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A widespread shift to working from home is “not the most important” part of the digital transformation of work triggered by the coronavirus, according to the European CEO of consultancy giant Accenture.
In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Finance UK, Jean-Marc Ollagnier said the pandemic had begun to trigger a historic “reinvention of work” at many organisations.
His comments come after the New York-listed professional services firm (ACN) carried out a survey of more than 700 business leaders, including in the US, UK, and other countries in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific region.
It found more than three-quarters of executives said they planned to redesign how staff worked, accelerate digital transformation plans, and change “fundamentally” how they engaged with customers.
‘What is at stake is the reinvention of work’
“We have had a demonstration at a global scale around the power of digital technology,” he said in a phone interview from Accenture’s Paris office.
“People massively working from home, people doing business, doctor visits, government relations on a virtual basis; supply chains have been able to navigate digitally, decision processes have been accelerated. People recognise it has worked.
“What is at stake here is a reinvention of work. Working from home is a component of it, but it’s not the most important one.”
He said a major change for many large-scale organisations had been the discovery they could work much more effectively than previously imagined across borders and timezones, either with colleagues, partners or clients.
“People have realised during COVID-19 they were able to interface with China, Japan, the US, in a different way, and they will leverage that and maybe organise work differently.
“Imagine you have a network of expertise across the world you were not leveraging as those experts were not close to your home or office. You can easily access talent you were not using before. Or imagine you’re dealing with an increase in demand suddenly. You can leverage different locations to absorb peaks of work.”
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Cloud technology, cyber-security and digitisation within supply chains were other major growth areas, added Ollagnier. Accenture recently announced a $3bn (£2.3bn) three-year investment plan focused on cloud transformation services, helping firms “shape, move, build and operate their businesses in the cloud.”
Ollagnier said new perspectives were filtering through into concrete action. Two-thirds of leaders surveyed said they were now investing for the post-coronavirus world, up from just 16% earlier in the year.
Firms were starting to look “beyond the crisis,” rather than focusing only on stabilisation, business continuity and the safety of their people, he added. “You have a significant amount of leaders willing to engage in transformation initiatives in order to be ready for the new world. The market is not easy to read, but people are willing to invest.”
He said European firms had historically under-invested in digital versus US and Chinese rivals, but the signs were now strong European leaders now wanted to “catch up.”
But with infection rates and restrictions on the rise in Europe, he added: “We are not out of the woods. We’re still dealing with some crisis management left and right in many businesses.”
‘Human nature is social’: The future of offices and jobs
Amid widespread predictions of the death of the office, Ollagnier said it was “too early” to identify any clear trend in companies cutting back significantly on office space.
He said companies would continue to look for efficiencies, but sounded confident offices had a future—partly because humans would struggle to “work from home forever.”
“We don’t believe that people will get rid of office space ,as we still think there is value to be part of the company, to interact, to innovate to gather, to collaborate. Certainly at Accenture we believe human nature is social.”
Ollagnier noted COVID-19’s impact went well beyond digital transformation, with widespread and difficult “job disruption.”
“Every industry will be slightly different in the next five years. That will mean a different job footprint.”
He said he was not as “negative” as many observers who expect disruption to mean fewer jobs overall. “In the past, we’ve always been able to create more jobs after transformations than before. Society has always been clever enough to invent enough activity, services, and new types of job.”
Accenture itself has not been immune to disruption from the pandemic. The company confirmed a round of redundancies in the UK earlier this year, with a letter to staff seen by the Guardian reportedly saying it “went into the crisis with an overcapacity of people relative to demand.”
Asked about job losses, Ollagnier said the company had focused on re-skilling talent to new areas, but "had to accept" the loss of some staff. But he said the company was “very confident” in its UK arm. “We’re going to continue to recruit in that market.”
Ollagnier also said the company was proud of its resilience in a market environment that was “not easy.”
Its full-year global revenues, published last month, were up 4% to $44.3bn. Accenture’s share price is higher than at the start of the calendar year, and it expects revenues to pick up by between 2% and 5% in its next financial year.
Growth had been “less than the historical trend,” but he added: “Frankly, we are growing at a time where the economy is declining in a significant way.”