(Author’s note: All three leaders consider themselves highly privileged to be able to continue working during COVID-19. They spoke movingly about the social toll it exacted from family, friends and colleagues. I present here a business-focused discussion only.)
Much has been written on transitioning to work from home, the resultant cultural challenges and its impact (benefit and decrement) to employee productivity and morale. Perhaps most written about is the widespread adoption of collaboration tools like GoToMeeting, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack, and the resulting data security and information governance policy ramifications.
These collaboration tools, while important, are surely not the difference between success or failure for those adopting their use. Not to relitigate the highly controversial 2003 article “IT Doesn’t Matter,” but these tools do not confer a competitive advantage any more than your phone does. Their adoption to support an increasingly remote workforce is.
“Having tools to support internal and external communication is just table stakes, has been for years,” says David Greetham, Ricoh Legal’s Vice President of Sales and Operations.
So what does confer competitive advantage?
Like the health dangers of COVID-19, the potential for businesses to prevail during this crisis may have much to do with pre-existing conditions.
Greetham pioneered moving e-discovery into the public cloud, centralizing the data, while his team operates remotely. This requires strong communications protocols and inculcating a culture that supports a distributed workforce. “Culture dictates how well you can flex — not just your service offerings, but your mindset. It boils down to culture and how we operate,” he says. With this model, operating within COVID-19 constraints was largely business as usual for his team.
Ram Vasudevan, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at QuisLex, agrees that culture and mindset are key. “When something this disruptive occurs, you need the same entrepreneurial grit and resolve,” he notes. It’s part of what helped them grow from 3 to more than 1,000 employees. “That out-of-the-box thinking that got you to survive and succeed in the early stages of the company: the ability to react, adapt, survive and thrive.”
“The same qualities I look for in a professional to serve them well in a business as usual environment are, I think, the same qualities that will enable them to thrive in a highly challenging one.”
Like Ricoh, QuisLex also has a strong culture and support systems enabling internal and client-facing collaboration. Successfully offshoring legal services is greatly dependent upon it. However, operationally, in contrast to Ricoh, COVID-19 presented a real operational challenge to QuisLex.
One QuisLex value proposition is the permanently staffed lawyers centralized to their operations center in Hyderabad, India. While particularly important in the early days of offshoring to assuage concerns about network availability, data security, quality and other controls, it continues to be highly valued by QuisLex clients today. But lockdowns rendered this value proposition no longer viable (at least temporarily). What now? Flex, adapt and thrive.
“Because of our culture, the people we attract tend to have that entrepreneurial spirit whether in IT or operations,” says Vasudevan. “We all got together and came up with the best way to meet these challenges. We did it remarkably fast.”
Aileen Chan, a Principal in KPMG LLP’s Forensic practice, has a similar perspective regarding people and culture. “The same qualities I look for in a professional to serve them well in a business as usual environment are, I think, the same qualities that will enable them to thrive in a highly challenging one.”
While KPMG is structured to support consultants on the road, they also have a large number of professionals that routinely work in their offices. As such, COVID-19 did present some operational challenges. However, “when I look at the challenge that was presented to us, we were able to pivot in many different directions,” says Chan.
All three leaders make the case for culture, adaptability and flexibility in the mental models and operating models necessary to “react, adapt and thrive.” But there is one more critical factor in this: the client.