The global pandemic has ushered in massive workplace change. But it’s easy to forget that this change was already underway. Last year, the KPMG ‘future of HR 2019’ survey  found that 70% of HR executives recognized the need for workforce transformation, yet only 40% of HR leaders had a digital work plan in place. The scramble to plan and transform this year was therefore sudden, but not unexpected.
We already knew what needed to happen – we just didn’t realize how quickly. Now we all do.
For many companies in crisis mode, lockdown meant shutting down offices and workplaces, rapidly identifying essential workers, and implementing remote work policies with the associated tools and technologies. But empowering a healthy remote workforce goes beyond providing network-access tools and group-meeting software. Equipping employees to work productively outside a traditional office is also a cultural challenge – and in some cases a semi-permanent one.
Digital Transformation for the Remote Worker
A McKinsey survey of digital sentiment revealed that most employees who are now telecommuting do not expect to return to the workplace soon . Seventy percent of those responding believe that the ability to continue telecommuting will factor into their next job choice. Google said in late July it will continue its remote work strategy until at least the middle of 2021 .
Digital transformation and enabling a remote workforce are at the top of every HR professional’s ‘to do’ list. Seth Earley, CEO of Early Information Science, told HR Executive that many organizations will continue to allow remote work even post-pandemic, and will therefore “have to be more aware about what this change means for recruitment, job satisfaction, performance and retention” .
Workforce Engagement is Key
The already-considerable challenges of human capital management in a typical work setting—leadership, workforce engagement, productivity, skills—have now been moved into uncharted territory. Shifting to a “work-from-home” model that keeps the workforce engaged and productive, keeping track of essential workers and robust online learning, is rapidly becoming the new normal.
Going forward, at IBM we believe this means that organizations will need to continue transforming HR to realize the immense benefits of AI and automation: From cognitive- decision-making to enhance the recruitment process and time-to-hire, to more efficient training and development, analytics, and employee retention .
Analyst Josh Bersin tells Sage People how many larger firms are “pouring money into new AI-based automated tools” that can be mixed and matched across a global workforce, combined with “wellbeing platforms [that] can bring these applications together and create real behaviour change for your workforce” .
McKinsey similarly identifies that the need for greater post-pandemic agility and flexibility will accelerate the use of the cloud, with restricted but localized data storage for the remote workforce and transformed end-user infrastructure through increased adoption of virtual desktop and desktop as a service .
Achieving a Culture of Agility
What could emerge from all this is a culture that applies the underlying principles of agility across all aspects of the business, enabled by strong digital communication methods, tools, and ways of working. An AI in the workplace report by EY nicely summarises how this can work: “conversational AI transactions can help to update personal information on behalf of the employee in a secure manner . A manager could access his or her direct report’s information via a chatbot and perform HR business transactions without accessing the core HR application.”
The recent IBM Institute for Business Value report COVID-19 Action Guide: Beyond the Great Lockdown  identified the following near-term measures that talent leaders and CHROs should have in place now to help their remote teams:
Digital channels and information services that provide employees with 24/7 information, and crisis-related answers to COVID-19 and workforce questions.
Clear identification and authorization of essential employees.
An assessment, with their general counsel, of any legal implications or liabilities associated with current or revised policies for their organization.
Revised policies that specify remote-working expectations and flexible working arrangements with visible clear support of employee mental health and family obligations
Safe passage letters for essential employees to allow them to travel to critical sites in the event of ongoing travel restrictions.
Identification of outside service providers that could temporarily provide virtual skills and services to supplement staff who may be infected or need surge capacity to handle the extra load.
Flexible design of both physical and digital workspaces, and workflows that encourages a collaborative culture, rapidly adaptable to change.
In summary: an agile and (in part) remote workforce enabled by AI, cognitive, virtual workflow, and a flexible talent ecosystem.
Learning from Peers
To address the available strategies for businesses to execute this transformation, CorporateLeaders and IBM are hosting an intimate peer-to-peer virtual roundtable discussion for HR, Learning, and Recruitment Leaders. During this virtual meeting led by Frédéric Pierre, Director People and Culture, Euroclear and Sofie Narinx, Partner Cognitive Process Transformation Leader Benelux, IBM we will share and discuss an outside-in perspective with real examples of how automation, AI and digital transformation influences the HR function across the full employee lifecycle, from hire to retire.
 The future of HR 2019: In the Know or in the No, KPMG
 Advantages of Agile Work Strategies For Companies, Global Workplace Analytics
 Google workers will stay remote until summer 2021, Google
 As remote work continues, what is AI’s role? Human Resource Executive
 5 Ways Artificial Intelligence Is Reinventing HR Technology, AIthority
 11 HR tech trends to watch in 2020: What the sector says, Sage People
 A dual cybersecurity mindset for the next normal, McKinsey
 The new age: artificial intelligence for human resource opportunities and functions, EY
 COVID-19 Action Guide: Beyond the Great Lockdown, IBM