The new normal and relaunching business critical programmes in a remote environment

6 months ago Marie Cuffaro

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​During the COVID-19 crisis, businesses across the globe have been forced to do things very differently, making quick decisions and even transforming their entire organisations within a matter of days. With many now thinking about how they can permanently implement these new ways of working into their organisations, Investigo hosted a roundtable discussion on Tuesday 5th May, centred on the new normal and relaunching business critical programmes in a remote environment. Hosted by our Director Marie Cuffaro and Cisco’s Group CIO Jacqui Guichelaar, the event brought together business leaders from across our network.

Ramping up technology

“When the crisis started, we were very plugged in and aware of what was happening,” said Jacqui Guichelaar. With some of their supply chain based in China, this is hardly surprising. “But we couldn’t predict the speed with which it would move to the rest of the world. Within 10 days, we had to scale from 25,000 working from home to 140,000 working from home. It sounds simple but there were several requirements of our technology.” These included global network connectivity, platforms, business applications, scaled IT service providers and even permission, as India has strict rules about call centre agents and IP telephony to the home. Cisco had to partner with NASSCOM (the trade association of the Indian IT BPM industry), the Other Service Providers Association of India (OSPAI, which includes approximately 1,000 software companies) and the local government for leeway to enable 30,000 call centre agents to work remotely.

“There’s been a lot more focus on security,” added Jacqui. “With more people working from home – on virtual desktops, VPN, internet, intranet – there are also a lot more vulnerabilities or potential risks. Unlike the corporate network in office buildings, people are connecting from home – where there is less security and the possibility of infected devices on the same network. We’re looking at how to build a zero-trust security perimeter. It doesn’t matter how people are coming in, they need to access information securely, and through the right means. With the increased focus on security and the very real possibility of extended remote work, we have to ensure we have laser focus on this.”

“Ensure a stable foundation,” said Jacqui. Cisco is running a programme called “Strengthen the Core” to ensure its systems are robust enough. “If you don’t have the right foundation for platforms and business applications, if you can’t quickly add capacity and have the right agreements with your network providers, you have a big risk on your hands. Focus on the platform and business continuity. Most companies already had a business continuity plan, but COVID-19 tested the effectiveness of those plans. The business is likely open to improving the plan based on the lessons learned from this crisis. First think about what is needed to keep the business running in a fully virtual environment. Then, think about what you need to transform the business for a new future. How can we accelerate transformation that allows us to build the right platforms so customers can buy what they need from Cisco in the future?”

A return strategy

Cisco is now engaged in return to office planning and thinking about how to get its people back to work. “We have been working on an overall workforce plan since January, but the current situation has forced us to re-evaluate our approach. When we return to the office it will not be exactly like it was before.” While Cisco will follow regional and local regulations, the main consideration will be for the safety and welfare of its people.

“Look after your people as that’s critical. What are the practical ways of putting people first and retaining your cultural DNA remotely? Cisco has an amazing culture of putting people first.” The company’s chief people officer and leadership team have been working hard to find ways of protecting their staff.

“We’re trying to do everything to support people wherever we can, whatever situation they’re in. It’s the right thing to do in this situation.”

The psychological comfort of its people is central to the company’s return to work strategy. Some can’t wait to go back, others are understandably nervous. 95% of the IT team will continue working from home and only those who physically need to be somewhere, such as labs and data centres, will be going in to work. This leaves the question of how the company can continue to focus on critical programmes remotely. “We’re still 80-90% focused on projects, in some cases accelerating,” said Jacqui. “Our strategy is not to slow down programmes where we feel we don’t need to. We’re focused on speeding up critical programmes, which still makes sense or perhaps more sense. We’re still hiring and increasing some of the work we’re doing with partners. We’re making more use of service providers, partners and contractors while we get through the unknown.”

One of these critical programmes is the move towards subscription and services models. Cisco still sells hardware and switches but is on a journey towards being more of a SaaS, services and subscription-based company. This makes more sense in a remote world where it’s easier for people to buy services and pay for what they use. “We’re not slowing down,” said Jacqui. “If anything, we’re accelerating.”

Practice for a crisis

“If you’ve been in IT long enough,” said Jacqui, “one of the things you learn is how to manage a crisis.” Jacqui was tasked to be a Major Incident Manager at IBM in 1995, so has long been acquainted with how to deal with these situations. “You don’t know what to expect, but if you’re in tech then you have a bit of that in your DNA.” Marie posed the question of how Jacqui used her previous experience to get through this unique transformation.

“I did some of the basics – brought the key team together, synced up with my boss. The leadership team is addressing the business every week through Cisco TV with tips on working from home, questions for a doctor. I took the skills I’ve learned in the past and doubled down on those.”

