WFH lessons: How COVID-19 is affecting IT plans

Months into the pandemic, organizations are taking stock of what worked (and what didn’t) as they pivoted in a matter of days or weeks to a work-from-home model—and overhauling their IT priorities because of it. Read our latest coverage from the Enterprise Connect conference.

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WFH during COVID

What now? Six months ago, businesses were all about how do we keep this thing running? The answer, for most, was enabling work from home (WFH).

Now organizations are taking stock of how well technology worked on that front—and overhauling their IT priorities because of it.

In a recent panel session during the Enterprise Connect virtual conference, three IT execs from different verticals—travel, finance and education—got real about the impact of COVID-19 on their current operations and how it’s affecting their future IT plans:

  • Jennifer Featherling, director of global contact centre technology at online travel booking site
  • Neal Obermeyer, senior manager of channel effectiveness at online investment platform TD Ameritrade
  • Gary Kohlheim, director of services management at Laureate Education (the company runs several for-profit universities, including online-only Walden University in Minneapolis)

WFH: What worked

It’s no surprise that cloud and collaboration tools were the keys to survival for all three organizations. They used those tools to shift into WFH mode—fast. Out of the three panelists, however, Featherling had the toughest go of it.

Although Priceline had deployed an integrated contact centre platform running on a public cloud just a few months before the pandemic, none of Priceline’s contact agents had virtual desktops. “They actually had to pack up computers and deliver them to agents’ homes,” she recalled.

Once Priceline agents set up their office computers at home, other issues cropped up: spotty Internet service, limited bandwidth and securely accessing work applications remotely. Priceline had to provide some WFH staff with special modems for Wi-Fi hotspots. As for security, “we also started changing how they would log into applications from home,” Featherling said.

Before COVID-19, Priceline managers could simply walk up to an agent’s desk to troubleshoot on the spot. But WFH means having to do everything virtually and remotely, mainly via two major collaboration apps. On top of that, the pandemic exploded in March, which is traditionally a slow period in the U.S. travel trade. Instead, the sector got slammed with customer queries.

“We saw massive, immediate call volumes going up. It went up 60 per cent over the month prior,” Featherling said.

Like Priceline, TD Ameritrade rushed to enable WFH. Obermeyer said the portion of TD Ameritrade staff doing WFH jumped from 15 per cent to 100 per cent “in a week.” Since TD Ameritrade had already deployed virtual desktops before the pandemic, “we were just sort of incidentally prepared,” he said. “That (WFH) transition worked very well on the technology side.”

Since the pandemic started, almost 95 per cent of internal communications at TD Ameritrade has moved from email to a cloud-based collaboration app. But Obermeyer realized clients were competing with their kids for bandwidth and device access at home. To ease the home Internet bottleneck, the company recently launched a version of its Thinkorswim online trading platform that customers can access from any Web browser on any device.

WFH during COVID

Laureate Education had a relatively easy shift to WFH because it had embraced a “cloud first strategy” a few years ago, Kohlheim said.

“We’re more of a laptop shop. Everyone has a personal laptop so that made it that much easier. Our transition from office to home was very seamless for us,” he said.

Like TD Ameritrade, Laureate now does almost 100 per cent of its corporate communications via a collaboration platform. That platform is also being used in place of in-person meetings with IT vendors that provide virtual services to Laureate’s staff and students.

“It’s a big aspect of what we do. We had to switch all of our API planning to virtual, and that normally is an on-site event. That really changed the dynamic,” Kohlheim said.

Read more:

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WFH: What’s next?

In late March, analysts were forecasting significant slowdowns in IT spending for most of 2020. But now, the pandemic seems to be speeding up enterprise IT plans dramatically.

“Decade-long digital transformation roadmaps of nearly every company got compressed into days and weeks in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus,” according to a Twilio study that surveyed 2,500 IT decision makers in Asia, Europe and the U.S. at the end of June.

Among the survey’s most revealing findings:

  • 97% say COVID-19 has sped up digital transformation in their organization
  • 43% say it sped up their digital communication strategy by one to four years
  • 27% say it sped up their digital communication strategy by five to nine years
  • 79% say COVID increased their digital transformation budget

Wow. That’s a warp speed pace of change, and the three Enterprise Connect speakers are seeing (and making) these kinds of profound shifts at their own organizations.

Obermeyer said that while COVID-19 has been incredibly challenging, “it also represents a lot of opportunity because we got to fast forward through the mind shift of digital transformation. The opportunity for us (now) is seizing that.”

Here are key areas where the Enterprise Connect panelists plan to hasten their IT transformations:

Cloud: Featherling said Priceline is now pivoting to do more staff training via cloud. Kohlheim said he hopes to shift Laureate Education’s cloud focus from enabling effective remote operations towards finding more “operational efficiencies” overall.

Omnichannel: “We opened up several (customer messaging) channels we were kind of playing with before, and now they’re fully out there regardless of what is happening,” Featherling said. According to the Twilio study, COVID-19 resulted in:

  • 54 per cent of enterprises increasing their focus on omnichannel communication
  • 53 per cent adding new channels
  • one-third deploying live chat and IVR (interactive voice response) for the first time ever
  • 29 per cent using customer-facing video for the first time ever

AI: Priceline and Laureate are increasing their focus on AI, especially to enable customer self-service. “We have a strong AI strategy, moving more into self-service for our students, being consistent across those channels so whether it’s a phone call or a chat, we’re providing that same level of service,” Kohlheim said.

“Going forward it’s going to be about using our AI and some machine learning to fully connect that trip for the customer regardless of where they come in, on chat or back to voice, to keep the context of it and make sure we’re helping them as best as we can,” said Featherling.

Although the main IT goal at the start of the pandemic was to get staff working productively from home, the focus is once again moving back to customer experience.

In Obermeyer’s words, the next IT priority in this pandemic is “shrinking the space between people and what they need.”

Images: mapodile/iStock; Eva-Katalin/iStock

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