face days, weeks or even months of isolation, more and more people are relying on digital technology as a way to stay connected with others. This is a basic human need, and technology is playing a crucial role in fulfilling it for many of us.

With more employees working from home, organisations must consider innovative business models and quickly prioritise their investment in
digital technology

Navigating a crisis
The number one priority in this global crisis is ensuring the health and safety of people. Governments and organisations alike are discovering new ways to work together in order to address the current challenges: a number of manufacturers are retooling production facilities to focus on medical equipment; some brewers and distillers are starting to produce hand sanitiser instead of their usual products; and hi-tech companies are working closely with first-responder organisations and government agencies to focus on meeting their technological needs during this critical time.

Long-standing technology giants like SAP and Microsoft are working behind the scenes to keep mission-critical systems going, help foster human connection and assist in new ways during the global pandemic. They are prioritising systems for emergency services, while medical supply chains are quickly developing new technologies in order to support public health and government agencies, and even to help bring stranded travellers home.

In the US, a free online COVID-19 pre-screen and routing solution by SAP and Qualtrics has been made available to all federal, state and local governments, as well as public health organisations. This resource provides up-to-date information to the public about the coronavirus and helps health organisations and governments triage potential cases, reduce the strain on emergency services and stay on top of community concerns. A coronavirus self-checker tool developed using Microsoft’s Health Bot service, meanwhile, helps people assess their symptoms and risk factors to determine whether they should seek medical care. This service is available on the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention website.

COVID-19’s impact on the workplace:


of employers believe employees must be given flexible work options


of public sector leaders are addressing employees’ psychological stress


Increase in Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop usage in one week in March


Increase in supplier usage of SAP Ariba Discovery in March

Sources: Deloitte, Microsoft, SAP

During this time of social distancing, a number of doctors are providing virtual care to their patients using video chats and telemedicine, while pharmacies have set up drive-through prescription collection and testing sites to allow patients to access their services with minimal contact.

When it comes to medical research, the top 20 research institutions in the US depend on SAP technology to keep their operations going. In recent weeks and months, Microsoft cloud technologies have made it possible to track and map the spread of the disease – this provides important information for people to continue working remotely and for companies to keep their supply chains running around the globe.

Changing the way we work
We all know things aren’t ‘business as usual’ right now. As we examine how to continue operating as smoothly as possible, there are three basic things to consider: the work, the workforce and the workplace. Put simply, this means considering what work needs to be done and who, how and where they will do it. The global pandemic has changed every aspect of this equation: business leaders not only need to consider if and how their business will operate in the short term, but also how it will recover and ultimately move forward.

One company demonstrating immense agility and flexibility through this situation is industrial thread manufacturer Coats. While the business adjusts to increased global demand for thread to produce everything from medical masks, gowns and personal protection equipment in addition to its regular garment demands, the company is quickly adapting as the situation changes. It has moved its essential office functions to remote cloud-based virtual desktops so employees can work from home. Its global footprint and flexible supply chain mean manufacturing can move to alternate sites as the pandemic affects different parts of the world, which enables it to continue to meet global demand. Coats executives say none of this would have been possible without the right cloud-based technology in place. “These cloud-based tools are helping us respond better during this unpredictable situation,” Helge Brummer, VP of Technology and Operations at Coats, told The New Economy.

With more employees working from home, organisations must consider innovative business models such as these and quickly prioritise their investment in digital technology. It’s especially important for business leaders to recognise the importance of human connection and find ways to facilitate continued collaboration and social interaction during these extenuating circumstances – managers can’t expect or demand the same level of focus and commitment from employees as they adjust to new work settings that may be distracting, all the while coping with potential anxiety about their job security and family’s health. This is a stressful time for everyone, and business leaders need to accept that productivity will most likely suffer to some extent.

As we examine how to continue operating as smoothly as possible, there are three basic things to consider: the work, the workforce and the workplace

With this in mind, organisations need to help employees regain some sense of control to help them be productive. According to a Deloitte survey that was conducted during the COVID-19 outbreak, 90 percent of employers believe it is urgent to provide employees with remote and flexible work options, while more than half of government and public service entities are focusing on addressing employees’ psychological stress.

