In 1991, the City of San Francisco began demolition on the Embarcadero freeway. Looking on was former Mayor Dianne Feinstein. “I knew one day it would happen,” she said. “It just needed that push from Mother Nature.”
That push was the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which savaged San Francisco but ultimately led to a revitalized Embarcadero district that anchors the city’s downtown today. From this foundation-shaking disaster came a chance to rethink, not just rebuild. COVID-19 is a different sort of disaster entirely, but it has arrived like an earthquake to shake the foundations of work. In its wake, we have the rare chance to redesign work fundamentally.
The mess of modern-day knowledge work
While many of us have made the sudden leap to home-based work, our habits remain rooted in the office.
Pre-COVID workplaces relied heavily on face-to-face interactions to manage the disorganized mess of modern-day knowledge work. Tasks were assigned haphazardly with no system for tracking who was working on what and how that work was progressing.
To compensate for a lack of structure, people dropped by each other’s desks or had quick in-person status meetings. Work got done, but rarely in an efficient or mindful way.
By now we know remote work isn’t a fleeting experiment, but rather a lasting byproduct of the global pandemic. To support the shift, our ways of working must catch up.
The good news is that forward-thinking IT, HR, and customer service orgs already know how it’s done. These groups have long relied on digital workflows and automation to track and manage incidents and requests. Now it’s time to apply their ability to track and orchestrate to everyday knowledge work within the enterprise.
Now is the time for operational workflows
Digital workflows can adapt to support what I call “operational workflows”—those that sit close to the customer and drive the product or service at the core of an organization’s business.
These workflows are everywhere. In manufacturing, they bring product from the factory floor through to shipping and distribution. In retail, they process orders, schedule deliveries, and create happy customers. In banking, they push loan applications through pre-approval to underwriting and closing.
By reimagining these processes as digital workflows, we impact the bottom line just as we do when optimizing and automating within IT, HR, or customer service. This allows employees to focus less on administrative tasks and project management and more on delivering creative, innovative work.
Digital workflows can help increase visibility and facilitate the clean handoff of work between teams. Building them intelligently requires three critical steps.
- Understand your process from end to end: Map each step in a workflow from start to finish. This will help you understand what can be completed in parallel, what is dependent on the tasks before it, and what can be improved or eliminated entirely.
- Find the bottlenecks: Identify and measure your bottlenecks. An insurance company, for example, would measure the time it takes for a claim to pass through the claims process. A manufacturing company could identify machines that frequently break down and adjust its processes accordingly. Measurement is the first step toward improvement, allowing businesses to pinpoint areas of concern before changing processes.
- Evaluate to automate: Automating tasks that are repetitive and manual—those that hold people back from focusing on higher-value work—should be built into your operational workflows.
As an example, recruitment agency Alexander Mann Solutions automated the scheduling of interviews. While this sounds simple, it saved the company hundreds of hours, freeing employees to focus on their core business of talent acquisition.
These three steps apply just as easily to workflows in IT, HR, and customer service. That’s entirely intentional, because a workflow is a workflow wherever it occurs. As we adjust to a new reality and build new infrastructure to match, it’s this point we must keep in mind.
Just as an earthquake remade San Francisco, COVID-19 may spur new and better ways of working. But working smarter requires rethinking, not just rebuilding.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.