Jason Ward took over at Dell Technologies Ireland just a few weeks before the country found itself in the grip of a pandemic. The former GAA footballer officially took up the position on February 20th, taking over from Mark Hopkins, who had moved on to a new role as VMware director for the western Europe region at Dell. That was little more than a week before the first confirmed cases in Ireland, and only a few weeks before the country began to shut down to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“The best time to take over businesses is in a crisis, because there are a a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Ward has more than 30 years' experience in the tech industry, and had been working with Dell for a decade, including managing the company's enterprise business in the Nordic countries, before he took up the managing director role. Prior to that he had worked with EMC, moving from SAP, where he had headed up the company's sales division, and before that, it was BusinessObjects, which was acquired by the German software company. He is also willing to take a risk or two – he was the first person to take advantage of the GAA's parent rule and play for Leitrim.
Nothing could have prepared businesses for the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and how we do business. But Dell Technologies, similar to many other tech companies, embraced the move to remote working with ease.
"To be honest, it's been quite easy, for a number of reasons. One is the organisation; at Dell we provide a huge amount of support right across the company. Think about what Michael Dell achieved 10 years ago; he came up with this concept of the connected workspace and how we enable employees to work remotely. We transformed our business over the last 10 years to enable all of our team members to work remotely," says Ward. "We have 150,000 employees globally. So when [the lockdown] happened, we effectively switched on 95 per cent of our team members to virtual work from home environments. We had the technology enablers to help us to do that. Our employees have worked from time to time from home and have the technology to do it, so we rapidly switched to it."
Ward acknowledged there was a novelty factor in everyone moving to remote working, relying on Zoom meetings and Microsoft Teams video conferences, along with different collaboration tools.
“That I suppose was a challenge, just to get everybody sort of synced up to what we’re going to use. But in terms of the day-to-day activities, the business can operate exactly as it had,” said Ward. “My perspective was really about how do we continue to drive sales, keep our team members healthy and safe, and the transition was very, very smooth.”
The switch to remote working has also provided some insights into the family lives of employees and colleagues. Ward has four children of his own so was well acquainted with the difficulties of balancing work and home life in the strangest of circumstances.
He has managed to avoid the surprise family interruptions that have become a feature of many work meetings; his children are mostly past the age of barging into rooms uninvited. However, others in the company have been giving their colleagues an insight into their home lives.
“One of our executives in the US has identical twin daughters, and while he was doing an executive briefing with Michael Dell, one of the daughters came into the room and entered the Zoom meeting. She was talking, having a chat with him and then she went away; a couple of minutes later, the other twin came in and started asking Michael the same questions. He was, ‘Hello, I just spoke to you?’ He didn’t realise there were two identical twins, didn’t know the man had twins and never met them.”
Four months on, though, and the novelty of home working has definitely worn off. “I think everybody would admit that now Zoom is becoming a challenge. You’ve so many Zoom meetings,” said Ward. “It’s no longer a sort of nine to five office environment. We’ve encouraged all the management and team members to work hours that are productive for them and suit their working environments. We allow the whole workforce to operate in a way that enables them to be able to live in order to have a work life balance.”
Health and wellbeing
It’s not just about work. Health and wellbeing is high on Dell’s agenda, Ward says. The company invests in global programmes that include health screenings, investing in on-site fitness centres and seminars.
During the pandemic, however, that has taken on increased significance, and small gestures from managers have become important.
“For office meetings, people are sick of looking around each other’s faces on Zoom, so some of the management team, their idea for the next meeting was that everyone had to go outside of their house and walk somewhere where there’s greenery, whether it’s in a park, in your estate where there’s a nice green – do something where you’re not stuck in front of a screen.”
The immediate impact of the new working situation is that colleagues have developed closer ties, with children, parents and even pets a regular feature.
“It’s actually created a much tighter bond with a lot of team members. We’re a lot more understanding of how people live and breathe every day,” he said. “I think there’s been a lot of positivity out of it. Obviously, a lot of people would like to get back to the office but at the same time. I think there’s a greater appreciation for what people do across the organisation.”
That appreciation may be needed in September. With plans for education still up in the air, some parents are facing a hybrid school environment, with some classes being held in school and a certain amount of home learning involved. While that may suit some home and work situations, it will cause stress for others, and it will be something employers will inevitably have to deal with in some form.
“I think as this progresses the whole education system is going to have to look at itself in terms of how we address the needs of educating, particularly younger children and so on, around keeping them motivated and engaged,” he said. “There’s a lot of areas that I suppose need to be reviewed.”
Strong first quarter
It feels wrong to say that some companies have benefited from the pandemic. But Dell has been working with Irish companies to get their digital transformation up to speed, and that could lead to a benefit for their business. Since the $67 billion merger with EMC that Dell closed in 2016, the company is able to offer its clients an end-to-end service to organisations for the essential infrastructure needed to build their digital future, transform IT and protect valuable information.
The figures for the first quarter were strong – $21 billion in revenue – but as with many businesses, it will only be in the second quarter that the true impact of Covid-19 will be apparent.
All the indicators are positive, though, as companies accelerate their move to digital.
“There has been a massive acceleration of digital transformation in Ireland,” said Ward. “I was speaking to a CIO [chief information officer] last week of one of the waste management companies. A company like that has now realised that they need to enable their company for remote employees across Ireland, and they now are looking at digitally transforming their business into this sort of hyper converged world. I was quite surprised that they were that forward-thinking but, you know, the CIO and CFO just said, ‘We need to just transform now or we’ll be out of business’.That’s definitely a turnaround I’ve seen, the acceleration.”
Dell has the advantage of having its own bank, which helps companies fund their essential equipment purchases, through Dell Financial Services. With the outbreak of Covid-19, Dell expanded that further, announcing a $9 billion global fund to help small and medium-sized companies fund necessary digital technologies, interest free, for six months.
That may be something that smaller companies consider as the push towards remote working continues. For now, the official advice is for those who can work from home to continue doing so. And while some people would prefer to return to the office when the pandemic is over, it seems unlikely that office working will return to pre-pandemic levels. The genie is out of the bottle.
“A lot of our Irish existing customers and new business customers are saying that they definitely see a higher proportion of their employees working from home. I think the reason why they see them doing that is because technology now is more readily available to enable them to do that,” he said. “We’ve enabled a lot of customers in Ireland to actually very quickly deploy infrastructure to enable their employees work from home. Smaller businesses don’t have big IT teams, so traditionally there was a challenge in standing up infrastructure to enable the applications to be used remotely. Now we can deploy infrastructure in a matter of hours or days, and a company is completely up and running and able to have their employees work from home and systems and solutions that we provide.”
Ward may have embraced the crisis, but he is also aware of what has been lost as the shift to remote working was forced upon companies – including Dell. When the crisis is over and companies return to a more normal way of doing business, the first thing he has planned is a team meet-up, although a “virtual kick-off” has already been held.
“The one thing definitely that you would miss in a crisis like this or in a situation where it’s remote is getting your team members physically together,” he said. “If there’s anything that I’ve missed, that the teams miss, it’s definitely that personal interaction. If somebody invents some solution that can create that water cooler moment – when you’re just walking around the office and you bump into somebody and you’re chatting about what happened yesterday or are just shooting the breeze, that physical sort of emotional attachment to just communicate with people – that’s something technology can’t replace at the moment.”