Beyond the Pandemic — What’s next for Enterprise Tech?
Board Director & Advisor, Former Managing Director & Co-Founder of M12
Wow, what a tumultuous time we are living through. Workers are being laid off, companies are closing their doors and markets are in turmoil. Clearly the future is uncertain, but what does that mean for enterprise tech, both today and in the future?
Of course, no one has a crystal ball, but it’s always helpful to hear from smart people who have lived through times of uncertainty before. I recently had the pleasure of moderating a London Enterprise Tech Meetup (LNETM) panel discussion about how enterprise tech companies are surviving the crisis, with an attempt to understand how companies are coping today as well as discussing what is on the horizon. The esteemed panel included Cris Conde (Former CEO, Sungard), Didi Dayton (Partner, Wing Venture Capital) and Martin Taylor (Managing Director, Vista Equity Partners; President, One Vista). Combined, these folks have about 100 years of experience in enterprise tech, so I can’t imagine a better group of people to share insights on what’s happening and where we go from here. Below are some of my key takeaways from the event, that I’m already sharing with the entrepreneurs I work with. (A big thanks to Ian Ellis, for pulling this together!)
No one is immune.
Truly, even these tech-titans have not been immune to the (non-medical) problems caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. I asked them to share how the pandemic has changed them: Didi has a new puppy and has perfected her banana bread recipe; Martin was embarrassed to admit his new penchant for binge-watching Netflix; Cris has taken up drawing. We can all relate to these types of quarantine-related changes, but the panel also shared the changes which the pandemic has made to them as a professional, as and operator, and as a leader.
One thing which, unsurprisingly to anyone who has spoken to anyone in this last six months, came up often throughout the discussion, was changes in, and the importance of, communication. Martin, who manages a team, and works with many other CEOs and people, explained how his key team attribute of dealing with ambiguity, was put to the test by the pandemic. The main factor for being agile and adaptable in these uncertain times is clear, honest, and most importantly, fact-focused, communication.
The emphasis on facts and clarity though, is also counterbalanced by a new understanding and bond between team members — shared empathy with each other and the challenges of the time, worked to bring people closer. Cris agreed that communication has been the key focus throughout the lockdown and the pandemic, emphasizing the importance, as a leader, of listening more than you talk. He’s also expressed the need for ‘over-communication’ to ensure that small things and problems do not go unnoticed when working with colleagues and employees remotely.
Leading with empathy has never been more important.
The panel, each managing a portfolio of companies for major VC firms, and working with a wide range of people, were also able to offer valuable insights into what attributes are shared by companies who have managed the situation well. Again, successful remote communication was the stand-out feature of companies thriving during the crisis. Didi narrated the importance of agility in a company, and ability to maintain relationships with not only employees, but also with customers.
Companies who responded quickly to the issue, skipping the optimistic phase which led to many others’ failure, and dealt with the situation empathetically, have come out on top. Giving financial consideration to customers by, for example, restructuring agreements or offering payment holidays, as well as finding ways to work (and provide) during the crisis, has made a huge difference to customers and thus the companies which they support.
Another point which has played a part in whether companies have fallen or remained upstanding, at the hurdle, is the state of their capital structure. Many start-ups which have over-optimized and were thus too fragile to weather the storm. Whilst good management and leadership has been invaluable, this was not a saving grace when enterprises were playing things too close to the line pre-virus.
Remote work sounds awesome but there are a lot of challenges, too.
Gone are the days when working-from-home seemed like a dreamy, far-off ideal to many workers, as Covid-19 forced the majority of companies to move their workforce off-site and adapt to remote working. Many of us are wondering, though, will this carry on? Will things ever go back to how they were? If we stay remote, are companies prepared to handle this (from both a tech, and a cultural, perspective)? There is no one better equipped to answer this question than this panel with their wealth of collective experience.
Tangibly, Martin mentioned that he had seen 2.5–3 hours’ more productivity per developer in some instances, when working at home. However, both he and Cris, who has experience managing multinational distributed workforces, acknowledge that this increase in productivity will not be universal, as not all workers have the appropriate set up (or even space) to work effectively, long-term, from home.
Another possible issue, raised by Cris, is the potential for subconscious biases to impact work when meetings are conducted over video conference (an issue which wasn’t so prevalent when audio calls were the norm). Perhaps this would need to be a consideration for businesses, and some serious training is required to tackle these unspoken conflicts. Alongside this issue, is the concept of ‘informal’ mentors. Though many companies could set-up remote mentoring situations, a lot of learning happens at work through random interactions and informal mentoring which simply will not happen remotely.
Undeniably, there are great pros, as well as great cons, to wide-spread remote working. Overall, the panel believes that things will not go back to how they were, nor stay as the are — the future is hybridity between the two.
Remote immigration — a possibility?
Fears which have surfaced for many, during the pandemic, are related to visas and requirements for these. However, a plus-side which could come from the increased ability and improved infrastructure for remote work, is a widening of the potential hiring pool. Why relocate if you are going to be working remotely anyway? With working-from-home becoming a more viable option for many, hiring for and applying to jobs which are not within a commutable distance will become a reality.
Cris emphasized the importance of immigration, and its positive effects on culture and economies. Perhaps remote working will be the way to tackle the loss of a global talent pool in the wake of Brexit and other deteriorating global relations.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion must remain a priority in uncertain times.
Questions around remote work are far from being the only ones raising concerns about diversity, equity, and inclusion right now. The pandemic seems to have caused people to change their mental attitude, leading to an unprecedented pace of change; Cris said that he had never before seen such a rapid shift in social, and racial justice, movement and reform. Companies who have responded to the worldwide calls for change with evidently PR-based actions, rather than substantial changes, have been called out. So, has anyone been doing it right?
Didi believes that company boards are becoming more representative (particularly in the case of women), and also put forward the idea that keyboards and screens are a good equalizer. She made the case that working at home, from a computer, with only states and productivity, etc. being the judge of your work, many biases are made moot. Martin, however, pointed out that this benefit assumes equal access to technology, opportunities, and employment in the first place. Whilst progress is being seen with women on company boards, the same achievements are yet to be made for people of colour. This is the time though, he said, for systemic change, and to make processes of hiring and even the education which leads to it, equitable.
In conclusion, the event made it abundantly clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has raised issues throughout tech, but not just at a practical level, as it has also led to cries for equity and inclusion. The brilliant panel and speakers have given me a great load of hope for the future, in terms of how we can make a more socially-distanced workforce work, as well as in terms of increasing equity and equality of opportunities for marginalized groups (in particular, NBPOC and black people).
A quick shout out to Neta Meidav (CEO of Vault Platform) for discussing the impact that COVID19 is having on workplace misconduct and Mimi Keshani (VP Operations at Hadean) for giving an overview of how the Francis Crick Institute is using their technology in COVID19 epidemiological modelling.
P.S. Here’s the group at the “after party”! Even though I look sceptical, I truly am hopeful!