Let’s be honest, the year 2020 was a year for the books. Quite literally, this year will be written throughout history books that our grandchildren will read. From a pandemic to an international lockdown forcing schools, shops, and restaurants to shut down, it’s safe to say the pandemic has had a significant impact on our lives. The shutdown impacted many businesses alike, some having to shut down temporarily, while other businesses had to close for good. I thought it would be interesting to sit down and chat with our CEO, Jeff Wilhelm, at Infused Innovations, and reflect on his experience as a business executive, amidst the challenging year of 2020.
The Onset of COVID-19
What was it like, as a CEO during the beginning of the pandemic when so many difficult decisions needed to be made and made fast?
“I love this question because as CEO the job is half looking-in and half looking-out. COVID gave me an opportunity to have conversations we had been having for months or years, in a more pointed, and more “close to home” way. I talked to other CEOs who were struggling with the physical mechanics around sending people home. Others were more concerned with the security model of doing so, and there was a group of CEOs I spoke with who were concerned about the productivity of their team. Everyone was apprehensive and anxious about what this would mean financially, but I think there was a pervasive sense of ‘how do I make the right decisions for the business, staff, and clients?’ My favorite conversations were with some of the more progressive CEOs who were of the mindset of ‘okay, this is terrible but there might be an opportunity here to push some workflow and operations changes, or find better ways to collaborate, or even reinvent areas of our business based on industry needs or challenges.’
Internally at Infused Innovations, where we’ve always been a “virtual” company, with staff all over the country, our focus was mainly on making sure our staff stayed safe, didn’t feel obligated to put themselves in positions of risk, while helping our customers realize what we been saying for years – that this was an opportunity for digital transformation. I would be lying if I didn’t say it was stressful though, I remember laying up at night thinking about financials, while at the same time thinking about my kids’ safety and school and everything else parents have to think about. “
Quickly Implementing Technology for a Remote Workforce
Considering our organization, Infused Innovations, was already set up for remote work, how much of a relief was that for you, during a time when you were watching so many businesses either go under or struggle with implementing technology to create a remote workforce as fast as possible?
“It absolutely made things easier. When the world shut down in March 2020, we were getting calls from customers saying “can you spin up 1800 Windows Virtual Desktops over the weekend,” and “can you ship us 100 laptops, and have them automatically provision software, apply security, and configure the user experience,” or “what is the right tool for collaborating, conferencing, etc…,” and even my favorite “can you move 25,000 phone lines from vendor X into Teams?” That was a big one. Besides the fact that the answer to all of those things is “yes,” we had a lot of experience delivering to customers because we already delivered on those things internally.
Of course, there were supply chain issues on hardware, resource constraints in Azure, and at times legacy and innovations butted heads a bit. But we have a talented, curious, innovative, creative staff, and I think everyone came out better on the other side. So yes, the position we were in made it both easier to deliver to customers (because we didn’t have to change anything to keep working), but also to deliver to customers because we had experience with this model of work. All of the initial panic that we felt coming from customers in the first few months quickly gave way to a sense of relief at the “new normal.” Then ultimately a sense of opportunity and innovation around what these new platforms and tools could afford organizations in terms of flexibility, analytics, and workflow improvements.”
Major Costs & Losses on Delayed Digital Transformation
From your perspective, as a leader of an organization that helps other businesses digitally transform, what were the major costs or losses that organizations experienced by waiting until an incident like COVID to finally start their digital transformation & implementation of remote technology compared to those who had already started that process?
“Right, this was probably a bit of a palm-to-forehead moment for some of the CEOs and CIOs and CISOs I spoke with. We were revisiting conversations we already had in the last twelve to eighteen months before the pandemic, and trying to avoid saying “told you so…”
We had been talking about digital transformation, the power of data, automation, breaking down barriers to accessing broadband, unified collaboration, platforms and services, and of course, what zero trust means, but until they were forced to invest, a lot of them had been putting it off. I get it, of course, businesses have to prioritize their spending. Industries change, there are other challenges, and frankly, some organizations see technology and security as cost centers that are not worthy of investing in.
We’ve all seen the news, data breaches, hacks, and compromises, but still many organizations do not understand why Zero Trust is a better model. I often hear back “my IT people tell me we have good antivirus and a good firewall… we’re fine” and then I mentally wait for the next call about ransomware or a phishing attack. Organizations that fortuitously started this process even a few months before COVID hit were much better prepared. Namely, their staff’s were much better prepared.
Change can be hard on people and being sent home because of a pandemic has personal challenges beyond the business ones. All of a sudden, you are layering changes of communication, process, support, and so many other things… all at the same time which is never easy.
We have all seen stories of businesses that have thrived, and we’ve all seen stories of businesses that have not. Certainly, there are variables to every story, but the customers we have worked with are all doing better than before the pandemic, and I mean that financially, operationally, organizationally, and in at least half the cases, culturally.”
Tools, Technologies, & Techniques as We Move Forward
What are the top tools and technologies you suggest that organizations need to have implemented as we forge through 2021 and into 2022 with a workforce that, for better words, has been shaken, challenged, and disrupted?
“I always try to avoid talking about specific vendors or products with customers… not because I don’t have strong feelings about certain ones, but because most of my conversations are around ‘what are you trying to accomplish?’ If I come in assuming anything, it adds color and bias on both sides. And of course, different tools can accomplish things in different ways — so I am happy to talk about tools and technologies more generally.
