Covid-19 Tested Our Strategy At PwC US—And It Didn’t Win. Here’s Why.

Three key principles were integral to PwC's digital transformation—and they continue to guide as the firm adapts for the evolving future of work.

As we approach the year mark into the world’s largest experiment in remote working, many businesses are wrestling with whether, or to what extent, they will remain remote on the other side of the global pandemic. While the verdict is still out for many, what is certain is that investments in digital transformation will be a priority. Covid-19 has been a case study in how investments in digital transformation can prepare businesses to adapt with agility at a moment’s notice without missing a beat — and for the business I lead, that was certainly the case.

Although the turn of a new year and the rollout of a vaccine have buoyed spirits, we are not out of the woods yet — and there is no question that our society will face issues of this scale in the future. As we look to rebuild our businesses and our economy and prepare for the future, now is a strategic time to take stock of what worked this time around, and why. As I see it, there were three key principles that have been integral to our digital transformation—and that continue to guide as we adapt for the evolving future of work.

1. Adopt a Citizen-Led Mindset.

It is precisely because all 55,000 of us (emphasis on all 55,000) at PwC leaned into upskilling prior to the pandemic that we were able to take our entire business operation home nearly overnight when Covid-19 hit.

When we began our digital transformation over three years ago, we approached it with a “citizen-led” mindset—a grassroots-style approach to change management. It meant that we were empowering all of our people to get on board with how our business was going to evolve by helping everyone to understand their individual stake in our success, and in turn, enabling everyone to partake in the journey however they wanted.

We needed to make our people understand that it wasn’t just us asking (or forcing) them to learn and grow, but that the entire business community was demanding that talent acquire updated skills — and that failing to get on board meant that those who didn’t participate were putting their future careers at risk. We also communicated that the free tools and training we were making available to our people had the potential to make them more attractive candidates than ever — whether they pursued careers with us for the long-term or not. Rather than issuing a mandate from the top, we worked to inspire our people to upskill themselves, gave them a huge and customizable constellation of tools that met their individual learning needs, and rewarded them with perks and rewards along the way.

In all, this democratized system of upskilling meant that by the time Covid-19 was a part of our lives, we were about two years into a program that had already equipped our employees with both a culture of learning and new tools and resources that made our transition to working from home relatively seamless.

2. Empower People to Create their Own Tools to Work more Productively.

This “citizen-led” approach also meant giving all of our people the freedom and support to improve all aspects of how we do business. We launched a platform called Digital Lab, which incentivizes employees to build apps and tools with wide applicability and then share them broadly. In addition to driving sizable enhancements in how we were serving clients, this platform led our people to freely create in-house automations and other digital enablement tools to help minimize tedious internal tasks and better focus on the most important aspects of their roles.

What we hadn’t anticipated was that these tools would also be a critical element in helping our people better integrate work and life as they adjusted to working remotely and began to juggle new challenges in their personal lives, like working while teaching school-aged children or caring for housebound loved ones. By creating tools that eliminate or help manage tedious tasks or automate manual processes, our people aided tremendously in the transition to remote work by giving us the tools to work more efficiently—which in turn freed up brain space to focus on the most critical aspects of our jobs amid crisis, and also freed up time so that our people could focus on the highest-value added work possible.

3. View Transformation as an Exercise in Resilience and Coping with Future Disruption.

It wasn’t just technology that allowed our smooth transition to remote productivity—it was our people’s ability to cope with change. What we’ve now seen is that the adaptation that was required through our digital transformation in fact prepared our people to manage the sudden change of Covid—and it positions us well for the future.

Early on in our digital transformation journey we perceived that no amount of technology would improve how we serve our clients if employees were not on board; adaptability would be critical to our success. To facilitate that mindset and build that trust, we opted to transform our business through small but meaningful steps, rather than one or two big changes, with a collective mindset of flexibility and continual learning built in. We started with the roll out of our Digital Fitness App to benchmark where individuals were, and from there we introduced new products and technologies. In doing so, we made this disruption palatable for our people. And as we embark on a new venture into building and delivering products to clients in 2021, our people are now equipped with the acumen and confidence to advance that critical piece of our strategy.

Building trust in this way was essential to getting our people to engage in the various digital upskilling opportunities we made available to them, and it also engendered an attitude of confidence and agility in them as we became a more tech-enabled organization.

If anything, 2020 has shown us that as businesses we have less control than we would optimally like. But one of the things we can control is investing in the digital transformation of our organization and our people. And we know that whatever shape the future of work takes in a post-pandemic world, investments in digital technology will prepare us to meet it.

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