Small and large companies alike are trying to address these issues. In an open letter to staff and stakeholders published at the end of March, SAP CEO Christian Klein said: “As we have seen, every day brings more information, but at times, more uncertainty. The more changes we confront, the more important it is to understand how our people are feeling and adjusting to what may seem like a new normal on a daily basis. While we are all adapting to different work and collaboration models, the newness and the experiences are all unique to each of us depending on our job or industry. Understanding, acknowledging and acting on the challenges and questions our employees have will help us equip them to navigate the new normal. All of us want employees who feel safe and productive, but it starts with understanding how they feel and what they need.”

In a similar letter posted by Microsoft, the company’s CEO, Satya Nadella, said: “We are in uncharted territory. Much is unknown, and I know how unsettling and uncertain this feels… There is no playbook for this, and having that deep empathy and understanding for each other’s situations is needed now more than ever.”

What people need
Equipping people with the right mindset and tools will help organisations get through this turbulent time. Ultimately, business leaders need to ensure that employees are feeling as secure as possible under the circumstances, and that they have reliable technology and the right tools to get the same job done in new ways. That’s where technology providers can make a big difference: with tangible tools to help multiple industries.

Hi-tech companies are supporting small and large-scale corporations, schools and governments to quickly mobilise remote workforces with cloud computing platforms like Microsoft Azure. A number of technology companies, such as SAP and Qualtrics, are offering free online solutions, including collaboration tools and digital learning initiatives, during the COVID-19 crisis to help organisations, students and employees in several industries, including frontline healthcare workers, remote office workers, retailers, educators and those operating within the supply chain.

How to lead during a crisis:

In times of massive change, it is natural for business leaders to experience uncertainty. However, now more than ever, it is crucial for executives to lead decisively and empathetically.
» React to disruption with pragmatism – leaders must face the new reality head-on and decide how to make things work in innovative new ways
» Be willing to experiment, adjust and adapt
» Prioritise your people over your profits. A lack of empathy today will have a lasting impression
» Stay calm and keep the lines of communication in your business open
» Listen to your employees – take both their concerns and their ideas into account
» Give your employees more control and direction over their work and trust them to make this new reality work for them
» Work collaboratively with all areas of your business, from the supply chain to the IT department

To help companies currently experiencing supply chain issues, SAP has also opened access to its SAP Ariba Discovery service so that any buyers can post their immediate sourcing needs and suppliers can respond and deliver. This will help buyers and suppliers connect quickly and effectively to minimise the disruption caused by shipment delays, capacity issues and increased consumer demand during this challenging time.

We are all in this together, which means we must work as a team to navigate our way through this unprecedented crisis. According to Nadella: “No one company is going to solve a challenge like this alone… It’s going to take the private and public sectors working together to turn the tide on COVID-19. Our unique role as a platform and tools provider allows us to connect the dots, bring together an ecosystem of partners and enable organisations of all sizes to build the digital capability required to address these challenges. During this extraordinary time, it is clear that software, as the most malleable tool ever created, has a huge role to play across every industry and around the world. Our responsibility is to ensure that the tools we provide are up to the task.”

To ensure digital tools meet this challenge and keep up with the growing need for technology in all sectors, tech companies are making sure data centres have the staff required to function properly, and are actively monitoring performance and usage trends globally to continue to provide their existing services, as well as accommodate high volumes of new demand. To give you some idea of the recent increase, in just one week in March, Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop usage grew more than three times. Across the whole of March, SAP saw a 177 percent increase in suppliers using its free offer of the SAP Ariba Discovery platform, with some of the highest levels of activity coming from the telecoms, computer hardware and software, medical equipment, lab equipment, professional and administrative services, and infrastructure construction sectors. These numbers demonstrate how many people and organisations are relying on technology to find new ways to stay connected, work remotely and adjust to the immediate challenges facing the world.

Leading with resilience
With the scale and pace of change occurring in the corporate world, it’s completely understandable if business leaders start to get a little panicked about the unknown. However, that approach will only lead to rushed or inadequate decisions. Instead, despite the current uncertainty, employers and their employees should try to react to the disruption with reasonable pragmatism.

This means looking at every possibility to strike a realistic balance and make things work in new ways. More than ever, business leaders need to listen to their employees. The workforce, meanwhile, needs corporate leaders with strong direction and a willingness to experiment, adjust and adapt to a new reality.

