Everyone’s Talking About…CIO Journey Through Covid-19

I recently met up with Nayyar Ghaznavi, CIO for Rexel Australia, and asked him about his experience during the Covid19 crisis as it unfolded. The Rexel Group is Headquartered in Paris with around 28,000 staff globally, including around 1000 staff in Australia.

I’m sure in your position every day is different, but could you please take your mind back to February 2020.  Can you tell me as the CIO at Rexel, what was top of mind for you?  
[Nayyar Ghaznavi] Actually, in January there was already some apprehension about the impact of Covid19 based on what we were seeing particularly in Europe and North America. I was in Canada at the time for a conference and there was a lot of discussion within the team in Toronto about the impact Covid19 may have on all countries and what we could as IT Leaders to get ahead of the potential curve to support our business.

Around February, we as an executive team started to plan how we would respond to the rising tide of the pandemic. We knew there were going to be effects to our staff, our supply chain and the business as a whole. We knew we had to have plans in place in case it spread the way it did in the US and Europe and be as prepared as possible to meet the challenge this would pose.

From early March, the Executive Team was meeting daily, which really helped as the Government guidance was changing so fast and we kept adapting to those changes. Top of mind was “How do we ensure the health of our staff, our customers and our business?”
What projects were you working on and did you have goals you were looking to achieve in your team for 2020?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] Our major deliverable was a new eCommerce platform which we believe is the best in the industry with its rich content and features and functions. We have seen a great boost in online sales as a result of the new platform which continues to grow month by month. We also had a few projects related to optimising our business, especially around back-office services that have reduced our cost to serve [customers].
At what point do you think you realised Covid-19 was going to impact Rexel and did you realise it was going to hit as badly as it did?  Why?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi]. The Executive team have been focused on the health of our staff,  customers and the health of our business, which was driving our key decisions under COVID-19. The plans we put in place buffered to some degree the impact of COVID-19 on the business, relative to the impact on the general economy.

I was having monthly meetings with our global CIO and kept him updated with messages in between those formal sessions on how we are ‘mobilising’ our staff to WFH.
How did it impact Rexel? What did it mean to your staff and products and services?
[Nayyar Ghaznavi] I’m really proud that as a business we haven’t had to make anyone redundant as a result of Covid19. There were impacts, the staff (including the Executive Team) were asked to reduce their working days per week for the long term health of the business. Our MD made sure there was very clear, regular and transparent communication throughout to all staff.

Front line staff, generally speaking, were still onsite as all our branches nationally still need to service the customer who walks through the door. We did see an increase in online sales as a result of COVID-19, but would expect all companies saw this as a result of the changes in the way customers interacted with their suppliers. We had Click & Collect from our branches, appropriate social distancing and sanitisation, all of that came into play.

Prior to Covid, was there a work-from-home (WFH) policy?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] We have had WFH available to staff (role specific as some roles cannot WFH due to the nature of them) for a few years and the impact of COVID-19 saw that number explode, especially in relation to back-office support services. 

By mid-March we had probably 90% of our staff from the Corporate office working remotely. Prior to Covid19 we had probably up to 40% of staff able to work remotely in some fashion but that was informally, I’d say about 10% were formally working from home (WFH) regularly before this.

One of the challenges was actually training on the technology used to WFH. We needed to make sure that not only does the technology suit each person’s needs, but they had a good grasp of how to maximise its use to be as effective offsite as they were onsite. Getting soft-phones set up for individuals isn’t too challenging but when you have a call-centre where you have to make sure that the incoming call assigns to someone in a queue, that took a bit more doing so they were some of the last to go remote about a week later.

How did your life at work change?  An IT department became the centre of the universe for all business in lockdown. How was it for you?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] At a personal level no change as I have more or less worked in our new office with our COVID-19 management plans in place for some months now.  Most of our IT staff are used to remote work so was not really a transition issue for them and they are still 3 days in and 2 days offsite.  We did see a large spike in requests to ensure we could have staff remote working in the Feb/Mar period but since then it’s been BAU for us.

What kind of impact have you seen from a systems, applications and hardware standpoint?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] We had to purchase some additional laptops, cameras, headsets and WIFI dongles but no systems required to be changed as a result of COVID-19. Teams has been very important to our communications during this time but we have been a heavy TEAMS user base for over 18 months.

With hindsight what would you have done differently?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] Kept a slightly higher level of buffer stock as some of these items became scarce in the market once everyone started the WFH process

Did you completely wipe out pre-existing goals for the year and pivot?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] No, we have still delivered on the key objectives set out in the start of 2020, but did make decisions to push out some non-critical projects to 2021.

How did you manage remotely? What worked? What didn’t?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] We have had TEAMS up and running for 18 months with every employee having a TEAMS account.  We also have around 18 x 75” TV screens with TEAMS docks nationally so this made video conferencing very easy for our staff. We had some issues with softphones on our telephony system which took more time to fix than I would have liked but the Vendor has learned from this and subsequent requests were quite easy to handle.

Has the workplace changed forever? People are saying the pandemic has fast tracked zoom meetings and working from home by about 5 years.  What do you think?  Will we snap back to the way we worked and operated pre Covid?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] I think it has changed. Old guard leadership globally are finally waking up to the fact that out of sight doesn’t mean you are not delivering outcomes.  If anything, we found people more productive in some instances as there is now no travel time. If we don’t offer some form of WFH, we won’t retain or attract talent.

For future roles, would you consider candidates working completely remotely? 

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] No.  I am not a believer in 100% remote working as the human element of being together is not replaceable by technology. We need to find the right balance that works for both the individual and the business.

Who have been the heroes at your work during this time?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] We have heroes every day going above and beyond the call of duty servicing our customers

What do you see as the short-term future now?

[Nayyar Ghaznavi] I don’t see much changing for the next 6-12 months, even if a vaccine is found as it will take time for confidence to flow through the economy.  Having said that if we take the right precautions I do see the economy slighting improving from the 2H of 2021 as confidence picks up.

I hope getting to know Nayyar and Rexel was as interesting to you as it is to me.

In the meantime if you have any questions or need access to top talent from the ‘passive market’ that you won’t find on the job boards please get in touch – you can call me on 0422 297 274 or email ross@norwestrecruitment.com.au

About the author Ross Chandler: I manage the ERP, Tech and Digital Recruitment desk for Norwest Recruitment. I’m an Accredited Professional Recruiter with the RCSA (Recruitment, Consulting and Staffing Association of Australia and New Zealand) and a Tech Recruitment Certified Professional with Devskiller. To get in touch, call me on 0422 297 274 or email me ross@norwestrecruitment.com.au

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