Contributing writer

The pandemic pivot: 5 key leadership lessons that will last

Apr 04, 2022
IT Leadership

To navigate the pandemic, IT leaders have had to rethink team relationships and jury-rig new ways of getting work done. Here’s what they think will stick once the pandemic upheaval subsides.

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Two years after a global pandemic first shut down the world — and IT departments took a leading role in maintaining businesses’ survival — the IT function has been changed forever.

As the dust has settled, many tech leaders have found that changes they were forced to make to their work strategies, leadership styles, and team structures have turned out to be team-transforming epiphanies that will endure going forward.

From breaking down barriers to collaboration and innovation, to realizing the importance of empathy and being intentional about relationships, tech leaders share strategic epiphanies they have discovered after two years of pandemic — and expect to be key factors in how they lead going forward.

Employee crowdsourcing can yield breakthrough ideas

The early days of the pandemic taught organizations like Avery Dennison the power of agility and experimentation. It also taught the packing materials manufacturer how to use IT to create an adaptive organization flexible enough to respond to crises and create solutions.

The company’s Digital Innovation Center of Excellence (DICE) conducted digital ideation sessions using a technique it calls brainwriting to crowdsource ideas from the employees who are closest to the challenges. Today it uses those same techniques for improved efficiencies and growth.

Brainwriting involves all participants jotting down ideas to solve a particular challenge, such as, “How do we stay connected with our customers during the COVID-19 pandemic?” The sessions are separated into timed rounds, and after each round the ideas are passed on to the next participant who uses them as a trigger for their thoughts. Lastly, the participants rate the ideas in terms of value and effort to help identify breakthrough ideas crowdsourced by the group.

Participants generated more than 390 ideas — an average of 98 ideas per session — that impact Avery Dennison’s customers, factories, employees, and products. DICE partnered with business units to prioritize and track all ideas in the pipeline, from original conception to implementation — in new products and services, improved processes, and enhanced experiences for customers and employees. The DICE team initiated 31 experiments, with 37% of those scaling to production on completion. 

The company learned that “with agility and experimentation, we can rapidly test ideas, iterate quickly, and launch minimal viable products and services that improve experiences relating to our customers, factories, employees, and products,” says Nick Colisto, vice president and CIO at Avery Dennison.

For instance, during the pandemic the organization had difficulty conducting physical factory inspections or providing technical assistance to shop floor workers given travel restrictions, social distancing, and workplace safety, Colisto says. In response, DICE initiated a proof of concept to leverage wearable computing and augmented reality technologies to help workers see all relevant work instructions, take pictures, and conduct bidirectional video calls to immediately connect with experts in one-on-one or group calls. The team was helped with live augmented reality annotations to document each step. “We are now making the solution available to more factories,” he says.

Loosening the chain of command strengthens decision-making

Although new physical barriers emerged during the pandemic, such as masks and physical distancing, some of the old artificial barriers such as rank and departmental rigidity were taken down at organizations looking to find new ways to collaborate in strained and suddenly fully remote working environments.

“I found myself trading calls and texts with colleagues at all levels of the organization, at all hours of the night, in the early days of the pandemic — a welcome change, and one that allowed us to be proactive in the face of challenge,” says Angela Yochem, executive vice president and chief transformation and digital officer at Novant Health. “Everyone recognized that we were all in this together, and it was no time to be standing on ceremony when someone two or three levels up the org chart had information that was needed immediately.”

As the organization returns to a new normal, “we’ve seen more fluid and casual communications and conversations. We can text or message people for quick input or a gut check — and everyone is willing to do the same,” Yochem says.

The result has been a greater working relationship with colleagues at all levels of the company, she says. “This is something I plan to continue to nurture given the importance of visibility, connection, and collaboration during times of change.”

Automation frees up key resources for innovation

As remote work became a reality for Sequoia Capital in 2020, Global Chief Digital Officer Avon Puri and his team were compelled to automate some of the processes they normally wouldn’t have touched because employees were working at off-site locations.

