As part of our new Talking Tech series, we caught up with Leanne Cullen, Operations Director at Business & IT Consultancy Waterstons, to find out how her role has been impacted by the pandemic.
Firstly, can you tell us a little about your role and what it involves?
The remit of my role in Waterstons is to lead the technical areas of our business – our Managed Services team, who provide day to day IT support for our clients; our Technology Solutions team who implement different cloud and infrastructure technologies; our Software team who develop bespoke applications and collaboration solutions, and our Data & Analytics team who develop and implement data strategies.
I also have a responsibility for our People and Culture team who support our leaders and our people with recruitment, well being, learning and development and all employee relations.
As we operate an inverted hierarchy, my role really is to provide support, guidance, leadership and direction for the teams that report into me.
How was your organisation impacted by the pandemic and what changes did you make to ensure business continuity in the wake of the crisis?
We are a broad-based business who have global clients in multiple sectors, so whilst we saw a few projects being reduced/cancelled in the wake of the pandemic, because we are not overly reliant on a particular sector we have fared well. We were prudent in planning and have demonstrated agility in responding. Our people pulled together brilliantly which meant we could ensure that we could continue to service our clients well – particularly those who needed to digitally transform quickly or needed to have enhanced support due to their employees all working from home.
We also officially opened an office in Sydney, Australia on the 1st February 2020 and since then, Charlie Hales our Australian MD, has had to survive fires, floods and a pandemic. We had planned to visit to provide support and had people aligned to the train the team out there, but all flights had to be cancelled and lots of our people have had to work unsociable hours to ensure that we were able to provide appropriate levels of support to the new team. Despite all the odds we have managed to grow the team out there to almost 15 people over the year!
As for our UK business we have always had facilities for remote working due to our flexible approach to where and when our people work. So, from a technology perspective, there was nothing we needed to do to facilitate home working – we all had remote access to everything we needed and the collaboration tools in place to support us. The changes we did make were around communications – we used to have a monthly ‘all hands’ session to communicate what was going on in the business and we found quite quickly that it was necessary to increase the frequency to weekly. We found too that we quite quickly had to provide more ways of facilitating social interactions with team quizzes, company events and using technology to encourage informal interactions in a virtual coffee shop.
What impact did the changes have on your existing digital transformation strategy? Was it a matter of ripping up your plans and starting a fresh over night?
As a digital business we didn’t have to make many changes. The biggest impact we had was around our approach to winning work – we traditionally win new business though relationships and so with big events and network gatherings on hold due to Covid, we needed to think of different way to reach our prospective clients. We had to look to move a lot of what we normally do in person to online; with webinars and different industry forums bringing together people to collaborate on different topics such as ‘The Future of Work.’ We also came up with The Waterstons Academy Lite, an idea which was born out of wanting to help our clients’ employees whilst they were on furlough to provide them with learning opportunities – it ended up being something we ran for six months and we published 36 different courses on a range of topics.
Do you see any of the new technology/ process you embraced becoming permanent fixtures of the business as you plan for life post-Covid?
As a people-oriented business, we do see a lot of our people wanting to be back in the office, as soon as we are able, for the social interaction and support from their colleagues. Whilst face to face meetings with clients are still likely to be preferred, we think we will see a little less travel being required due to the fact that we have all, as a nation, become much more proficient in using video conferencing technology to great effect. Working from home has always been in place at Waterstons but people used to do it by exception, we think we will see a bit of a flip where people work from home more and come into the office less. We moved into our new offices a few years ago and part of the move included remodelling the space to build more collaborative hubs and ‘coffee shop’ spaces – looks like we were ahead of our time as we believe these are the spaces that are more likely to be used when office life resumes.
Did you put any new processes or systems in place to aid employee wellbeing?
Employee wellbeing has always been high on the agenda and pre-Covid we had health advocates, an employee assistance programme and had gained a bronze accreditation in the ‘Better Health at Work’ scheme. Since Covid, we have added to that with regular communication, pulse surveys, targeted help and guidance, weekly mindfulness sessions and have now gained the silver accreditation in the ‘Better Health at Work’ scheme.
Which of the new approaches would you say had the largest impact and why?
The mindfulness sessions are popular – they are ran by one of our people who really takes upon himself to organise. The take up is good and people enjoy attending. It has probably had the largest impact as it has been done through the self-motivation of an individual on the ground rather than a top down or HR led approach. It has been encouraged and is genuinely focussed on trying to help people.
What do you believe the wider impact will be on the sector going forward?
As a business and IT consultancy, the sector has huge potential in helping our clients and prospective clients digitally transform. Our focus has always been on IT as an enabler for businesses – so understanding the client, their problems and needs and identifying how technology can help address those needs is where we focus. Technology is an enabler, digital is an enabler – clients tend to need help to align them to their business strategy.
Research by the NCSC showed cyber attacks on UK businesses reached an all-time high during the pandemic, what measures did you put in place to ensure your networks were secure with so many people working remotely?
Cyber Resilience is one of our core services and we have helped a number of our clients overcome cyber attacks over the last few years. Attacks are becoming more and more sophisticated and therefore business resiliency is a key topic of discussion with our clients.
As for ourselves, we have always invested well in our technology and our networks are secure. We have implemented Always On technology so remote people can connect easily and securely, and we have multi-factor authentication for access. We are always looking to update our systems to be on the latest version and we ensure we’re always on top of patching vulnerabilities. Our Security Operations Centre (SOC) proactively look after our own environments as well as our clients, spotting any suspect activity and investigating. Additionally, our people are savvy to the security dangers and have had appropriate training around phishing and other scams.
What key lessons will you take away from the crisis?
Agility is key – being able to react and respond quickly to your environment, whatever it may be, is crucial to survive and thrive. Having cash in the bank gives the security on which to have the confidence to build and make decisions quickly. We have a great Financial Director who has always been prudent with our cash flow, meaning we have remained confident throughout the pandemic and have continued to invest in people and grow.
How are you preparing for the eventual phasing of staff back into the office? Are there any new areas of technology you’ll be exploring as you look to the future?
As we can all work from home, the phasing in still seems a little while away. Given the changing nature of the pandemic over the last year we don’t want to plan too far in advance. We are awaiting more government guidance but it is likely that we will open our offices in May in a limited capacity for those who, by choice, would prefer to be in the office. We already have them set up as Covid Safe with appropriate signage, and health check apps for people to register their attendance. Staff will come back to the offices when they want to and feel comfortable to, at their own pace. Nothing will be forced. Regarding technology, we are always implementing new things – how can we recommend it to our clients if we don’t trial it on ourselves first. We do have a refreshed IT Strategy where we will be implementing new systems and consolidating our collaboration tools, as well as ensuring that they facilitate our global way of working going forward; nothing specific has changed due to the pandemic.
What do you believe the lasting impact will be on the way we work?
I think the biggest lasting impact will be the lack of shared cake in the office going forward! I can’t yet imagine us reverting back to a world where someone will be bringing in their home-baked goodies to share.
On a serious note, I believe it will be about recognising that people can work flexibly and still deliver and be productive – something we have always been passionate about at Waterstons. However, even for us, the extent of the flexibility has been tested during the pandemic. I’m writing this at 10.30pm at night as I was home-schooling/looking after my five year old between 1pm and 8pm. It has meant being organised, leaving tasks that can be done without input from others to the evenings and using ‘normal’ working hours to interact with people. It has been challenging but luckily people, including clients, have been accepting and understanding. It’ll be interesting to see whether that continues post-pandemic!