Cisco, an organisation which relies on more than 140,000 employees and partners, was forced to move its entire workforce to remote in a little over a week because of coronavirus. In more normal times that migration would be expected to take years, according to the company.

During a virtual roundtable last week, the company’s local CIO, Julie Canepa, explained how Cisco did it, how little room for error it had, and why things will never be the same again.

“We are rewriting the rules for [business continuity planning], it’s happening in real time,” Canepa said.

“This is the time for IT teams to really show up throughout this process …This is a time for us to break from the past, and to think about how to do things differently in the future.” 

Go hard, go early

When the company saw offices in China closing in February it took it as an early sign and began cancelling major Cisco events and started preparing for widespread remote work. 

“Interestingly, it was Australia, which had some of the first offices close around the world. So very quickly, our teams had to mobilise around getting our employees at some of our regions to work from home.”

Cisco CIO Australia and New Zealand, Julie Canepa. Supplied.

By March 16th Cisco had made the decision to implement mandatory work from home for its more than 140,000 employees and partners around the world.

“Normally for an organisation of our size this would take about two years and we had about 10 days to get it ready,” Canepa said.

The technology conglomerate had to ensure hundreds of thousands of employee devices,  usually used in one of Cisco’s 498 offices, were secure and suitable for remote work. 

“We had business continuity plans, we all have,” Canepa said. “But I think they catered for things like tornadoes and earthquakes and one site down fail over to another site. 

“I don’t think any of us had really planned on a global pandemic scenario of having all of our workforce grounded essentially.”

Business continuity on the fly

Cisco developed an updated business continuity plan on the fly. It centred on three key aspects: basic connectivity, basic collaboration, and business processes.

“Mission number one,” Canepa says, was establishing basic connectivity for Cisco employees. While Cisco usually has 25-30 per cent of employees working from home, connecting through company VPNs, the company needed to add additional IT resources through IP pooling and split tunnelling to cater for the now 100 per cent of employees working from home.

With connectivity established, Cisco’s information chief turned her attention to employee collaboration. Of course Cisco has its own conferencing software – Cisco Webex, the virtual meeting of choice for Australian government’s regular national cabinet meetings to coordinate the response to COVID-19 – but it needed to ensure other tools like email, messaging and document sharing were being adopted consistently.

“The important thing here is to make sure that we had consistent tools, secure tools and integrated platforms. That was really important for us to aid with ease of use and adoption, [and] make sure that these tools can be used evenly across all of these different devices.”

Unsurprisingly, use of Webex by Cisco employees skyrocketed. But Canepa revealed the way people collaborated also changed quickly because of remote work, and the IT team had to adapt to keep up.

“We saw 30 per cent more instant messaging happening. We saw 25 per cent more calls coming through WebEx Teams … We saw more file sharing. 

“And the name of the game now is for us is to manage the adoption and to tailor information and usage and tips to our user base, as we see them adapt to this new way of working.”

With connectivity and collaboration largely taken care of, Cisco could now focus on its own business processes, what Canepa describes as “the most important thing” for the company.

“[We began] looking through each and every one of our business processes to make sure, not only Cisco could run, but making sure that Cisco can provide support, which is critical it right now to our customers.”

Global use of Cisco’s Webex more than tripled around the world in March compared with February. Last month the software was used by over 324 million people in more than 73 million meetings.

Use of Cisco’s products and services surged in March. Source: The company.

The company has stopped charging for some of its products for schools and hospitals and is donating networking hardware to some hospitals. For other customers, Cisco has set aside US$2.5 billion in financing and deferred costs for new projects.

Staying connected

Canepa says the video meeting tools have proved especially vital for people’s mental health as tougher social distancing measures came into effect in late March.

“There’s such an importance in staying connected to people. Not everybody feels confident at this time, some people are alone and some people have sick family members. Some people are going through a crisis of their own. So it’s incredibly important for us to stay connected.”

Canepa says employees use of video for things like trivia, happy hours, exercise classes and singing groups has been a pleasant surprise.

“They’ve showed us that some of this technology and the services that my department provides is actually about more than just doing business. It’s actually providing a human connection that’s really needed by people at this time.”

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