Crucial business learnings amidst a global crisis

Collaboration, leadership, and innovation are key.

2020’s global pandemic created a quick and massive shift for companies around the world, where businesses made necessary changes like working remotely and an increased emphasis on mental health and work-life balance. While many organizations are considering their return-to-office framework as lockdown orders lift, plenty of leaders are thinking about old ways of working and if new practices should become “business as usual”.

On May 28th, international newspaper The Economist held a roundtable over Cisco Webex collaboration technology that included 12 leaders from across industries in Europe including finance, retail, education, and technology. The roundtable, called “Reimagining business amid COVID-19”, aimed to get the leaders’ thoughts on how companies can innovate and retain collaboration during times of crisis. Cisco’s president for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Russia Wendy Mars was able to highlight the methods Cisco has been using to stay connected, maintain an engaged employee base, all while spurring innovation within the company.

Collaborating together

The future of work may have come sooner than expected—with the onset of COVID-19, we saw the world use collaboration tools to stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues. During a March 17th interview with CNBC,  Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said that there had already been 5.5 billion minutes of Webex video conferencing that month, which then grew to more than 20.3 billion meeting minutes logged in April.

Basic collaboration like Webex Meetings for video calls and Webex Teams for messages and file sharing help employees stay connected and collaborating, wherever they are. Cisco CIO Jacqui Guichelaar shared with CIO Australia that she and her team were able to take the company’s staff, contractors, and a community of supply chain workers online and collaborating in just 10 days.

Mars explains that working remotely depends entirely on your access to the digital world. For many—a staggering 3.7 million globally—still don’t have proper access to the Internet. And without it, it can be incredibly difficult to access education, maintain a livelihood, and obtain critical services. A big part of fueling the future for digital transformation is inclusion and making the internet a human right. Cisco is working to push for policies to close that digital divide.

Showing up as a leader

Empathetic leadership during a crisis is vital. Personal connections and mental health are more important than ever, as shelter-in-place and the unprecedented changes highlight certain struggles and disparities. Managers, executives, and leaders have the opportunity during these times to be a pillar for employees—to ask, listen, and learn from colleagues.

“Times like now require a different type of leadership skill,” says Mars, “The true leaders are shining. As an organization, we are running a global call every week, and you can literally see all of the leaders in the same situation, in their own home— that level of connectivity has allowed people to feel closer. It’s removed some of the hierarchical perceptions that you get within organizations.”

These weekly global calls, held by Robbins and Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas, address current issues and employee concerns. Medical experts and leaders from across the industry are also invited to provide crucial input.

It was during a weekly global call that Katsoudas announced Friday, May 22nd as “A Day for Me”—a global day off for all employees. In her follow-up email, the People leader wrote that current events created new challenges for employees, and a rest day could help them reset.

“Our wellbeing always comes first,” writes Katsoudas, “Which is why we continue to focus on our people, talk about mental health, and invite experts to our Cisco Check-In sessions. Now is the time for us to try new things in support of our wellbeing – like taking a collective break.”

Innovation reimagined

Remote working has accelerated digital transformation, ingraining a sense of innovation within every company. Trends that were already underway have fully come to fruition, and periods of innovation incubation have dramatically shortened. Facilitating an inclusive future of work means that more talent from more geographies can be incorporated within the company.

“We want to make sure we continue to bring in new talent to our organizations,” says Mars, “We’ve proven as organizations now that you can actually flip your company to work remotely.”

In addition to connecting remotely, normal processes have also changed. Quick decision-making is valued in times of crisis, where processes don’t have to travel up and down a hierarchy. Transparent collaboration allows for crucial decisions to be made in a speedy way.

Times of crises can provide an opportunity for reflection and a way to welcome necessary change. While companies had to quickly adapt to changes, companies may find that new practices should become business as usual once life and work start looking like they did before.

Insights into the company from the past few months are invaluable and should give us better ways to innovate in the future.

“We’ve learned a lot from this—what we’ve gone through as individuals, as organizations, and as communities,” says Mars, “We have to make sure that we keep grounded and not lose that learning. We must use it to drive change and hold ourselves accountable to that.

By Stephanie Chan