Google’s head of digital transformation for Asia-Pacific, Japan and China speaks about the role of technology in the ‘new normal’ and in the evolution of business models
In this first part of the conversation, Darren Thayre, who leads Google’s digital transformation initiatives across the region, speaks to Unravel’s Siddharth Poddar and Shivaji Bagchi about what the ‘new normal’ will look like from a tech perspective. He offers his views on remote working, the push for digitalisation and whether businesses are on board to make these changes outlast the pandemic.
Unravel: There is much talk of a ‘new normal’. What will this new normal look like for people from a tech perspective?
Darren Thayre: I wish I had a crystal ball to know for sure. However, there are a few things that I feel certain about. For sure, more consumers across industries will be doing more online – for example, digital banking, digital insurance and even digital healthcare. I don’t expect them to go back to exactly the way they were before the pandemic.
Think about healthcare, for example. I don’t think in Singapore we did a lot of telemedicine before COVID-19, but things will be different now. I think some of it will return to the old normal, but some changes will stick.
In industries like banking, I don’t think the pace of change is going to slow down. Many banks at first struggled with this shift to remote working and moving everything online. But by and large they have coped well with this struggle. And they will put in place tools so they can continue to serve their customers digitally, because that is what millennials, Gen Xs and even baby boomers now tend to want.
Unravel: What about working from home?
Mr Thayre: Across the board, we’ve all proven that by and large we can do so much more than we ever thought possible, working from home. Some people have the home setups to be able to do it properly; others have had to juggle children and work, along with handling other pressures of life. So, while it hasn’t been easy for everyone, I think we’ve proven that it can be done. And I think there will be many individuals that say “I want to carry on doing this”.
The good companies will see how they can continue to do this for the sake of their employees rather than their bottom lines. There will be some cost optimisation opportunities too, but I think many employees are just so much happier getting more access to their children or not having to do the commute every day. This has definitely resulted in a better work-life balance in many respects.
There is also acknowledgement that we have the tools and technology to support remote working. I know everybody has their tech glitches from time to time but that’s life, and nothing is perfect. Having said that, I truly believe flexible working is here to stay.
Unravel: What else does the new normal entail for organisations? What are the key motivations for change?
Mr Thayre: I’ve been in my new role for only a few months now, and already I’ve seen huge demands for help from clients to digitise or to start their digital transformations; and that took me a little bit by surprise because I thought everybody would be gripped by their own battles or will be wrestling with things and trying to just keep things going. But I think there’s been this big awakening for non-digital companies that were behind the curve, that they need to change.
There has been this push to do it out of necessity to drive revenues and to keep the business going. Companies will realise they just won’t make revenues unless they can provide a digital option. To that extent, survival and growth concerns are driving a lot of tech adoption in companies.
I’m also seeing more companies saying “I want to save some money”, or “We need to be on mobile, or we could lose customers”.
Separately, there’s a real opportunity for companies to brand themselves as truly flexible workplaces. This is a talent branding opportunity for companies. And I don’t mean just the branding behind it – I mean sentiment and the culture, and really embracing flexible working. Companies that embrace it will stand out.
Across the board, we've all proven that by and large we can do so much more than we ever thought possible, working from home.
Gone are the days when just salary, title or even a company’s brand were sufficient to draw the best talent, without employee experience. We’ve been talking about employee experience and wellness and all of these things for a long time, but they are so topical right now that I think they will be a game changer for attrition, retention and engagements. There have been so many studies showing that good engagement means happy staff, happy staff means a more cohesive workforce. I think you will end up with the top line and bottom line benefits if you’re able to focus on the employee experience and really believe in it.
Unravel: Digitalisation has become a buzzword. Is COVID-19 resulting in its acceleration? Will the changes we are seeing, stick?
