COVID-19 and a Year Of #WorkingFromHome

The pandemic necessitated virtual supply management and a distanced collaboration that has been successful for many companies — which could permanently alter how business is done.

By Dan Zeiger

The company-wide meeting at the office of Institute for Supply Management® (ISM®) in Tempe, Arizona, on March 16, 2020, likely resembled those at organizations of all sizes as the severity of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic became undeniable.

At ISM, about 60 employees were advised to prepare their office technologies and materials for a transition to a work-from-home policy taking effect the following day and lasting at least through March 31. Also, the organization announced that its Annual Conference, scheduled for late April in Boston, had been cancelled.

That week, global shipping behemoth FedEx underwent a similar exodus from its headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, though it was much broader in scope: More than 1,700 employees in sourcing, procurement and disbursements, corporate business services and the financial back office were sent home. One of the first and most urgent work-from-home tasks at FedEx was scouring the globe for personal protective equipment (PPE); the company sourced more than US$100 million worth for its workers remaining on the supply chain front lines.

What remote-work lessons have been learned during the pandemic, and how could they permanently change how business is done? Using the technologies that have become the mainstay for those working from home, I discussed supply management and virtual workplaces in the era of COVID-19 — and beyond — with five fellow ISM employees via email and Microsoft Teams, as well as on a Zoom call with Sue Spence, MBA, vice president, sourcing, procurement and disbursements at FedEx.

Remote Realizations

A year after the pandemic began, the U.S. is still grappling with COVID-19, but many companies have survived, if not thrived, with remote work. In a December survey, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the London-based professional services giant, found that 83 percent of employers and 71 percent of employees indicated that remote work has been “successful,” with a majority (52 percent) of employers reporting improved productivity.

Thomas W. Derry, ISM CEO: Managing all of our finance and accounting functions remotely would have been considered a challenge before the pandemic, yet the process seemed pretty seamless. We went from 100 percent in the office to 100 percent remote work over one weekend, without the slightest productivity glitches. We were already serving our training customers with virtual offerings, and pivoting to all-virtual modes of instruction was simple. In the end, we were more ready for remote work than we thought — and more than most companies that I’ve talked to.

Spence: Not everybody on our team had laptops. For those whose work was intended to be done only in the office, we had about a week to get them all geared up to work from home. We didn’t expect it to go completely smoothly, but it did. And everyone has performed their duties without a miss. First of all, the technology worked. Our company and others worried about things like bandwidth. Then, there were concerns about workers who had to share space with kids home from school, and everyone was dealing with the world kind of going crazy around them. But everyone kept their focus.

Jim Fleming, CPSM, CPSD, ISM Program Manager, Certification: People used to assume supply management had to be there next to the customer, that we really couldn’t thrive without being within arm’s reach of the customer base. That’s important, but in a virtual environment, it’s just as easy to contact somebody via computer as it is to be out there. So, I think there have been paradigm breakdowns that show we can still thrive strategically in a virtual environment.

Debbie Fogel-Monnissen, ISM CFO: Before the pandemic, I worked remotely from at least some of my team nearly all of the time. With prior international companies and jobs, I had teams of people across the world; I was never in the same building with all of them. Team members in Dubai or Singapore didn’t care if I was at headquarters in New York or London or working from home. They just needed to be in touch, have access and support. So, one of the silver linings of working remotely so extensively for everyone is that it has debunked the myth that remote work is ineffective. In fact, it has put a lot of people on a level playing field instead of advantaged just by work location and access to others.

Spence: I would never have imagined that my team could do so well from home, and that says more about me than them. My doubts were more of a bias, not based in fact or data. I just didn’t think everyone could operate that way. But very quickly, people showed they are good at their jobs, they have jobs to do and, as we like to say at FedEx, they’re going to make sure those jobs get done. The job just may be done a little differently, either late at night or after the kids are taken to school in the morning. Now, a lot of companies are determining what work will look like in the future. At FedEx, we haven’t decided yet. We’re certainly looking at it. But other CPOs I know are saying, “This works really well.” Maybe it’s the new model.

The Technology Transition

After Russ Calderon joined ISM as Director of Technology in May 2019, the organization began reviewing and updating its information-technology (IT) infrastructure. Amid reports of a virus outbreak in the manufacturing hub of Wuhan, China, in December 2019 and January 2020, that process expanded to include a contingency plan for a quick transition to remote work.

Fogel-Monnissen: Russ and I were already working on our infrastructure to make it safe, resilient and forward-thinking. I worked in Europe when the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak hit (in 2002-03), and I saw how it impacted business and travel in Asia and Europe. When we started hearing rumblings about a pandemic, my risk management antennae flared. I told Russ that we need to be prepared for people to be able to work remotely and to purchase laptops for those still using desktops.

Calderon: As we were preparing to go remote, we looked at various aspects such as security, licensing and performance. We had the VPN (virtual private network) licenses we needed. Instead of a single corporate network, we had a residential network per employee. We hardened our endpoint protection, and since then, we even went one level up and upgraded to cloud-based endpoint security to gain new protection features, specifically some that I really wanted for ransomware. We got rid of the server-side dependencies, changing our Windows update strategy so that laptops get updates directly from Microsoft instead of the internal server.

Derry: We were pretty much in an all-laptop environment, so it wasn’t that we had to go out to find 100 laptops to enable our staff to keep working. I know of many large companies that were struggling to provide for their desktop-based workforce to keep productivity up. I was very pleased at our readiness, including our almost-entirely-in-the-cloud work environment.

