FORMER CHICAGO MAYOR Rahm Emanuel once counseled, “Never let a crisis go to waste” – a point of view that was picked up and amplified by four panelists at Providence Business News’ virtual Business Continuity Summit on April 30.
Speaking about the short- and long-term recovery of businesses as the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs, the four speakers emphasized the need for smart leadership and improvements in management to make companies function even better than they did before the shutdown of the national economy.
“We’ve got to think of this crisis as a way to retool how we are doing things,” said Scott R. Jensen, director of the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.
Other members of the panel were Dan Gertrudes, CEO and managing director of GrowthLab Financial Services Inc.; Ross Nelson, vice president of Cox Business Northeast region; and Rick Norberg, CEO of Vertikal6 Inc. The panelists participated by web conferencing at separate locations and an audience of more than 190 watched at their computers.
Not surprisingly, since a great deal of work and education is now being done online by workers at home, there was lots of discussion about digital transformation, or the process of upgrading computer systems of all kinds. Much of the advice focused on moving data to the cloud – considered a more-secure option than hardware – along with improving remote access and using artificial intelligence.
‘Businesses need to think of tech as one of the top three assets of their business.’
RICK NORBERG, Vertikal6 Inc. CEO
“Since the 1950s, we have used tech to evolve,” Norberg said. “Digital transformation is looking at your organization and asking, ‘Are there more ways to become more effective and efficient by leveraging tech?’ ”
Norberg continued, “Do a walk-through of your processes. If you see a file cabinet, start there. Ask, ‘Which systems are vital? What can I live without? What can I afford to do?’
“Businesses need to think of tech as one of the top three assets of their business,” he added.
Gertrudes said business continuity is not a top-of-mind issue for most small-business owners, making them particularly vulnerable to the “black swan” moment of something almost unimaginable, such as a fast-spreading pandemic.
Business owners and managers, Gertrudes said, “need to rethink their process and be open to conversations about cloud technology. We have 10 years of experience behind us … to move financial operations into the cloud.”
He repeated the same advice for bill-paying systems.
Similar comments about good habits of well-managed businesses were applied to annual strategic planning. In Gertrudes’ company, the annual planning process begins in November and concludes in February “and then the whole cycle repeats itself,” he said.
“The beauty of this is that information comes out of the cycle,” Gertrudes said. The planning process “brings up risks and opportunities. We can even identify simple things [such as], ‘The December holidays will actually shut down everything for two weeks this year,’ up to ‘The whole state is shut down.’
“Strategic planning is critical,” he said.
Gertrudes also advocated for cash planning beyond the week-to-week question of “how much is in the bank and what is the payroll?”
He advised business owners who don’t plan for cash needs to start slowly by extrapolating income and expenses for 13 weeks, and then moving the exercise out to four months or six months.
Several panelists were upbeat about how adaptable their own workers and their customers have been to the stresses of working at home.
Nelson said his sales and service workers are finding a range of responses from their customers. “Some are looking for savings,” he said. “Some are closing or consolidating; some are waiting for the future.”
He said Cox has been able to help companies and their remote workers ramp up to helpful features they might have but might not have used much in the past, such as voice-servicing applications, unified messaging apps and video conferencing.
He lauded the R.I. Department of Education and the Community College of Rhode Island for donating $25,000 and $10,000, respectively, to buy and distribute laptops to low-income students.
Panelists noted the importance of strong leadership, through the crisis and into the recovery.
Some of the qualities that business owners and managers need to bring to work now include rigor and continuity in management, and empathy and compassion in dealing with the human side of the work. Speakers mentioned making periodic phone calls and even home visits to their employees to try to determine how well their spirits were holding up.
Some panelists said video conferencing actually required more disciplined communications by managers who needed to think through what would be said online more carefully than they might in a quickly convened meeting in a conference room.
During questions from the audience, one person asked if allowing company computers to go into workers’ homes could constitute a security threat. Ross assured the questioner that the laptop is connected to a network, and therefore is embraced by all the security technology that serves the network.
One question directed to Jensen was about an employer’s obligation if a business reopened but a worker would not or could not return to the job.
Some people receiving unemployment insurance will receive an extra $600 a week in addition to their usual benefits because of the federal stimulus package. Jensen agreed that “some people in Rhode Island are now making more money in unemployment insurance than they were when they were working.”
He told the questioner, “If a company opens up and a person is available to come back to work and they don’t, they are not eligible for unemployment insurance. We will freeze their account and have a discussion with them about going back to work.”
Jensen said the DLT is well-positioned, after years of groundwork, “to help support people who are transitioning to new [work] opportunities,” in particularly through EmployRI and Real Jobs Rhode Island.
The recovery “is not going to be as simple as a two-day snowstorm,” Jensen said.