I’ve spent a lot of time talking to business leaders over the past year as they were forced to make tough calls to survive the pandemic. Take the case of a leader in the travel industryan industry arguably on the front lines of disruption. With lockdowns and travel restrictions in place, demand evaporated nearly overnight. To preserve cash and stay afloat, the company furloughed a huge portion of its workforce.

The pandemic forced companies to transform overnightfrom cost cutting and restructuring to shifting employees to remote work where they could. While many have focused on getting back to “normal,” the crisis has forced us to forge a better way forward.

Case in point: Remote work. Many companies discovered they could effectively operate remotely, maintainingeven increasingproductivity. In fact, Accenture’s 2021 The Future of Work study found that 63% of high growth companies have already adopted a “productivity anywhere” workforce model.

Now, as demand begins to return, the travel company like many others, is gearing up for growth. This poses the next challenge for business leaders: How do you grow and meet anticipated demand without going back to prior staffing levels and ways of working? The answer is through innovation and clean-sheet design.

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A zero-based approach to the organization and workforce

As companies look to scale up their operations and move back to their offices, it’s an opportune time to think about how to move with a zero-based mindset—thinking about people, teams and ways of working from a clean sheet. What kind of resources do we really need to invest in, doing what kind of work, to materially move the growth needle? How should we optimize the parts of the organization that are important, but not growth drivers? Done right, this exercise will help companies get the right resources and organization structures in the right place so they can grow quickly, but with a lower cost than they had before the pandemic hit.

Such agility is critical: Even before the pandemic, three-fifths of businesses reported an increase in the disruptive impact of constantly shifting customer demands and new market entrants. Furthermore, according to Accenture’s “Execution in Perpetual Motion” study, 63% of executives see slow decision making as a barrier to agility and resiliency.

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The pandemic has created massive challenges for all companies. It also forced companies to be creative and agile in the face of the crisis.

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For many of our clients, like the travel company, “starting from scratch” isn’t a difficult concept to grasp as they have already been operating with bare-bones staff in many areas. As demand for products and services starts to tick upward, we’re working with leaders to intelligently rebuild their capabilities—thinking through the right team size, structures, and partners. The focus is on figuring out where the company should invest for growth and where it should optimize to maximize margin.

  • Repurposing teams. Sales and marketing encompass a lot of strategic, client-facing work that’s critical to generating revenue. But there are also execution-oriented tasks that, while important, don’t tie directly to growth. Coming out of the pandemic, one company began rotating their client-facing sales employees from stable customers to higher growth areas of the business. Additionally, they will begin hiring back administrative employees into a shared-services function where, paired with automation, they can optimize skills and time across the business—and produce better outcomes.
  • Structure. Shared services will play a bigger role in rebuilding finance and IT organizations, which lost many of their junior roles during layoffs. As some of those resources are added back, either directly or through more variabalized outsorcing, they will be in a shared-services environment, focused on driving productivity through end-to-end processes with leading service management capabilities.
  • Partners. When the pandemic struck, another client eliminated marketing positions and moved their activities to third parties to variabilize and reduce costs. With business rebounding, the company won’t bring those activities back in-house. Rather, it will invest in a new marketing analytics capability, which the company always needed but never could free up enough money. This new capability can give the marketing organization insights to help them continually improve marketing performance—and consequently, directly boost sales.

Taking a zero-based approach brings a threefold payoff: First, the company could have new resources to re-allocate for growth initiatives and to explore promising new ideas. Second, it may have a more variable cost structure due to heavier use of shared services and third-party partners. Finally, the company would have a lower overall cost base than pre-pandemic, with the potential to be far more profitable in the future.

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Capitalize on lessons learned

The pandemic has created massive challenges for all companies. It also forced companies to be creative and agile in the face of the crisis—doubling down on digital go-to-market channels, simplifying processes and product portfolios, and mobilizing remote workforces overnight.

The fact is, companies learned a lot of lessons—and a lot about themselves—in the past year.  They shouldn’t forget these lessons as we emerge from this crisis. That’s especially true when it comes to their workforce and organization. Now is the perfect time for companies to rethink what’s really needed to position themselves for rapid growth in the recovery ahead.

I would like to thank Joseph Puma for his contribution to this post.

See more Enterprise Strategy insights.

Rob Rubin

Managing Director, Accenture Strategy, Zero-Based Organization Global Lead

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