Aongus Hegarty landed a high profile international role just in time to be grounded. The Dell veteran is used to travelling. In his previous role as Dell's head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, he spent about two-thirds of his time outside the country, meeting customers and Dell's employees at offices around the Europe, Middle East and Africa (Emea) region.
But that was before Covid-19 hit.
Just weeks before the pandemic was declared, after 10 years of overseeing the Emea region, Hegarty had moved to become president of international markets – covering all of Dell Technologies' business outside the US and Canada.
He was in China in January last year when news began to break of a virus making people ill in Wuhan. It became apparent the situation was going to be a significant challenge, although he says the severity of the position wasn't immediately clear.
Early in March 2020, Dell’s workforce moved to remote working where possible. And that is how they have largely remained ever since, although there has been some loosening of restrictions in individual countries in recent weeks. Keeping in touch with Dell’s international teams, customers and partners has become even more important for Hegarty.
It’s not easy taking on a new role when you have to do everything from a distance. All his recent travel has been virtual, given Government guidelines. In the past year or so, he has had virtual visits to 30 different countries, all without racking up a single air mile.
Some things haven’t changed though. Though Hegarty pivoted to working virtually quite quickly, he has sought to replicate online the established pattern of his in-person meetings.
The general perception was that tech companies were among the best prepared to handle the crisis. After all, this is the sector that has long been building the tools to enable the future workplace – one that was more flexible and respecting of work-life balance. But even for Dell, the transformation was a marked one.
“It was an overnight pivot for our company; I think we moved to 95 per cent of our team members working remotely, 120,000 team members,” he says.
But business has continued. The pandemic marked increased revenue for the global group, with Dell reporting a 12 per cent rise in sales to $24.49 billion in the first quarter of the year, beating estimates of $23.4 billion. Business is booming.
In Ireland, Dell employs 5,000 people at bases in Dublin, Limerick and Cork. The manufacturing operation in Cork, designated as essential by the Government, was the only one to continue on-site. But things have worked well, he said, with a seamless transition for staff.
There has been equally positive responses from customers, with some experiencing higher productivity and, overall, pronouncing the move to remote a success.
Dell’s own research has shown a significant acceleration in the adoption of digital technologies in business over the course of the pandemic. The initial scramble to get computers to employees has evolved to delivering solutions that make employees more productive and secure.
This is where Dell’s years of experience – the company has long had the option for employees to work remotely at least part of the week – have come to the fore.
It has introduced new services aimed at addressing the changed circumstances of customers. Dell invested €4.5 billion in innovation and R&D, bringing out a new generation of its server-computer technology, launching a mid-range power storage technology and Apex, its as-a-service portfolio that makes it simpler and more cost effective for companies to acquire, manage, and maintain physical IT infrastructure.
Looking to the future, Hegarty sees opportunities for Dell’s Irish operations as the next generation of technology comes to the fore. The advent of 5G is just one, with Dell’s development labs in Limerick and Cork innovating around 5G and multiple different industries and the delivery of new digital products and services.
Despite the shift to remote working, Hegarty, like many others, is unconvinced that a fully remote set-up will suit all employees.
“We envisage a majority of employees are going to look for a flexible way of working,” he says. “We’re redesigning our offices around the world to be much more collaborative spaces , where people come together to collaborate to innovate, to work together on designing solutions and discussions and so on.”
There is much that can effectively be done remotely, he says, “but there are some elements you want to get together”.
Similar decisions are doubtless being made in countless other companies around the State as the working patterns of the past 16 months have become ingrained. Flexibility will open up opportunities for businesses, enabling access to a greater talent pool.
“It’s not about are you at the desk from this time to this time and can I see you? It’s measuring the output, measuring the productivity, what you’re doing and producing, and then giving flexibility around how you do that, when you do it and where you do that – that’s key we believe in attracting talent and a diverse set of talent as well as retaining talent.”
Balance for Better
Diversity is something that has become increasingly important in recent years. Hegarty is on the review group of the Balance for Better Business, an independent business-led review group established by the Government to improve gender balance in senior leadership in Ireland.
He takes over as co-chairman of the group with former Enterprise Ireland chief executive Julie Sinnamon when Bríd Horan and Gary Kennedy step down.
There has been progress made on balancing representation in business, he says, but there is still more to do.
“[Diversity is] a big big enabler to business in Ireland, having both senior leadership and board membership be more diverse and the ability to attract more talent. The opportunity we have with working remotely to be more flexible I think, if done well by companies, will unlock a lot more opportunity to access that diversity.”
He is already feeling the benefits of the new way of working. The flexibility that the pandemic has forced into the workplace together with the restrictions on travel has allowed him to spend more time in Ireland. On the day the interview takes place, he has a prior engagement that can’t be missed: a family quiz to fundraise for Special Olympics.
“It’s definitely been great to be at home. I think one of the positives is the fact that, as a family, we’re very much at the home and doing things together around the home,” he says.
But there are plenty of things that he has missed. He looks forward to getting back to Thomond Park for a Munster game. He managed to make it back to the Aviva on a couple of occasions – to get his Covid-19 vaccine, and most recently to cheer on the Irish rugby team in their clash with Japan.
“I definitely want to stand in the west end in Thomond park and cheer on Munster or stand on the sidelines in the Gaelic grounds and cheer on Limerick in a hurling match. That without a shadow of a doubt is the thing I’ve missed most,” he says.
Some of the changes of the past year will be permanent. The virtual trips will be more of a thing for Hegarty with physical travel accounting for only about a third of his time in the future. And he plans to work from home three or four days a week.
“I’m definitely not going to go back to the way I was. I see a fundamental change in how I’ll operate.”