Now is not the time to question if business leaders are up to the task – instead, now is the time to show resilience and demonstrate strong, yet empathetic, leadership. There are a number of ways to do this: first and foremost, leaders need to prioritise people over projects or profits. A lack of empathy now will have a lasting impression on your employees and business partners. Leaders also need to stay calm and keep the lines of communication open – keeping employees in the dark will only increase their anxiety during this already worrisome time. Listen to employee concerns, and understand that there might be a steep learning curve when it comes to the new work arrangement.

While some companies can absorb the impact of the global crisis more easily than others, all organisations will learn from this situation, and it will change the way a lot of companies do business in the future

Next, try to understand and address what employees are experiencing. Don’t micromanage, but instead collaborate with them to give employees more control and direction over their work. It is also worthwhile to create revised work schedules that allow for more flexibility while remaining productive.

Lastly, make sure managers work collaboratively with all other areas of the business, and remember that each department is dealing with major disruptions. In particular, leaders should work rapidly and respectfully with IT teams to get a remote workforce up and running quickly, and then be sure to provide guidance on working remotely to help teams stay focused and productive.

Learning from challenges
While some companies can absorb the impact of the global crisis more easily than others, all organisations will learn from this situation, and it will change the way a lot of companies do business in the future. The way corporations move forward from this crisis will depend a lot on the action they take now.

“Companies need to take disruption seriously when it comes to their industry,” Mitch Lowe, Co-Founding Senior Executive of Netflix and COO and President of Redbox, told The New Economy. “Take nothing for granted. Dedicate resources to identifying what people need and focus on innovating to meet those needs now.”

According to Martin Wezowski, Chief Designer and Futurist at SAP, the timeline of transformation and innovation consists of three horizons: Now, Next, and New. These involve simultaneously taking quick action to deal with what’s happening right now, while also building on existing skills and resources to move forward, plus looking beyond the current pandemic to imagine what your company will look like in the future. Wezowski told The New Economy: “The challenge is to understand that these horizons are not sequential. Everything you do in the first horizon will eventually be visible in the second and third, so you need the long-term vision for your desirable future outlooks from horizon three to more confidently know that what you are doing today leads to safeguard you and your ecosystem’s future. You must imagine, inspire and build these futures.”

Knowing when to pursue an idea and when to leave it for another time is vital. To do this, businesses need to take a people-centric approach that starts with thinking about what people need now and what they will need in the future. With current global disruption creating rapid and significant changes in the way we use technology at work, we need to act quickly but still consider long-term solutions.

The workforce needs corporate leaders with strong direction and a willingness to experiment, adjust and adapt to a new reality

Julia White, Corporate Vice President at Microsoft Azure, told The New Economy: “Digital transformation is a long-term journey. One key area to focus on is the skills of your employees. If you don’t have the skills in your company to become more digital, it will be much harder to change.”

Timo Elliott, Global Innovation Evangelist at SAP, agrees: “It is always about people, process, culture and organisation. Digital transformation is something that you have to do with people, not at people, so [they] embrace change rather than resist it. You need to make sure staff get the proper training and support to help them adapt to this new situation.”
World leaders keep saying we will get through this together. When we do, business leaders must make sure their organisations have an innovative plan for how business will move forward. Just as we need to work together to get through the current crisis, moving forward may involve working with other stakeholders to co-innovate and face the future together.

Staying connected
Connection is a basic human need. Although we are now reaching out to one another in different ways, the need for connection is as important as ever. As a result, organisations should keep using technology to stay connected – not just for work, but also for socialising. The workplace is not just a place of business: for many people, it’s a place to connect with colleagues who have become friends. Many employees may be left feeling disconnected, so business leaders should remember to connect co-workers via team calls or virtual meetings so everyone can touch base face-to-face from a distance.

Digital technology is vital in helping people stay connected during this crisis, and technology companies are taking that role seriously. In Klein’s letter, he said that SAP is here to help: “For all of us at SAP, our vision to help the world run better and improve people’s lives has never been more important than in this current moment. We remain focused on our people, our customers and our communities. Together, we will persevere.”

If everyone has the capability to connect with others through technology, it will make the work experience – and the world – a little better in this era of uncertainty. As Nadella said in his letter: “If everyone does something that makes the world a bit better, our collective work will in fact make the world a lot better, for the people we love, for our communities, for society.”