“Things as simple as the onboarding and offboarding processes — the automation between our people systems, compliance and technology teams — that was forced on us. Now as we are coming back to offices, having that process has been super helpful because we are able to get that stuff done pretty quickly,” Puri says.

Paper-based finance processes have been replaced with automated workflows, and internal reviews of business investments, which used to be a hard copy-based process, have also been automated.

It’s still too soon to quantify the efficiencies brought on by automation, Puri says, but he’s optimistic. “We are just starting to come back into the office, but in six months we’ll have a much better measure” of efficiencies gained. “I think it’s going to drive more innovation eventually, because there will be more time available for folks to focus on it.”

Intentional, meaningful connections can bridge the physical divide

One important lesson that NBME CIO Andy Farella learned during the pandemic is that “a CIO cannot do the job without maintaining relationships.” NBME has 500 staff based at one office in the University City section of Philadelphia.

“Pre-pandemic I maintained relationships relying on running into people by the coffee bar, in the elevator, in the hallways, and, one of my favorite times, right before or after meetings,” Farella say. Those opportunities disappeared overnight in March 2020 with the full implementation of remote work. He quickly determined that in this environment, he had to be intentional and make those interactions happen.

“I started booking lots of meetings. I booked about 30 recurring meetings (via Microsoft Teams) of different lengths — half hour or hour — and different cadences — weekly for direct reports, monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly for others depending on the nature of the relationship,” he says. The meetings covered key relationships with direct reports, peers, and key leaders across the organization. He then booked 15-minute “catch up and connect” meetings with about 125 people representing every unit at NBME, including IT staff, managers, and key business stakeholders spread over six months.

“I spend the first five minutes on the personal side — ‘How is your family coping with the pandemic? How are the kids?’ Then I move to business. ‘What are you working on and how can IT help? Are you getting everything you need from IT?’ This truly allows me to keep a pulse check on what is happening,” Farella says. With these regular interactions, Farella hears about where IT excels at solving business problems, where staff need more help with their challenges, and where IT is not meeting expectations — a practice that he continues today.

Even as the pandemic wanes and employees trickle back into the office, Farella maintains these intentional connections via video chat, though he plans to hold some in-person meetings soon. “In this environment, if you are not intentional about connecting with your staff and your customers, you will lose touch quickly,” he says.

Teams require some face-to-face interaction

For many organizations, remote work appeared to have little downside and may actually have improved productivity during the pandemic, but it didn’t help morale on IT teams, Sequoia’s Puri says. “We had to deal with team dynamics, especially on our tech team because we had a real concern of people burning out,” he says. The appeal of work from home had now flipped to the stress of “stay at office” because there was no longer a physical separation of the two.

Adding to the problem, most employees on Puri’s team in India were hired during the pandemic (Puri himself was a pandemic hire in June 2020). Zoom calls became the norm, but he struggled to truly connect with employees globally and instill the right business objectives and purpose.

In March 2022, Puri traveled to India to meet the employees he had hired over the past nine months for the first time. The trip improved morale and connections far better than a year’s worth of Zoom calls could achieve.

“I’ve realized that people are fairly shy, so they aren’t asking questions” on Zoom calls, Puri says. “When you’re there and together all day and then go out in a casual setting, a lot of people will ask questions they otherwise wouldn’t ask,” Puri says.

The visit also makes the remote group feel like part of the team, he adds. “Our India team plays an important role in supporting our global infrastructure. I thought it was important for me to get out there and really get some face-to-face conversations going.”

Employees thrive when leaders show empathy

The past two years have really redefined how employees and leadership at La-Z-Boy think and act and work together, says James McFarlane, senior director of IT business services.

“One of the things that COVID has taught me is to have empathy with team members and people — especially in terms of how we work together,” McFarlane says. “Everybody has something going on in their personal lives — watching their kids, having family members pass away. In the last two years because of everything going on in the world we need to act with empathy, compassion and really need those attributes when we work with people.”