Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has arrived in the U.S. and Canada, many businesses are being forced to re-examine their existing operations or reimagine the way they move forward as they provide their products and services.

What do they start doing? What do they stop doing? And who do they turn to for help?

Last week, ASUG Executive Exchange held a series of online sessions for ASUG members to share how COVID-19 is affecting their organizations, as well as what steps they are taking to address these challenges. We sat in on the online sessions and talked to some of the participating executives one-on-one to hear about the common themes and concerns organizations around the world are facing.

“Whether it is face to face or virtual, it is extremely satisfying to see the ASUG Executive Exchange network come together to share ideas and support each other as we navigate our way through the business challenges COVID-19 is creating,” said David Wascom, SVP of executive programs at ASUG.

We’re All in the Same Boat—Mostly

While some organizations have emergency plans in place to deal with pandemics, most—if not all—don’t have one in place for a pandemic of this magnitude. This fact is especially true for those businesses that work in global markets, because these types of emergencies are typically regional or isolated to one part of the world.

As more government bodies direct business owners to keep their workforce home when possible, many of the executives participating in the calls shared concerns over accommodating an organization-wide work-from-home model.

“We literally don’t have enough laptops or mobile devices to send with people,” one participant said. “And there is a three- to four-week wait time to receive newly ordered equipment.”

IT to Balance Big and Small Requests

Tony Caesar, head of IT at Ericsson-MANA, suggested that IT teams need to return to delivering table stakes for the time being and help address nonstrategic issues, while also staying mindful of the bigger picture. Which is not an easy task.

“IT is being called on to help set up infrastructure and provide monitors, docking stations, and keyboards, and to make sure everyone working from home has access to VPN and core applications so that they can get their work done,” said Caesar, who also serves on the ASUG board of directors.

Work-from-Home Solutions

Participants on the ASUG Executive Exchange calls shared concerns over bandwidth capacity and security issues related to working from home. Some shared successful experiences using virtual desktops, such as Amazon Workspace.

“We set it up two weeks ago, and it was easy to roll out,” one participant shared. “It’s a great solution for those employees who need to work off their own home computers but still have access to their work desktop.”

Social Distancing On-Site: Why, How, and Who?

It’s impossible for some businesses to send their workforce home. We know about front-liners such as health care providers, police officers, and firefighters. But the truth is there are millions of people who keep the wheels turning to produce the food we need, medicine we rely on, equipment and materials that will keep us safe, cars and trucks for deliveries, and so on.

Businesses with manufacturing plants and supply chains have had to reimagine how to keep operations going without sacrificing the health and safety of their employees. “We’ve always had a continuous shift in our plants where there was never a stop. We’ve had to change that to give time for employees to move about and stay safe,” one respondent said.

Another participant talked about how employees who work on the road in pairs or groups are now being asked to drive in separate vehicles to maintain a safe distance. “We have to rent cargo vans to make this happen,” the participant added.

Keeping the Health Care Industry Going

Sharon Kaiser, CIO of New England Biolabs, said her company’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve as company leaders seek to keep all employees and their families safe.

“At the same time, we still need to supply products to our customers, many of whom are using our reagents to develop better diagnostic tools and vaccines for this virus,” said Kaiser, who also serves on the ASUG board. “We have invoked several protocols to provide social distancing to minimize exposure to people by avoiding crowded spaces and limiting the number of interactions that provide the opportunity for the disease to spread.”

New England Biolabs has asked all employees or contractors who are not able to work from home to work in shifts—either in the morning or afternoon. The company has even limited access to product packaging and shipping areas, as well as limited cafeteria service to prepackaged food and drinks.

"We are also communicating frequently to our employees about what we are doing as a company to keep them safe and to our customers to help them through this crisis,” Kaiser added.

Communication, Communication, Communication

Communication is always important, but it is paramount during a time of crisis. Almost all participants of the ASUG Executive Exchange sessions stressed the importance of communication in their business.

“The speed of change is so fast—it makes it that much more difficult to comprehend this new normal,” one attendee said. “But we need to stay on top of it and communicate what is important now and what can wait.”

Almost all participants said they receive daily communications from leadership. In fact, they see more of their coworkers in virtual meetings now because it is so much more important to stay connected during times of rapid change.

Leadership Matters Now

“We have crisis-management teams across the globe as well as communications teams in place, and folks whose sole responsibility is to monitor all the activity around COVID-19,” Caesar noted.

The key right now is for there to be one central message that comes from leadership and is disseminated across the organization. It is equally important to revisit any business-continuity plans and be agile in making changes just as quickly as changes are taking place. This requires open dialogue with key players in the business.

“Leadership right now is important,” stressed one attendee. “We’re all just trying to do our best in keeping the train on the tracks.”

Register for one of the ASUG Think Tank online sessions taking place and stay tuned for a follow-up series of the ASUG Executive Exchange online sessions.

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