I will add another “T” to your list – technique! If we think about digital transformation as the means by which business and technology can align to realize opportunities, we have to first start by defining the current state and future or desired state. So the first technique is brainstorming and a workshop. We call these “Art of the Possible” workshops, and they are somewhat of “safe space” conversations where people can have consequence-free brainstorming. For example, if you were starting your business today, what might it look like? It’s refreshing to let people be unencumbered by history, legacy, baggage, and the “today” problems. So first we try and tease out where we are going. Sometimes it takes two hours, and sometimes it takes ten, but because everything we do requires executive-level buy-in, we need to make sure we’re confident we have enough information before we start making recommendations. I should add that sometimes we get halfway in, and realize the business doesn’t have enough (or the right) information to make these determinations. Data is critically important to making fact-based decisions.
We have worked with clients where we get four hours into workshops, and nobody can answer key questions that are branching decisions – do we do X or Y? Nobody knows for sure because the data isn’t clear or available. But this is too important to give up on or guess… so we put a pause on the workshop, and we figure out how to get the data. We have built entire ETL processes, data dashboards, and KPIs solely to try and answer the questions required to start digitally transforming an organization. And because we expose all of our work to key staff, we sometimes start digital transformation – in this case using data in new and unique ways, treating it as a business asset — before the actual digital transformation engagement has even been written up, proposed, signed, or started.
On the other side of that workshop, depending on where an organization is in their growth curve, their lifecycle, what their staff makeup is, how digitally native they are, what sorts of workflows, operations, current systems, vendor/partner integrations, and 100 other things… will depend on what tools and technologies, and the order of operations around implementation. Honestly, it’s the most fun I have, working with customers on the workshop, and imagining what could be. This is a very long answer to your tools and technologies question of course, but there is so much effort we go into helping these businesses, not only because we’re in it for the long haul, but we really want them to be better in every possible way. They are putting their trust in us to help them.
I mentioned whiteboarding out ideas, which is not very high tech of course, and I mentioned data and analytics as tools to make better decisions. There’s nothing amazingly innovative there (other than we have some really talented data people that can tell great stories with data), we look at process mapping to understand areas for improvement, also not something overly new… but when we start talking about unified collaboration, ubiquitous access to intelligence, breaking down silos, improving workflows, adding automation, better ways to service customers and improve customer experiences, ways to cut costs, reduce environmental impact, it starts to get really exciting.”
Preparing Leaders for a New Mindset Shift
Many employees were laid off, left without work, or had to switch industries as a result of the pandemic. For instance, anyone in the entertainment industry, restaurant industry, retail stores, and non-essential workers. We know that there’s been a mindset shift in employees as well as they re-enter the workforce. How do you think the year 2020 has shifted the landscape of the workforce and how should leaders be preparing for this mindset shift?
This is a difficult one to answer for me, because while I’ve read a lot of articles and a few studies on this topic, I think there are so many variables that play into the expectations. My answer could vary by age (or family makeup) of worker, cultural elements, the vertical the employee was in before the pandemic, income level, heck probably even zip code. So I am going to be a bit generalized in my response, and I know it will not apply in all cases.
I do see a “new normal” in a lot of the businesses we work in. I am remembering a customer of ours who had 30 offices up and down the eastern seaboard, some in quite expensive areas, and they sent everyone home. With the right equipment, technologies, tools, implementation, security, and caring, their staff is just as productive as before – and they can save millions of dollars a year on office space. Obviously, something good for their business isn’t good for the office space rental/leasing market, in this example. But- any smart business owner is going to be looking at cost savings like that with interest. Some staff will absolutely thrive in that sort of a work environment, having better flexibility, judged on output and contribution instead of hours, feeling like their employer trusts them to deliver… but some workers really need to be an office environment, or at least able to have a quiet space to work but still collaborate directly with coworkers. Technology can solve a lot, but if you can’t stand working from a home office, that’s a hard one to overcome.
But having smaller offices, with more digitally-thoughtful work and collaboration spaces, fewer people being forced to be in the office at a certain time, having a more on-demand office experience, and ultimately a safer one when you look at things like “square feet per in-person staff,” there’s a lot to think about there.
And let’s not forget about culture… just because your staff goes and works from home doesn’t mean culture goes away, but it also doesn’t mean you have to try to force office culture the same way. HR should put aside some money to do things that are unexpected. For example, every month we give real money to every member of our staff and they have to dole it out as rewards to other members of the staff over the course of the month. All of this positive recognition is public, and it’s amazing. The headline here is that I think businesses need to re-evaluate some of their long-held assumptions about what makes a worker, or an office space productive. While also being flexible on how to empower every one of their staff members to work in the way that makes each of them the best possible version of themselves.
I was reading a study, and my favorite takeaway was that according to the report, over 70 percent of global workers surveyed that they wanted flexible remote work options to continue. At the same time, over 65 percent say they want more in-person time with teams. So flexibility, and allowing staff to work how they are most productive, is really key. Happy workers will be happy to work.”
Biggest Advice Learned over the Course of the Pandemic
If you could sum up, in quick bullet points, your best advice you could give that you have learned over the course of 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic as a business owner, what would you say?
“Absolutely, here are the top things I learned over the years, and particularly from the experience of the pandemic…
- Talk to other CEOs for ideas.
- Embrace new technologies, but not on a whim, be thoughtful of the overall ecosystem and how different products do or do not work together.
- Do not forget about culture and experiences.
- Experiment with new programs in small pilot groups.
- Do not create new silos of data to solve problems more quickly.
- Remember that security and productivity don’t have to be opposites.
- Be understanding of the mental health of your team.”
Is there anything else you would like to mention about being a business leader during such a disruptive, challenging time in business?
“I could go on and on. I feel like there are so many things we could talk about, but I will end it here. Above all else, remember that there are always new technologies, new ideas, and new people that want to experiment. Any day you’re not moving forward on embracing those things, you’re moving backward.”