Written by Don Christie, Founder and Director of Catalyst, former NZRise Co-Chair.
Catalyst IT is a global group, headquartered in Wellington New Zealand but with offices and businesses across NZ, Australia and the UK. Like many companies in the IT sector, we have been preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic for many weeks and because we operate in different parts of the world we are learning quickly from responses across the globe.
It is worth noting that Wellington is a city crossed by dozens of active earthquake faults. Our last quake of note occurred in 2016 which resulted in a closure of the CBD and the need to demolish 32 office blocks in the city. Many companies, including Catalyst, upped their readiness and capability to respond to a civil emergency in a flexible manner, this included supporting teams working remotely.
In other countries, the focus has been on supporting teams that work across locations and even across borders. Our Catalyst EU business, for example, is headquartered in Brighton UK but has full-time staff working from Ireland to Romania. They have led the way in ensuring 100% inclusiveness when it comes to meetings, social gatherings, remote security and staff wellbeing.
Which is just as well. The spread of the virus, whilst poorly tracked in the UK, has been significant and last week our UK based team decided to move to an entirely remote working scenario. This puts them in line with many of their clients across the UK, Ireland, Europe and the USA.
New Zealand and Australia have been rehearsing remote working not just for individuals but for entire teams. The latter tests allow us to see what issues we might have when no-one is in the office and how team and client meetings will take place – using phones and online technologies.
Whilst largely successful they do expose people to the prospect of long-term work from home. That’s something not everyone is set up for. One day at home can be quite nice and relaxing. But try working on an old sofa for weeks on end and your back may start complaining or you kids might start getting right up your nose.
There has also been a focus on team security. Aside from the obvious, enhanced security is about keeping our staff safe. Safe from attack, safe from worry and safe from guilt in the event of something going wrong.
Whilst our staff response has been amazing, and incredibly generous, we do have different approaches depending on the local situation. Our UK experience is that roughly one-third of staff would prefer to be able to come to work than work from home. Here in NZ we hope that we will be able to cater for that group of employees. Due to the fact others may working remotely, we hope to be able to apply appropriate social distancing measures within our office spaces. If that’s not possible we will consider rotating days that people can come into the office.
Whatever approach is taken, communication is key and the disciplines and obligations around comms become more important. You do have to read your emails. We also need to be nicer and more forgiving.
A badly worded email is harder to shake off when you don’t have upcoming face-to-face time to smooth things over.
“Sorry” will become a very important word.
After our staff and our communities welfare, our key concern is being able to get through an economic downturn without too much financial stress. Many technology companies are well placed to do this but those of us in the technology services sector are still vulnerable. Particularly if our client base is unable to work effectively and make the day to day decisions required.
Wellington is a government city and we assume that the wheels of government need to keep turning, especially in times of crisis. But decision making in government can be slow and multi-layered. As one public servant once said to me, “there are not many people that can say ‘yes’ in government, but there are lots that can say ‘no’.”
Lack of autonomy and devolved authority will only get magnified during the shift in remote working practices. This is something the government needs to think about quickly.
After decades of outsourcing, the government supply chain is absolutely critical to smooth operation and delivery of services, particularly health and economic pandemic responses. Ensuring that suppliers can continue to provide valuable services during this period will be critical.
Wellington is a small city, I have been encouraged by the number of support networks appearing. Our “competitors” have been sharing response plans generously and openly. NZRise business owners are communicating experiences freely, alongside organising weekly virtual meet-ups to share ideas, concerns and support.
If we continue with this approach of mutual support, understanding and generosity we will get through this and come out stronger as a result.
Kia kaha whānau,
Don Christie is one of the founders of Catalyst and has had over 25 years’ experience in IT consulting and implementation. Don is a former President of the New Zealand Open Source Society, NZRise, and was on the Council of Internet New Zealand for two years. He manages Catalyst’s global development strategy and key accounts and remains active on matters affecting the openness of the internet.
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