San Francisco IT experts discuss how organizations are using technology to transform work – San Francisco Business Times – San Francisco Business Times

Over the past 15 years, the way organizations use technology to improve business processes and outcomes has undergone a radical transformation. Computing has become more decentralized, computers have given way to powerful smartphones and tablets, and the lines between office and remote work have become blurred. The arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020 accelerated many of these trends as Americans were suddenly forced to change the very nature of how they work.
As a result of this upheaval, forward-thinking companies are assessing what they need to do to stay ahead of the technology curve. Technology experts from San Francisco-area companies recently discussed how their organizations are approaching this new world in a panel presented by Fortune 200 technology firm CDW, which was moderated by Mary Huss, market president and publisher of the San Francisco Business Times, and Mike DiGrazia, field sales manager, CDW.
The panelists were:
Other participants included: Janice Chen, CTO, Mammoth Bio; Christopher Fryer, CIO, Hanson Bridgett; Ganesh Iyer, CIO, NIO; Amith Nair, CIO, Vituity; Leila Pourhashemi, CIO, Blackhawk Network; and Tom Rodden, CIO, Varian Medical Systems.
The “Tech Connect” conversation about the future of technology and work has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Needs of the new workplace
COVID-19 has changed the workforce by eliminating or reducing the need for physical offices and forcing employers to adapt to the new virtual workplace. This paradigm shift has both freed employees from the strain of commuting while also removing the socialization and team building that occurs naturally in the office. According to a Microsoft survey, about 80% of workers now prefer a hybrid work setup remotely at least half the time, but nearly 70% of the same group want more personal interaction. MacKinnon, with CDW, believes employees are saying, “‘I want to be around people more often than I am right now, but not all of the time,’” and companies must take steps to create esprit de corps remotely.
But socialization is not the only concern employers have when it comes to the workplace. Where companies once ensured data security and tech uniformity by providing computer equipment in the office, now they must either create security measures for staffers’ home equipment or supply devices to their homes. “How do organizations adjust to that new framework of working?” MacKinnon asked. “We continue to see organizations put protection around data, apps and identity. We care less about where users are and what devices they’re using.”
Telecommuting makes it as easy to connect with coworkers across the world as they can with those in the same town. “I find it quite interesting how our collaboration networks have shrunk since the pandemic started, but some have expanded. I’ve probably talked more with other CDW people across the country than I used to when I supported just a single branch within CDW,” MacKinnon said.
But he also points out the need to encourage the sort of face-to-face collaboration that thrives in a shared office space, as COVID-era isolation has put a damper on innovation. “We used to come up with our best ideas when we got in a room in front of a whiteboard and were able to collaborate on things,” he said. “Maybe we sat with some folks in the lunchroom or different people we would see in the hallway and just kick ideas around.”
Onboarding has become more difficult in this new virtual workplace, which puts pressure on leaders to adapt if they wish to retain the best people. “The key is and has been smoothing out the user experience so remote employees experience no undue friction when beginning their work,” Temes, with CDW, said. “It’s all about putting the employee first and making their user experience seamless. We focus on the actual technology — but not the end user experience—to make sure new employees feel welcome and onboarded and like part of the team, since they’re not necessarily getting that experience by being in an office right now.”
Shifting IT landscape
When the pandemic began, companies went into emergency mode to get laptops and other equipment into the field, but if telecommuting is the new normal, employers must transition from emergency measures to best practices and long-term solutions. To Temes, this means a shift in how companies approach IT. “My customers in the Bay Area have been using this as a time to not only re-evaluate what they’re currently using, but also evaluate upcoming solutions that maybe had gotten put on the back burner due to the presence of employees in the office space; solutions such as major Wi-Fi and infrastructure upgrades.”
That many of these upgrades and solutions had been on the backburner shows companies have expected a move to remote work for some time and 2020 simply expedited an inevitable change. “We were starting to see a shift to remoting before all this kicked off,” Radburn, with Dell Technologies, said. That’s because remote work was one way to help employees with work-life balance. The pandemic accelerated the shift. “This isn’t just a group experiment or a psychology program to see how it works out; we need to remain productive, keep our businesses running, keep our employees engaged and working,” he said.
Savvy tech leaders have used the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate the pace of change, implementing strategies to better prepare their workforce. “This is a really great time to make major upgrades to infrastructure or current office space,” Temes said. “Most people are trying to downsize their spaces as companies go remote or hybrid to save funds, reducing direct costs and related expenses.”
Only companies already implementing widespread work-from-home practices were truly ahead of the curve before COVID-19. One of these was Hanson Bridgett, whose CIO Fryer explained, “We started a process — which was fairly unique for professional services prior to the pandemic — to allow all staff people to work remotely on a periodic basis. That put us in a great position when the stay-at-home order hit California. We have 350 people so we’re not a giant enterprise, but I had to buy only about 25 laptops in a week to support the entire workforce, because most people were already working at home as a regular part of their schedule. That piece of this pandemic puzzle had already been solved.”
