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By Maria Martinez, Executive Vice President, Cisco

Now more than ever, technology is an essential lifeline — a way to maintain our business performance during these “safer-at-home” times. The challenges of technology, however, remain: How do we scale? How do we keep it safe? And how do we make sure it keeps working when we need it most?

For example, Cisco employs more than 75,000 people based in 95 countries. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our office workers became remote workers essentially overnight. This shift to working from home drove traffic through the Cisco Webex collaboration platform to record levels without warning, from 150 million Webex users in January 2020 to more than half a billion people — for a total of 25 billion meeting minutes — by April of that year.

At the same time, innumerable Cisco customers across the globe stepped up digital initiatives to address gaps in e-commerce, procurement, the supply chain and other pain points, further spurring the need for secure collaboration.

Seizing the opportunity

In response to this dramatic increase in demand, we enhanced the Cisco Webex platform with new features that empower teams to be even more productive. For instance, we announced security enhancements around data-loss prevention (DLP) that enable IT teams to use their existing solutions to protect their Webex users, as well as ensure compliance with a range of US regulations, such as FERPA for education, HIPAA for healthcare and PCI for e-commerce. We seized the opportunity brought by the COVID crisis to demonstrate our commitment to innovation and our ability to anticipate client needs. We were agile and adaptive — and we’ve helped our customers to achieve those traits too.

Throughout the pandemic, keeping our customers connected and successful has been our number-one priority. The lessons learned during this extraordinary time will likely recast the way we all do business — inside and out — long after the virus.

Lessons learned

1    Build capabilities to adjust dynamically to the changing business environment.

At Cisco, we’ve adapted in both our business and personal lives, whether it’s working from home or learning the new social-distancing norms. The COVID crisis highlighted needless complexities and processes within our business, such as an overabundance of in-person meetings. Using advanced technologies, we’ve learned and demonstrated that we can be effective without meeting face to face or sharing an office — even with kids and pets carousing in the background of our Cisco Webex virtual meetings.

Our expert opinion is that companies need advanced technologies not only to be resilient but also to seize the moment and advance their digital agendas. For example, we’re seeing strong ongoing interest in Cisco’s Digital Network Architecture (DNA), an intent-based network that incorporates AI, network orchestration and machine learning (ML) to automate administrative tasks.

The automation enabled by Cisco DNA Center gives operators the agility to deploy, provision, configure, activate policy for, troubleshoot and make changes to networks quickly, all in support of shifting business, user, application and security requirements. Currently, more than 350 customers have deployed use cases based on Cisco DNA Spaces that are directly related to COVID-19, such as contact tracing and building-occupancy monitoring. Today, Cisco DNA is live at 145,000 global locations.

2    Help customers and employees address immediate, imminent and ongoing challenges.

Communication is more difficult but also more critical when people are apart — and that goes for all stakeholders. Within our team, we talk a lot about how to communicate to customers during this pandemic. Our CEO, Chuck Robbins, demonstrated his understanding of the raw realities and concerns about today’s crises, offering tangible ways Cisco could help through technology, partnership and support. In a message to our customers and partners, Chuck highlighted no-cost access to Cisco Webex and security offerings to keep newly remote workforces up and running productively.

During the early days of the crisis, many of our customers requested urgent assistance to accelerate major changes. This was especially true in the heavily impacted healthcare sector. For instance, our customer experience team helped the UK National Health Service (NHS) transform a 100-acre convention center into a new Nightingale hospital to address a critical healthcare shortage. Under normal conditions, this feat would have taken about a year to complete. But working as a team alongside NHS staff, military personnel, contractors, architects and engineers, we built this facility in just seven days. The cornerstone of this effort was Cisco Webex, which was used to help coordinate communication and collaboration across all the different teams — teams comprising many people who’d never worked together before. But come together they did, to serve each other and our communities.

Reimagine to adapt

3    Tend to individuals’ emotional and social needs.

During the darkest days of the pandemic, our executive leadership team hosted weekly company-wide meetings featuring medical/wellness experts and some celebrity guests. These virtual gatherings helped us feel more connected and informed, supported and inspired. We also increased personal time off with the addition of mental-health days, and we provided meditation opportunities, webinars and virtual exercises to focus on physical, social, emotional and financial well-being for our employees.

We continue to encourage people to balance their work-from-home (WFH) hours with their personal needs — such as childcare or eldercare — which have shifted as well. By repeatedly restating the need for self-care and family focus, we aim to help our employees stay healthy and productive during these times of stress.

4    Reimagine your workforce and workplace to adapt to the new world of remote work.

Cisco is on a mission of digital transformation, for itself and its customers — it's an imperative for all modern organizations that has become only more urgent since the start of COVID, with everyone working, shopping and living digitally, online. The WFH experience has accelerated Cisco's digital transformation agenda, challenged our infrastructure, adjusted our skills requirements and evolved our operating model to one that can align quickly with our customers’ changing needs. It’s also changed our personal preferences. I, for one, certainly enjoy the flexibility of working from home, not to mention the time saved from commuting!

Looking ahead, we assume the future of work will revolve around a hybrid model, with some workers heading back into the office and others maintaining their WFH status. We know Cisco will not be alone in the normalization of WFH, and we know advanced technology is required to ensure success.

To support our customers on a similar path, in April 2020 we announced $2.5 billion in financing to launch the Business Resiliency Program. Designed to help customers access the technology required for COVID recovery, the program enabled a 95% cost deferment until January 2021. And again, we provided free technology, including Webex and security tools, along with support to enable remote work, contact center services and enhanced cybersecurity.

5    Automation unleashes innovation

Leverage AI and machine learning to find IT blind spots, rebalance resources as sites are closed, reduce the risk of human error and security threats, and accelerate innovation.

To stay sharp, resilient and innovative, we must continue exploring ways to automate repetitive tasks and fault management by deploying new services and products. With the analytics and actionable insights AI and machine learning can deliver, we can solve problems faster. For example, through our work with customers, we find that businesses using automated fault management can detect and troubleshoot network issues 80% faster, with 30% less effort for case management. This is critically important when sites are closed during stay-at-home orders.

    Create a more united team.

The COVID crisis has underlined our shared humanity. The virus doesn’t respect class, gender, ethnicity or borders — it's a persistent reminder that we’re all in the same boat. One way we help create close connections with our employees is by investing in causes they care about. In response to COVID and acts of social injustice, we quickly pledged more than $500 million to help companies of all sizes with their initial digital transformation efforts and their eventual rebuilding efforts. As social justice came to the forefront of conversation in early June 2020, we built out our five Social Justice Beliefs and Actions.

Through conversations with our customers and partners, I’ve gathered these lessons that business leaders can apply to their own digital transformation efforts to help their organizations emerge stronger. I hope others can put them to good use — through the COVID recovery period and beyond.

This article was written by Maria Martinez, Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Experience Officer at Cisco.

To learn more read the latest Cognizanti Journal, "The resiliency reset," or contact us.