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John Rogers

| 02 July 2020


Luck or foresight? How an IT initiative shielded us from the pandemic

It was Niccolò Machiavelli who wrote, more than five hundred years ago, that one should “never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis”.

In very different circumstances at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, these words were echoed by President Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel: “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste”.

An opportunity – for some

Few would describe the current pandemic, a global crisis that has cut short hundreds of thousands of lives and shattered economies worldwide, as “good”. And yet, as Emanuel pointed out, it’s “an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before”.

For many sectors of the economy, this crisis has been a disaster. Airlines, pubs and restaurants, theatres, high street shops, to name but a few. Many businesses have been forced to the edge of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, others have seen their share price soar: Amazon, Zoom Communications, Microsoft and Netflix; all have struggled to keep up with demand for their services.

Technology is clearly a common theme. So, too, is the ability to adapt quickly to a change in circumstance.  Another, and perhaps the most important factor, is sheer good luck. Companies that suffered the most in the crisis were unlucky, paralysed by a crisis that few could have foreseen.

Luck or foresight?

Just days before the lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister, everyone at Punter Southall was instructed to take their laptops home to test they were working correctly.  The IT team had rolled out laptops to all employees the previous year, replacing older, desk-bound PCs, and these were to prove invaluable in the initial weeks of the crisis, enabling businesses to continue near-normal operations during the forced transition from office to home working.

It would be tempting to say that we knew a pandemic was coming and had planned for it. The truth, however, was rather different.  In part, the decision to introduce 100% mobile computing was a leap of faith: that if our colleagues had the ability to work from anywhere, they would become even more flexible and productive.

But the adoption of a laptop-first approach was also based on business logic: that with an ever-expanding number of small offices, it was cheaper and easier to have equipment that we could move around easily, eliminating the need for expensive engineers to visit each office. Everything could now be supported remotely, and with security built into the design, we could assure our colleagues that the group’s information would remain secure.

As well as installing over 400 new laptops during 2019, we transformed each of our offices, installing commercial-grade Wi-Fi networks at each location. This meant that when staff took their laptops home in March, they were able to connect to their home broadband and see absolutely no change in the way they used our systems. To support this approach we also outsourced engineering, so that laptops, fully configured, could be delivered directly to individuals’ home addresses.

We had, without knowing, created an environment that was perfectly designed to withstand the disruption of a pandemic.

An opportunity to do things differently

During the early days of the lockdown, there was much talk about how quickly we might return to “normal”.  But as the weeks and months went by, it became clear that the world we had become used to might never return. Even now, less than 10% of the population have tested positive for Covid-19 and were we to return to previous patterns of working and travelling, packed in close to each other in public transport, the virus could return with a vengeance.

The move to home working was challenging for our various businesses, accustomed to always working within an office environment. And some tasks, particularly those involving time-sensitive operations, proved difficult to complete from home. However, after a few weeks most people were settling into a routine, and we continued to provide high quality service to our clients.

The dynamics of the business have started to shift. Video calling and conferencing have become commonplace. Paradoxically, contacting each other has become easier now that we are all working from home. Without the need for lengthy commutes, many people are finding themselves even more productive. And attitudes are changing as well: a recent survey of working parents revealed that almost 50% were considering asking for more remote working once a return to the office becomes possible.

A good crisis

It’s become clear that a full-scale return to office working is unrealistic, at least until – or if – an effective vaccine can be found. Some businesses will seek to stick it out until then, but another option is to complete the journey to systems that are fully independent of office working: a digital transformation.

The IT team has been identifying areas of opportunity. Outsourced scanning of post would enable documents to be delivered electronically to their recipients.  Remote printing, already in use for some reporting purposes, could be extended to all client communications, making our current fleet of office printers obsolete. Electronic signature of documents would eliminate the need for traditional ‘wet’ signatures.  Developing our skills in presenting webinars would enable us to reach potential clients and demonstrate both our business and technical acumen. Seizing these opportunities will provide the potential to be truly independent of traditional bricks and mortar.

What next?

It’s difficult to know how this crisis will end, or how long it will be before a new equilibrium is reached. But we can peer through the fog, make some reasonable assumptions, and plan now for the future of our business. Or, to quote an even older proverb from Roman times: fortune favours the bold!

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The decision to introduce 100% mobile computing was a leap of faith: that if our colleagues had the ability to work from anywhere, they would become even more flexible and productive.

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After 40 years of experience in the pensions world, I'm sharing my insights.