The speakers also discussed several areas in which companies need to adapt more quickly, including taking into account the differing network speeds at each employee’s location. “One of the main problems is actually the network itself,” Radburn said. “Equipment at the data center has been keeping up with the times; workstations and endpoints have also been keeping up with the times. But people seem to miraculously forget about the speed of communication between where your user is and where information or anything else resides. I’ve seen companies where it takes half an hour for data to download from the central point to the home. Not everybody has access to gigabit fiber.”
Practical tech solutions
Not all companies have been able to completely pull off remote work. Electric vehicle developer NIO couldn’t send its engineers home from the lab, but other staff members could telecommute. Iyer and his peers offered remote workers incentives to upgrade their home connections. “Knowing this is going to be a long haul where most folks will all be working from their home offices for an extended period of time, we restricted access to our office buildings to mainly the engineers who needed entry to the labs, because they need to test the hardware boards they’re working on.”
Chen, with Mammoth Bio, said when the shutdown happened its employees were considered an essential workforce because they developed diagnostics and therapeutics. “In general, the life sciences industry has a majority of their staff working in labs,” she said. “We had a unique challenge in that we could not go fully remote and had to start with the hybrid scenario. We’ve learned that there has to be a way to maintain inclusivity for both on-site and remote workers, and part of that is ensuring leaders have a presence in person.”
Some companies are adopting new technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to support a new workforce landscape. Radburn, with Dell Technologies, said virtualization helps companies deal with deployment issues by letting people work on virtual machines. “Virtual reality lets us condense it all down,” he said, noting how these technologies have improved training for industrial positions during the pandemic. “People were looking to VR and AR for on-site training without the peril. You could create environments like warehouses, conveyor belts, oil rigs, all those things, and actually train people in those relevant environments.”
In adapting to a remote workforce, employers have streamlined their communications and virtualization practices. MacKinnon described one such series of innovations: “Microsoft has a solution called Autopilot built into Azure Active Directory and Intune that allows you to ship devices directly to users. They log in with their Azure Active Directory credentials, and their device gets configured and provisioned with whatever settings and applications you want from your company. No more shipping them into the company workbench then shipping them back out. It reduces a lot of expenses.”
According to Temes, CDW’s customers have found that providing new hires with flexible onboarding is incredibly helpful, as people will be using different systems. “It’s something we’ve seen with tons of our customers in the Bay Area. Whether they be Apple-based consumers or PC-based using Intune, Jamf for Mac, and DEP. Looking at full-blown new hire kits, we’ve been building out these packages and shipping them to our customers with incredibly detailed information packets on how to complete at-home setup.”
At Blackhawk, CIO Pourhashemi was already leading the move to a global product development model. “We kicked off our agile evolution in February 2020. We established five strategic development centers around the world so by the time the pandemic hit, we had about 20 employees in Bangalore. We just crossed 300 and had the party for that about a week ago in conjunction with our Diwali celebration.” Using the newest networking solutions to build Blackhawk around a widespread workforce from the ground up was key to this rapid growth even during peak COVID.
Ongoing challenges
Even businesses ideally organized for remote work have faced issues adapting to this new model. Nair, with Vituity, described how the pandemic’s effect on the global supply chain has been an ongoing concern: “We are a physician group where we provide post-acute care services at different hospitals. As a company, we are about 8,200 strong. Our physicians are already remote. The rest are all knowledge workers, of whom some work with the physicians. We’ve learned how the supply chain is a problem. We still see that as an issue.”
The pandemic has also made workers more aware of their value, sparking mass resignations and labor shortage as individuals make companies compete to impress them. “It is a war for talent, both on the hiring and retention sides,” Chen, with Mammoth Bio, said. “We all should think carefully about the incentives that can level the playing field for people both on-site and remote. That can be the company mission, employee compensation, benefits, social interaction and more. There are many different levers. We have to think creatively about what matters and motivates people.”
While organizations have taken steps to manage security across many locations, the lack of a single, easily controlled office network remains a major challenge. Fryer explained how Hanson Bridgett pivoted to new security protocols. “Most of us probably manage security from a network perspective or from a perspective of what’s happening at the corporate side. We suddenly had to really start thinking about security from the endpoint side. A lot of the work around securing endpoints, including understanding home networks, means extending your network out to every single employee’s home.”
It is certain that more obstacles will continue to emerge as the workforce decentralization continues, expanding a new paradigm. While future challenges will arise, the various steps IT professionals have taken to remain agile and leverage new innovations has allowed Bay Area companies to be resilient in the face of unprecedented change.
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