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Virtually Live: the right way to digitise the world

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 22 Jun 2021

In a panel discussion at the Virtually Live conference, business leaders from across the globe discussed how organisations should address the digitisation of work and society, which has been accelerated by COVID.

The world economy is in a precarious place, offering both challenges and opportunities for businesses. As nations look to recover from COVID-19, the pace of transformation in the workplace is accelerating, leaving between 400 million and 800 million at risk of being displaced from their jobs by automation.

“They will need to retrain into higher paid work if they're going to continue working,” said David Mellor, CEO Crowe Global, at the panel discussion on this issue at Virtually Live last week. “This will put a huge societal strain on those economies. And I think the opportunity and the challenge for us as businesses is: how are we going to engage with those communities?”

Mellor was joined by Jacqueline Chan, CFO MD DBS Bank Hong Kong, Julie Brown, CFO of fashion brand Burberry and Ronan Dunne, EVP CEO of telecoms company Verizon, to discuss how each business has adapted to the pandemic, how they are preparing for the future, and what the landscape for business will look like in a few years. 

“How are we going to restore the treasuries that have been emptied through support that's been given?” asked Mellor. “We need to see policies around that... As a former tax practitioner, I really do believe we need to do more to look at how we tax internationally the digital economy. It's ripe for reform and I know there's lots of efforts there but it has to come out and we need to see more.” 

The acceleration in the adoption of digital automation and emerging technologies during COVID-19 has resulted in a big change in business and customer behaviour, with people generally much more receptive to digitisation. How can we speed up digitalisation to sustain the business growth. 

“Some of these mega shifts will persist after the pandemic, although perhaps not with the same intensity as during the crisis,” said Chan. 

Similarly, Burberry became reliant on digital means to maintain connection with customers and colleagues, Julie Brown explained. “An agility that may have taken place over a number of years took place in the space of just a few months.”Brown identified three major challenges that economies are facing as we emerge from the pandemic. The first is that the response to the pandemic must be truly global; that means offering as much support as possible to developing economies to achieve worldwide immunity. 

Secondly, the rapid digitisation of work creates complexities that organisations have to take into account when scaling innovation. Thirdly, more must be done to address diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“It's always been a significant priority for us. Businesses and societies globally have to ensure that we really push progressive policies and initiatives, so that we don't exclude talent. That has been really impacted by this pandemic … Now we must ensure that we have a return to the office that is inclusive, flexible, and enables everyone to succeed and deliver their best work.”

Ronan Dunne saw demand for Verizon’s products and services increase exponentially over the past year, just as employees were unable to attend work. Demand also shifted: residential broadband capacity went up by more than 100%, while Verizon’s mobile network dropped in usage by 45%. It was critical to balance the health and wellbeing of staff while also ensuring that people got the service they needed.

In some cases, that meant opening up retail stores within states that wouldn't allow the actual store to be open, creating a drive-thru style service with employees working on the pavement outside the shop to deliver products and services to customers. “The amount of innovation within our product category and within our services categories was enormous.”

Dunne can’t see a world in which the private sector isn’t involved in tackling the societal issues that could emerge as the world digitises. Addressing digital education and access, for example, will require some kind of new public-private partnership that recognises the need for social justice and inclusion, he says.

“The public and private sector have to work more effectively together to make sure that digital is a truly inclusive technology, because every single speaker has said, ‘we're going to accelerate our move to digital’, but the truth is, digital confidence and digital access aren't equitable across our society. So if we all are moving to digital, it behooves us to make sure that we bring everybody in society with us and make sure that the next generation of technology is actually the most inclusive.”

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