How one tech giant dealt with the Covid lockdown

The UK's software powerhouse Sage swung into action as the pandemic gripped the nation.

Despite the prevailing cliché about dealing with the "new normal" and the wonders of automation and remote working, the fact is that many companies have struggled to deal with the sharp switch to the locked-down world. The CIO of a well-known bank has told me about neglected business continuity plans that caused more than a few wrinkles in early attempts at remote productivity, for example. But less well known is that many technology companies have also struggled to come to terms with lockdown. Call it a classic case of the cobbler's shoes: despite their intimate knowledge of IT, I've heard tech firms tell stories of discovering suddenly that offshored call centres were using large desktop computers that made working from home highly problematic in locations with weak transport links. The solution: an order for 800 laptops being sent out via Amazon Prime.

Ask around and these stories are legion (and off the record) but to gain insights into how technology firms reacted to the pandemic, I spoke to Sage, the UK's largest software company that was forced to act smartly when it was announced on 23 March that a lockdown was to start with immediate effect.


Sage advice

So, what happened on the big day?

"If I think back to March, the challenge was how to mobilise getting people working from home in a pretty rapid manner and continuing operations in as seamless manner as possible," recalls Lindsay Phillips, executive vice president for product delivery at the business software giant.

Exacerbating the challenge were two factors.

First, Sage is best known as the accounting, payroll and business management vendor for many, many small and medium businesses. And its domestic market in particular is full of companies that fit that description.

Second, the timing of lockdown came at the end of the business tax year for most customers, a fraught time when there is always a rush to contact Sage and peers.

Criticisms of the UK government suggest the country was late to enter the "shelter in place" period. So, Sage had already had a dry run and when lockdown was announced it immediately relocated call centre staff out to work from their homes. Employees took their laptops and a smaller number of mini PCs. The great exodus had begun, with 3,000 UK staff swapping the commute for the walk to the home study.


Relocation, relocation, relocation

"The technology afforded us the ability to mobilise people to work from home," Phillips says. "Every colleague embraced what we were trying to do and we said that the most important thing here is making sure colleagues are comfortable in working from home."

Budgets were released to make homes suitably ergonomic with the right chairs, desks and peripherals. There was also advice on, and sponsorship of, broadband connections, internet extenders and powerline adapters.

But this was a worrying time for many and an exhausting one too for those worried about home schooling and looking after sick and frail relatives and friends. Working hours had to be made flexible and built on a "colleague-centric" ethos. And like so many of us, Sage attempted to bring relief in the form of conference call trivia quizzes and grisly homemade pop videos to get through the sticky period and bring people together even if they were physically apart.


Here comes confusion

But there was more incoming confusion for customers, namely the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) whereby the UK government was seeking to keep companies afloat by effectively subsidising salaries via grants. As businesses sought to understand the new rules and apply for their places, Sage reacted by adapting its software and creating website and other digital content to explain processes and assuage fears.

Digital solutions became critical at a time when face-to-face meetings were forbidden. Sage has seen 20,000 registrations for its webinars since lockdown and when its JRS module went live on 20 April, there were almost 7,000 attendees in the first week, with over 47,000 hits on an advisory article. Online chats and live Q&A sessions also boomed.

Some staff were also asked to switch roles with sales execs becoming customer success advocates, for example. And while noises off suggest that some major tech companies are still playing hardball with customers, at Sage payment holidays were made available to customers "who had had cashflow literally turned off overnight" in a spirit of flexibility.


Keeping the home fires burning

There was "a high degree of emotion" among customers but also among staff and like any company Sage had to deal with what Phillips says was "an initial dip" in capacity as staff dealt with domestic care, symptoms and illness.

"To start with, none of us took breaks and it became very tense for a while so we've been more disciplined about taking breaks," Phillips. People were able to flex schedules to work "some odd hours" and staff were given the Headspace app that encourages wellbeing and Phillips praises employee camaraderie.

"Scrambling teams was a challenge. Initially, we were worried that the spread of Covid might impact our capacity but over time that's normalised and we're pretty much back at normal operational capacity."

Sage has also had to generate virtual alternatives to the "water-cooler interactions so that ideas can still be shared, notably in areas such as product development and R&D.

"Very quickly, the morning stand-ups [meetings] have become virtual stand-ups and we've tried to introduce some fun." There's even a virtualised version of the three-meter wide whiteboard developers use for Scrum and Agile projects.

"Everybody has learned a lot about what it takes to work from home and there are good bits and bad bits," Phillips says. "You need an open adjust and adapt."

Staff have been told that the earliest return to office working will be in September, leaving plenty of time for preparation. It's been a tough time for Sage but then the company is headquartered in the city of Newcastle, famed for its sociability, gregariousness and sense of humour in times that are tough.

And if Sage has had a tough time of it then think about customers. According to Sage surveys, 61 percent of SMBs are operating at a loss currently and 46 per cent are considering making redundancies by September. Despite this, Sage says it is seeing some "green shoots" with a subset of customers returning furloughed workers. It's been a grim time for many but when this is all over, we hope they'll bounce back, and the least IT suppliers can do is to show empathy and act accordingly.