by Clint Boulton

Synchrony banks on pandemic shift to boost business agility

May 06, 2021
Agile DevelopmentCIO 100Digital Transformation

CIO Carol Juel sees Synchrony Works, a project that the payment processor implemented to shift more than 16,000 employees to WFH during the pandemic, as a blueprint for fueling agility.

Carol Juel, CIO, Synchrony
Credit: Synchrony

Modern IT organizations are nimble, capable of adapting foundational tools and processes under duress. Synchrony, which processes payments  on behalf of businesses, deployed virtualization technology and cloud software, as well as multifactor authentication and other security technologies, to get more than 16,000 employees working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initiative, Synchrony Works, empowered 13,500 call center representatives across the US, India and the Philippines to execute customer service and collections tasks from their home residences by early April, says Synchrony CIO Carol Juel. Works, which garnered a 2021 CIO 100 award, also made it possible for around 3,000 US corporate employees to work from home within days of office closures in mid-March.

“What we proved was that every job could be done remotely,” Juel says. She credits Synchrony’s multi-year tech transformation, which includes managing the company with more modern tools, with providing a foundation on which Works could be built. But Synchrony’s transformation is also another sign of how extremely motivated IT teams are marshaling their strengths to accelerate shifts to digital capabilities.

Eighty-one percent of 812 CIOs reported increasing IT innovation in setting up employees to work effectively from home, according to IDG’s 2021 State of the CIO survey. Top tech vendors are feeling it, too, reporting record sales of cloud software. During its fiscal third quarter announcement in April, Microsoft revealed that its cloud sales had grown by 33%, to $17.7 billion, year over year. The results emboldened CEO Satya Nadella to claim, “Over a year into the pandemic, digital adoption curves aren’t slowing down. They’re accelerating.”

Cloud and security bolster remote call center

Ditto digital adoption at Synchrony, where cloud software and security tools played a starring role in Works.

Whereas most of Synchrony’s corporate workforce already used laptops, Synchrony’s call center reps worked from Dell workstations, virtual desktop infrastructure, and integrated telephony systems for secure access to private customer data. The company’s call center operations were designed and hardened around an in-office experience. When the pandemic traversed the globe last March, Synchrony had to get thousands of employees working from home quickly while protecting sensitive customer data.

Facilitating a “quick pivot,” Synchrony launched a 24/7 command center to procure and deploy technology. This team ditched the workstations and VDI used in call centers for Chromebook laptops and cloud software. Synchrony also repurposed its disaster recovery environment to host call center reps on a virtual Citrix session, and built a new VDI solution in AWS Workspaces to enable developers to continue to write software. IT also built a gateway to its Avaya call system to enable external call routing.

To secure its systems, IT implemented zScaler cloud-based VPN and proxy capability so that corporate employees could work remotely, and secured these environments with Okta single sign-on authentication. IT also increased its rollout of Microsoft Teams to facilitate faster communications via group chat and conversations.

The team deployed all of this in 20 days, providing the appropriate security Synchrony required to operate in a highly regulated environment, while training employees to get online and working immediately. Adds Juel, “There’s a ton more security, governance, and control.”

Solving the last-mile supply chain challenge

Of all the work Synchrony’s IT team did, insertion into supply chain operations may have been the most critical, if not unusual. Once Chromebooks were ordered, IT staff began closely tracking shipments in March and April to ensure they would arrive on time. But as Chromebooks experienced a shipment crush, IT staff working in Ohio — where two Synchrony call centers are based — drove to loading docks to pick up the laptops from UPS or FedEx carriers. They then drove them back to the call center offices, where they were picked up by call center reps, Juel says.

Tackling that last-mile challenge proved critical when demand for laptops was high and supply was constrained, Juel says, adding that Synchrony’s decision to “localize decision-making” by empowering regional leaders to act quickly without vetting was key.

More broadly, IT’s agile ethos, which cemented Works as a success, was embraced across the business, with buy-in from CEO Brian Doubles and other senior leaders, Juel says. For instance, business teams eschewed weekly two-hour meetings in favor of two 30-minute meetings — essentially agile standups — each morning and late afternoon during the early days of the pandemic. Presentations were eliminated in favor of informing, discussing, and deciding on the fly.

“We had to help people lean into agile to run our business during a crisis,” Juel says.

This approach empowered the business to create tighter feedback loops and quicker decision-making regarding customer needs. As a result, Synchrony struck partnerships with Verizon and Venmo to build contactless credit card experiences, with 100% of the work done remotely by agile teams.

Ideally, Juel would like to replicate the nimbleness that fueled Works across other IT initiatives, positioning the company to better compete in a complex sector. “If the mission is clear and the objectives are understood, people will move mountains,” Juel says.