Digital transformation is about people and the future of work

Businesses need to ensure that the human element is included in the move to digital technologies and automations.

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By Nkululeko Nombika

In the post-pandemic landscape, most small and medium businesses (SMBs) have accelerated their adoption of digital technologies. As we make wider use of digital tools for automating repetitive, low-value activities and generating business insights, one thing is becoming clearer all the time: digital transformation isn’t about technology but rather about people and the future of work.


Indeed, following the hard lockdowns of 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19, work will never be the same again. Companies across the nation had to enable flexible work models, including remote work, to operate during a time of social distancing. Many also accelerated automation projects so their people could focus on the human elements, like strategic thinking, customer service, and creativity.


As we embed flexible work and digitalisation into the future of work, we need to ensure that the people aren’t left behind. According to McKinsey, as many as 375 million jobs could be displaced by automation by 2030 – a statistic that is especially alarming in a country with South Africa’s high unemployment rates.


Furthermore, as hybrid work becomes a permanent part of more companies’ operating models, it’s not the technology that poses the most significant challenge. Instead, human factors, such as creating a culture that spans virtual and office work, are fostering a sense of belonging for remote workers and ensuring employee wellbeing.


These pressures demand that human resources (HR) departments re-evaluate how they operate like every other part of the business. As businesses work to become innovative people companies, their leaders should make space for HR at the table where technology decisions are made. As the voice of the employee, HR has invaluable perspectives to offer. We envisage five key roles for HR:


Shaping the skills base

As mentioned earlier, digital technologies could change the nature of many jobs and displace some roles in the workplace. But they also create the need for new skills. Most office jobs today require at least some digital proficiency. Many new roles need to be filled, for example, in data science or customer experience.


HR leaders can work with businesses to transform how they acquire, engage and manage their people. They can help audit the existing skills base, develop programmes to upskill or reskill employees whose roles will change due to digitalisation, and find ways to source talent to fill positions where they can’t recruit internally. 


Reinventing the employee experience

Workplace IT has a significant impact on the employee’s experience at work. HR can play a key role in making things easier for employees, from helping to streamline the onboarding process when they’re issued a computer to providing employee self-service tools. These solutions make it easy for people to use an app or web browser to update their personal details, get a copy of their payslip, apply for leave and file expense claims. This improves their workplace experience and saves time for HR.


Preparing the organisation for change

Digital transformation projects achieve the best payoffs when they get buy-in from everyone, from senior leaders to junior staff. But they can also inspire fear and anxiety in the workplace. People might resist being asked to change ways of working they have adopted for years. Or they could be afraid of being replaced by a computer program. HR has an invaluable role to play in driving change management. As importantly, as part of the business responsible for nurturing talent, HR can help drive continuous learning and improved culture.


Partnering with the business to improve performance

HR in a forward-looking business isn’t just about filing employment equity reports and issuing company policy documents. Rather, it’s about working with finance, technology and other parts of the business to drive better performance. Through these collaborations, business leaders can make better decisions about future hiring and training investments, and initiatives to improve productivity and talent retention.


Knocking down barriers so everyone can thrive 

As we move into a bold future of work, where digital technology drives efficiencies and enables great customer and employee experiences, it’s important to remain human and inclusive. HR needs to play a leading role in digital transformation, ensuring that no one gets left behind. In innovative people companies, digital tech is not just about automating repetitive, low-value activities. It’s about knocking down barriers so everyone can thrive.

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About the Author

Nkululeko Nombika is the Business Operations Director for Sage Africa, Middle East and Asia. Sage provides finance, HR and payroll software to make work and money flow. Find out more:

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