Fogel-Monnissen: Since we were already moving in that direction, where things started to really heat up, it was an easier transition. On the weekend we decided to go full remote, we were ready. Everybody came in that Monday to check and make sure that their laptops were configured adequately for remote work. With the technology covered, that left learning how to work together remotely, particularly the communication a team needs to collaborate. We learned that we needed to create ways of interacting, not just regarding work, but social interactions as well.

Virtual Collaboration and Culture

The pandemic was fortuitously timed for Spence, the 2020 winner of the J. Shipman Gold Medal Award, presented by ISM for career achievement in supply management. Working from home in Connecticut provided proximity to her parents; both have dealt with health issues unrelated to COVID-19. And like millions of others, she quickly savored a daily commute of a few steps.

However, virtual-work technology had to prove reliable and secure, particularly with the sharing or transmitting of financial or other sensitive information. And companies faced the challenge of fostering or maintaining their levels of communication, collaboration and culture — including with recent hires who have yet to meet their bosses and coworkers in person.

Spence: We’ve gotten really effective with Zoom. Sometimes the dog or cat wanders in front of a person, or the baby's crying. You’d think we’d kind of lose the personal touch because we’re not face to face, but if someone has his toddler climbing up on his lap, we’re saying, “Oh my gosh, what’s his name? Tell us about him.” It’s odd in a way, but I feel like we’ve all been brought a little closer together. We see where everyone lives. One of my employees has movie posters in his office. So, you bond in that way, and I think that doesn’t hurt the process of adapting, being more resilient and flexible.

Fogel-Monnissen: It was a most challenging transition for the controller’s team.  Accounting processes were still not completely digital. So, that team had to figure out a way to close the books as quickly working remotely as they did in the office. Some teams just had greater challenges than others, but everybody came through it and figured it out by adapting and leveraging technology.

Calderon: Organizations had already been adopting cloud technologies over the years; however, it’s just exploded with the pandemic. IT teams are benefiting more from cloud services than ever before. The layers of security, resilience and reliability cannot be easily matched by on-premises software.

Office.jpg

The Tempe, Arizona headquarters of Institute for Supply Management® has been frozen in time since the start of remote work on March 17, 2020: An empty office includes white-board messages and desktop calendars that have been untouched for a year.

Fleming: I think today it’s much easier to pull people in for a five- or 10-minute chat with video conferencing. And I don’t know if that’s because we don’t feel like we’re being pulled in a million different directions as can happen in an office, or if it’s easier to respond to an instant message asking if you’ve got a few minutes for a virtual discussion. I’m finding that’s easier than being in the office, where we had to find a meeting space and time on the calendar. To me, this is an example of how the virtual environment can make us more efficient.

Spence: We strongly encourage having cameras on. I understand what people are saying to me better if I can see their faces. Sometimes, it’s OK if you’re not camera ready, and sometimes you can join only by phone because you’re dropping your kid off at school. That’s fine. But the camera’s important. If I can’t be with you, I’d still like to see you.

Fogel-Monnissen: I have a monthly meeting with the entire team where we just discuss how everybody's doing or do something fun, just to get to know each other better.

Trina DeWitt, ISM Director of Human Resources: Culture is a big focus for me now, as we have to be very intentional to ensure we don’t lose the culture we have created within the organization. Thinking of alternative ways to promote and continue our culture is key — keeping us a close-knit team and having some fun and laughs are a strategy goal for this year.

The Post-Pandemic Workplace

With fewer than one in five executives indicating a desire to return to a pre-pandemic work environment, according to the PwC survey, changes are coming to offices. What those changes will look like is to be determined: Companies could adopt an on-site/remote hybrid model; others might allow employees to choose where they work each day.

PwC found that 87 percent of employees find on-site work critical to collaboration and relationship-building, and 68 percent of executives feel that employees must be in the office at least three days a week to maintain a strong company culture.

Spence: My team has a great measurement system. If things are going off the rails, we’re going to know it quickly. We have KPIs, scorecards and dashboards, and those metrics have stayed steady. As I’ve talked to people, a majority of them do prefer working remotely, but as to what we’ll do as a company, that decision involves more than just me.

DeWitt: I expect that even when back in the office, people to continue using Zoom or Teams; it’s so much easier than the old way of dialing into a conference line. Another reason is because some small conference rooms may be designated for single use if social-distance recommendations from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) are still in place.

Calderon: I don’t think the workplace will ever be the same after the pandemic. We have more options than ever. We’re all lucky to be able to stay home and continue to seamlessly contribute, and at least for my team, we feel we’re a little more productive in the current setup.

Fogel-Monnissen: I trust that I have the right people on my team, who will get their jobs done. I trust you to know when you need to be in the office, what meetings you need to be at in person, and how you are most productive individually and as part of a team. The pandemic has accelerated the shift to focusing more on output rather than the traditional face time in the office.

DeWitt: I think it will be a long time, if ever, before we go back to the pre-pandemic workplace. However, I expect some will return to the office when it is safe to do so, and it will be a hybrid approach for most, with regular office and working-from-home days each week.

Spence: The company will look at the body of work over the last year, listen to workers and make the right decision for everybody. I’m just thrilled that the team has done what I knew we were capable of, without really knowing how well it was going to work. Then, there’s the dynamic of contributing to something bigger than any of us. We’re moving life-saving vaccines and other equipment. We are helping the world heal.

About the Author

Dan Zeiger

About the Author

Dan Zeiger is senior copy editor/writer for Inside Supply Management® magazine, covering topics, trends and issues relating to supply chain management.