A PwC exec says the global disruption has accelerated the future of work by 5 to 10 years

Courtesy of David ClarkeDavid Clarke, PwC’s principal digital strategy and innovation leader.
  • The novel coronavirus pandemic will continue to shape work as we know it for the foreseeable future.
  • David Clarke, PwC’s principal digital strategy and innovation leader, said we can expect to see large-scale shifts toward digital collaboration and teamwork, even after it’s ok to come back into the office.
  • Business Insider spoke with Clarke about the impact of the pandemic, the importance of digital transformation, and how workplaces can be resilient.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The future of work as we know it is changing rapidly.

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted many companies away from the physical office and into the digital world, leaving people wondering how long they will be working remotely and how their work will change once they return to the office.

David Clarke, PwC’s principal digital strategy and innovation leader, said this shift toward the digital office isn’t just temporary. Instead, the pandemic has catalyzed a shift that was already in the works for a while. Much of the abrupt transition that companies made because of the pandemic will be here to stay, and it’s up to companies to consider the unique needs of their workforces as the future continues to evolve.

PwC, for example, has taken several steps to help its 270,000 employees adjust to remote work. This summer, the company took on a new cohort of virtual interns. The firm had interns attend digital training programs and participate in data visualisation exercises. The company also purchased 4,000 licenses for VR training software and has begun using the technology for diversity training.

Clarke recently spoke with Business Insider about the future of work and how the firm adapted to teleworking during the pandemic.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How PwC realised the importance of remote work

May Teng: A lot of companies are thinking of new ways to engage their workforce and become more productive during the pandemic. How has the pandemic altered work at PwC?

David Clarke: There was definitely an awakening moment. We’ve all had micro existential crises on what to do next, but the reality is that the changes happening now are really an accelerator. I think the pandemic took us five to 10 years ahead in the future of work. It was already moving in this direction before, but the pandemic actually opened the doors for more experimentation and new ways of working. People think of virtual work as a response to crisis, but what they don’t realise is that there are a lot of good things that are happening out of virtual and remote working.

What we found at PwC is that if we just look at virtual work from the perspective of tools and technology, it doesn’t really help mature our business. We have to look at it as how we work with people. We’re not looking to build robots; we’re looking to make people smarter. There are things that we’re doing in virtual that we could not have done otherwise. We can bring people together faster, we can set up meetings, we can reduce time, we can actually work collaboratively from different environments. We started to focus on the virtue of virtual.

But at the same time, we’re very cognisant of the challenges. This business is all about people, and we don’t want to lose the human element in what we’re doing. We’ve been spending a lot of time learning about things that aren’t working. For example, people aren’t commuting, but they’re working even more and taking more time out of their personal day, or they’re not focusing on the families. So now we’re asking people to block their calendars for personal time, which is kind of unique.

Teng: Have you gotten any feedback from the team at PwC about how they have been responding to this transition?

Clarke: It’s a mixed bag. There are some parts of our organisation that just love it. There’s more tech, more tools for collaboration. And they’re also taking advantage of the time that they have at home, which they would have normally been on the road. Then there’s other groups that are seeing how it’s playing out and embracing things at more of a moderate level. We are very used to working in groups focused on getting a task done, so we’re having to adjust.

We still need to understand what that person is all about and why that person works at PwC and what’s meaningful to them. So when we do virtual engagement we take time at the beginning of the meeting to ask very basic questions. Like, what are you here for? What do you need to get? If we don’t take those serendipitous moments of conversation, it becomes somewhat robotic. We have to keep that human element in what we do.

Rethinking the internship program

Teng: PwC has also engaged in a few new projects that help interns onboard smoothly. Could you speak more on that, or on any other major changes the company is making to how you approach your work?

Clarke: I was personally blown away by the internship program. This is a big company and we need an internship program; we need new talent to tell the old talent, like me, where things are going. We were able to create a virtual internship in two weeks’ time. And the interns were grateful for the experience. ‘Grateful’ is one of those words that we need to kind of embrace more when we’re going through a crisis.

As for other things we’re looking at, we have to rethink our clients’ services and products and help them reframe them for the future. Some of them will make it; some of them are in distress. So one of the things that we’re doing right now is helping our clients to understand what to invest in and what new directions to look into.

Another thing we’re thinking about is, how do we sell and engage in a virtual world? E-commerce was already a piece of the business. Now it’s becoming the business itself. We need our clients to understand how to reframe that in their minds. Offices will change forever, but not in a bad way. We need to remove all the negativity out of this.

I think that when we get back to some level of usage of traditional space, we’re going to find that how we’ve operated in the past might look a little archaic. We need to embrace the things we’ve been learning here in the virtual world.

Doubling down on digital work environments

Teng: Are companies across other industries also emphasising remote work?

Clarke: We have a very macro view because we see all the industries, so we feel all the pain and we also get to be on the ideation side of them. I do think that every business right now is trying to figure out some level of virtual.

There’s a doubling down on digital for all of the things being addressed in the world today, and the businesses that have done that are more resilient right now. They’re better planned for dealing with this type of adversity.

Teng: But digital transformation might mean different things for each company, and it’s harder to make that leap for some. How can they prepare to make their workforces more resilient when everything is changing?

Clarke: I think there are businesses that are in different levels of maturity. But when we talk about digital transformation, we have to talk about payback. Digital transformation is your business performing and growing better. For example, what we found in our organisation is that a lot of our talent don’t want to do repetitive tasks.

So we empowered our clients and created something called digital labs, which is a set of applications and software that removed those repetitive tasks, so they were focused on the bigger picture stuff. That is digital transformation – it was getting our workforce to actually do the things that they’re most passionate about, not the things that make them somewhat redundant.

Teng: How can we get people who weren’t previously accustomed to digital work to become more used to online collaboration?

Clarke: The first thing is that we have to evangelize it: When we do things in a virtual world, it reduces processes. Things happen faster virtually. It’s less expensive.

But the other piece that we found is most critical is that our solution to a virtual world isn’t new tech. Tech is a component to it. But it’s really about the art of bringing together – the right tools and the techniques and people. And when we talk about the virtual world, we have to find different techniques to create that human empathy. So learning about people, what drives them, what excites them, what’s challenging for them.

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