Lessons learned on innovation and the path to recovery

In February 2020, we stood on the horizon and watched the COVID-19 disruption unfold in Asia and Europe. At that moment, we were not prepared for the impact it would have in our own lives just a few weeks later. Overnight, we found ourselves juggling demands at home—childcare, elderly care, and long lines to get essentials—alongside seismic shifts at work including: helping teams shift to remote working, postponing live events, and getting critical information out to customers. 

At Cisco, we’ve created technology that makes remote work possible—so we knew we had an important role to play. We immediately pivoted to focus on the solutions our customers needed most. We offered free trials of our Webex videoconferencing platform and our security solutions, prioritized helping critical sectors such as healthcare and education, and shifted our marketing investments accordingly. In those early days, I witnessed some amazing collaboration within our team.  People stepped up to cover every gap, no matter what their “usual job” may have been. We may have all been working remotely, but we felt more connected than ever.

Over time, we learned a few things about powering our way through the challenges. Three themes emerged: technology, people, and communities. I strongly believe that forging new paths to recovery requires focusing on all three. With that in mind, here’s my advice for companies finding their way through the new normal, while creating the path to recovery.

Invest in technology
Technology is the backbone of business and of our economy, keeping us connected to our employees, customers and partners. While remote work skyrocketed,  e-commerce sales also doubled for Canadian merchants in the first 19 days after the WHO declared a global pandemic.

As we begin our slow march back, now is the right time for business to take stock of how they managed through those first 60 days – and whether they’re effectively set up to keep going. Do you have the right MarTech Stack to drive business growth in the months ahead? Have you built technology resilience beyond collaboration and E-commerce platforms? Do you have the network and security for long term digital engagement?

Ask your customers for feedback. Did you meet their needs? How have their expectations evolved? Were you able to get them the right information through personalization? Have you simplified the ‘effort’ it takes to do business with you?  Be critical – this is a moment when you can either break away from the pack or be leapfrogged by a competitor.

Take care of your people
People are the most critical assets in any organization, and more than ever, leaders need to recognize, appreciate and lead their employees with empathy. It’s also critical we provide resources to support mental health, keep teams socially connected, and raise morale while working physically apart.  

Investing in training is also critical during this time - to upskill employees, guide leaders to lead remotely, and increase digital adoption. Sessions can be led by in-house teams or outsourced using platforms such as E-Training, virtual labs, or remote classrooms.

Having the right structures and processes enables your operations move at the right speed and that your teams are empowered and agile enough to make critical decisions quickly.  How we work is as important as what we do. Evaluate and re-imagine your organization’s structures, processes and refine them for sustainability.

It’s also important to remember that not everyone has experienced the pandemic the same way, and in times like these your team members are looking for guidance from leaders who understand their experiences. It’s incumbent on companies to have leadership teams whose diversity reflects the workforce.  If your board room table looks like an average family dinner table, you haven’t done enough. How does your company stack up at all levels of leadership?  How do you represent your customers in marketing collateral, communications, social posts?  Don’t wait to have open, honest dialogues across the organization.

Support local communities
In the first two months of the pandemic, many companies across Canada focused on giving back to communities near and far. Meals were delivered to hospital staff, video conferencing units were delivered to retirement and long-term care homes so that loved ones could stay connected, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) used telehealth solutions to scale up and to meet patient demand.  At Cisco, we were proud to support many such efforts, here in Canada and across the globe.

As we head into the recovery phases, we need to continue to support our communities. The need hasn’t diminished, after all, and we will continue to be measured by how we showed up.

Small businesses are the backbone of the Canadian economy— and they have been hit the hardest. We need to create a movement to #shopsmall. We must think creatively as our borders stay closed: encourage travel locally, invest in tourism related sponsorships, fundraise, and match contributions to local charities and food banks. Let’s continue to rally together to come out on top, as one country.

Looking ahead
A recent IDC study, based on the combined economic forecasts from Canadian Big Five bank, indicates that our GDP index will not return to pre-pandemic levels until the fourth quarter of 2021. That means the economy is not going to turn around quickly. It means we’ll be living in our new norm for longer than we thought, and we need to pace not for a sprint, but for a marathon.

What you do now will be how you are remembered. Customers, partners and employees will recall this period in history – they will remember how technology kept us connected, whether leadership broke down barriers, and which companies supported communities in need. I’m reminded often of Leslie Dwight’s now famous quote: “What if 2020 is the year we’ve been waiting for….a year we finally accept the need for change.” 


Author: Luxy Thuraisingam. VP Growth Marketing, Cisco Canada and Co-Chair of the CMA Martech Council 

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Tags: innovation, COVID-19, technology, remote work