Mr Thayre: I think they will, but I don’t want all of them to stick. From a work perspective, most of what we do can be done from our homes, but what that doesn’t allow is the developing of personal bonds that are normally formed by going for a coffee or having lunch together, or just having that intimacy and learning more about each other’s lives, which seems much harder to do in a digital-only way.
That said, I think working from home for a few days a week is great. COVID-19 has also changed my viewpoint around travel. To go to Malaysia or Indonesia for a meeting – I mean that is several hours of traveling from door to door, and I’m going to be a lot more reluctant to do that, to be honest. It’s not like I don’t like these places or that I don’t like to travel, but it’s not a very efficient use of my time. I want to maximise the benefit I can give to my customers and that means saving time by not being on a plane and spending a few hours at the airport at either end of my journey. I’m certainly thinking a lot more about these things and will try and challenge them on whether I really need to get on that plane. As will others.
And increasingly, I think about the environment and reducing my carbon footprint generated by the flight and the travel to and from airports, and all the dollars that could be spent in other, more productive ways.
So, it’s the environment and sustainability, efficiency in time management and work-life balance. And of course, your own wellbeing given that a lot of travel takes a toll on your body and mind. It’s pretty compelling – don’t you think?
Unravel: While digitalisation has arguably never been more important than it is today, is there enough buy-in from businesses?
Mr Thayre: Yes! I think about going digital as a journey rather than an end destination. What I will say is for those just starting that journey, they’ve practically been caught unaware or they’ve felt like there’s no need for digital in their business and then suddenly they’ve been forced very quickly to change that view. For them it’s harder in many respects because they are fighting on many fronts. They have to get good at new technology, they have to keep their business running. They have to probably reinvent their workforce.
There is sometimes resistance to change. I think that’s with the new ways of working and the new challenges around changing consumer behaviour. For these reasons alone we need to think about culture and talent and how we organise ourselves. And I don’t always think of these changes as a negative thing.
On the flip side, companies that were already on the way to going digital and had mentally accepted that they need to change culture, skills, product and tech – they have an easier journey because they’ve mentally accepted it and only need to get on with it, or accelerate plans. That’s an easier hurdle to get over. Not easy necessarily, but easier.
You want to be a company that can change quickly – no matter what happens in the future. Some crisis or the other will come almost inevitably, and you want to be able to respond to it quickly.
There are some businesses that think they just need to fix their tech, by say building an app for sales. I think that’s going to be tough because nobody is just standing still. While you are just fixing your tech or building an app so you can transact over it, everyone else is going ahead with what their company 2.0 or their company 3.0 will look like, what customers are going to do in the future and how they are going to buy. So, when customers say they just want to fix their tech a little bit, I would challenge them because I think tech is often not the root cause of the problem. Despite the fact that I work for a largely tech-driven company, I always ask this about business models – is your business model going to be or is now obsolete? Do you have the right workforce for the future in terms of skills? Do you have the right agility?
Many firms I have seen have been using this time to plan and figure out what’s working and what’s not working. And it’s actually been a very good time to do a lot of that introspection and planning. The ones that have done nothing, for them it’s going to be very tough. I think part of that is realising that it is not just tech that is important. I always take this example. If you look at your favourite consumer brand—whether it is Netflix, or Grab, or Singapore Airlines—whatever it is that you use, it is just not the tech that makes these firms really phenomenal in their experience. If the brands I mentioned are all using cloud and they all have access to the same services, tech is obviously not the differentiator there. Instead, it is how you use it, how you build products and how you understand what the customer needs and how you pivot quickly along the way.
When I advise customers on the type of business they want to be in the future, I tell them that “I think you want to be a company that can change quickly – no matter what happens in the future, whether it is COVID-19 or a financial crisis.” Some crisis or the other will come almost inevitably, and you want to be able to respond to it quickly. That is what you need to prepare for and be constantly paranoid about your products. They may look good today, but what may disrupt them? Let’s disrupt them ourselves before somebody else does.
The second part of this interview will be published on Monday, 6 July.