COVID-19 struck my first week as CIO: 5 lessons learned

COVID-19 struck my first week as CIO: 5 lessons learned

Rick Huff started as CIO at Paycor on March 9, 2020 – just in time to get a front row seat to a pandemic. Here's what he learned about handling a crisis in real time

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When I settled into my office at Paycor headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, one Monday morning in March, I already had a long list of to-do's. None of them involved redesigning the way we do business from the ground up in less than a month.

By the end of my first week on the job, we mandated that everyone who could work from home should do so (the vast majority of our 2,000+ employees). This meant the executive team had no choice but to figure out what seemed like an impossible challenge: How to virtualize our call center.

Paycor delivers business-critical payroll and HR software to more than 40,000 organizations across the U.S. Our customers routinely call us with inquiries and questions. Our phone system was built to run on our office network – phones are named devices, just like PCs.

[ For another IT leader's view, read: What the pandemic has taught me already: A CIO's perspective. ]

There was a moment of panic as we started asking ourselves: What does a remote, distributed call center look like? Is it even possible?

Because each phone has an IP address, we were concerned that if the phone was moved out of the building, the IP address would no longer work. We had never investigated what remote functionality our phone system provided because we never needed it before.

There was a moment of panic as we started asking ourselves: What does a remote, distributed call center look like? Is it even possible? What will the associate experience be like if we do get it to work? If not, do we have customer service representatives share their personal phone numbers?

Spoiler alert: We figured it out. With the benefit of hindsight, here are the five lessons we learned from managing a whole lot of change in an accelerated (to put it mildly) timeline.

1. Trial and error is the best way forward

We had to physically take the desk phones home to test, configure, and set up the network. The key was to confirm that the off-network device cooperation coming through the internet could get through our business systems. Once we found that we could make it work, we documented the procedure and network so we could do it at scale.

2. Don't be a hero

Prior to COVID-19, we had an active effort underway to eliminate the need for a physical phone device in the Paycor environment. COVID-19 forced us to decide if we should fast-track it. It was a tempting proposition, but we decided that the less dramatic option – working with what we already had, the physical phone – was the better option. Looking back, it was the right call. Forcing new technology wouldn’t have worked; we wouldn’t have been able to pull it off.

3. Band together

The executive leadership team met daily to ensure teams across the business were getting the guidance and support they needed. Meeting regularly and communicating transparently was also key to drive a sense of normalcy, confidence, and control. We had to send the message to the entire organization that there was a plan, it was moving forward, and we were going to make this happen together.

And it wasn’t just IT. Three or four major steps had to happen concurrently that impacted nearly every aspect of the business. We were making real-time decisions, putting a business continuity plan in place, and executing the plan.

4. Tap your network for ideas

Along the way, I talked to friends and peers at other companies to quickly get a range of opinions and insights. I explained the challenge and asked: Have you ever been faced with a similar situation? How would you handle what we’re up against?

I found it incredibly helpful to get fresh perspectives, even if they didn’t lead to specific next actions, because they push at the limits of our own thinking and inspire a more creative response.

5. The best idea wins

To get here, we had to embrace new ideas. It was far less important to understand how Paycor has historically done business. Everyone was on a level playing field. When faced with your own challenges, especially the big, novel ones, remember someone with 10 years of experience in the status quo has no advantage over someone who’s new to the game. The best idea wins.

Never waste a good crisis

I stole this directive from Winston Churchill: COVID-19 is a tragedy, a health crisis on a scale we haven’t seen in our lifetimes, but it can also be an opportunity. The pandemic required us to rapidly evolve our business model, and as a result, we’re in better, stronger shape than we were before the crisis.

In the coming months, many organizations around the country and the world will grapple with fundamental questions: How do we work from home efficiently and productively? How do we keep our company cultures intact? How do we handle tech, workflow, orgs, customer communications?

The answers to these questions may end up making us better and more resilient than ever.

[ How is the COVID-19 crisis reshaping agendas? Read: Digital transformation: 5 ways COVID-19 is forcing positive changes. ]

Rick Huff is Paycor’s Chief Information Officer. Rick is responsible for developing and delivering Paycor’s technology vision, strategy and structure.

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