What’s clear is that tech underpins how we deal with this crisis. Accordingly, Jacqui is partnering more with IT to help overcome the challenges. “The situation has really emphasised that tech is at the centre of everything we do, in life as well as work. Security, connectivity and collaboration are crucial to communicating in the world, to working from home.”

Different companies are at different stages, with some going from disaster recovery into working from home more comfortably. But there are a number of key blockers to relaunching business critical programmes, some of which “will surface when companies get nervous about the future.”

“When the economy gets tight and businesses suffer,” continued Jacqui, “the first thing they do is put everything on hold – freeze headcount, look for budget cuts. But I would caution them not to do it. Have tough conversations on which projects should really stop. Use this opportunity to say to functions, ‘Let’s prioritise, stop projects where we need to and accelerate projects on strengthening the core, business transformation and security.’ It’s about reprioritising, trying to be creative with your budgets. The companies that will survive will be the ones that take some risks and keep some programmes moving forward, because we have to keep moving.”

Learning lessons or spurning lessons?

Asked about the biggest lessons she’s learned during the crisis, Jacqui responded, “I no longer have to sit in traffic to get to work!” But on a serious note, she felt that companies who were initially averse to remote working might now have had a rethink. “Whoever made that decision has learned a big lesson. The world has changed. I worked from home in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. There were progressive companies even then.” Companies who advocate remote working will learn about their capacity for collaboration, the strength of their network and how to implement the right policies.

These new ways of working are just as effective now, so how can we embed them into business transformation and permanent organisational practices? Jacqui stressed the importance of looking at how businesses have adapted and making these lessons a part of their longer term operation.

“From a devastating situation around the world, we’ve changed the way we work. I wouldn’t want to lose the new things we’ve learned. Bottle it up and keep it. How can we get projects done quicker than before, collaborate and share more openly, move faster on a day-to-day basis?”

No doubt there’s a new interpretation of what activities can be done remotely, which will affect companies’ location strategies. “What services can you always have on? You can have 24/7 incident response. Why can’t you deliver projects 24/7? We started to implement this before COVID-19, which has cemented it. We have teams in the UK, in AsiaPac and the US. We’re exploring ways of having an ‘always on’ concept. I hand over a project, wake up and people are continuing it. Why can this not be the new normal?”

With the move to remote working, digitalisation will now be more at the forefront of corporate thinking. “We want to get to the point where anyone can do anything from anywhere. We can’t do everything on phones yet but we’re getting there. What’s the easiest way for employees to do everything for customers from anywhere?” Businesses will need to think about the way they sell to customers, making that digital experience easy no matter what they’re selling. Essentially, making it easier for people to buy. “That’s what digital means and a lot of effort should be put into that. It will become the new normal.”

While working remotely, companies need to ensure stakeholder engagement and buy-in with programmes that have been implemented, as well as picking up any issues. It’s important to ensure day-to-day engagement isn’t lost through remote working. “It’s tough,” said Jacqui. “I’ve been at Cisco for 15 months and video conferencing has probably strengthened some relationships. How many people have the luxury of state-of-the-art video conferencing? Some people say it’s levelled the playing field. Now everyone’s dialling in remotely. We’re all equals in a virtual world. Be mindful of it, but my personal experience is that it hasn’t taken anything away. If anything, it’s added more intimacy.”

An accelerator to partnership

While many companies previously hired internally or worked only with certain partners, the new relationships and levels of collaboration they’ve gained during the crisis could fundamentally change companies’ attitudes to third parties. “I think the situation may accelerate some people’s thinking on partnering with suppliers or certain companies to find skills or capabilities,” said Jacqui. Companies are exploring their options to look at doing things differently to how they did them in the past.

“How do I delegate a transformation programme? Do I accelerate, use more external partners now?”

A strategic approach is required when selecting new suppliers. “Sourcing and partnerships are part of what we should all be thinking about. Who and how do I leverage to drive the priorities I have? It’s a good time to think about that. Don’t cast the net too wide. Focus on the right partners where you can create win-win relationships depending on what capabilities you need.”

Many companies will also look at alternative suppliers. But the crisis will not only increase the breadth of their partnerships – it will also give them a more holistic understanding of the market. “We like to have preferred partners but I like to explore new companies to understand what they have. There’s something to be learned from new companies, whether they’re fintechs or techs. The traditional partners definitely play a role but we need to think beyond that to keep up with a fast-changing industry. You see a lot of that first-hand in Silicon Valley.

Conclusion

While adapting to new ways of working has been a huge challenge for companies across the globe, devising the right strategies for when and how they’ll return to their workplaces – even deciding on the location of these workplaces – will be another significant challenge. What we have seen is that many businesses can continue to function effectively. They’ll need to continue talking to their people and their partners to ensure they can embed successful longer term strategies that secure the future of their organisations, and the wellbeing of their employees.