CN Group is a nearshore, outsource software house based in Prague with customers in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the UK. When most of Europe went into COVID-19 lockdown in March, CN Group was well prepared. Overnight, all 300+ of our staff transferred to working from home without disruption to our projects or to the work of the support departments.
Two factors helped. First, early preparation. Tracking the course of the virus, and measures to combat it, in the Far East and then in Italy, we realised that there was a good chance that similar action would be taken in Czechia, Slovakia, and Romania, where we operate. We put the health and safety of our staff at the heart of all we do, so we began early devising a plan that would let us switch to 100% home office at short notice. When the lockdown was announced, our offices closed immediately, but we all carried on working from home.
The second factor is the nature of our work. Most of it is done in teams operating from multiple locations across Europe. Often, team will meet as a group face-to-face regularly during the year; but they do meet also daily using online tools such as Skype, TEAMS or Slack. We have well established agile remote working procedures and communication tools in place - these only had to be intensified. Additionally, we had home office rules that allowed operational staff to work from home for a small part of the week, so most were familiar with it.
We soon found that CN Group was meeting customers’ expectations in productivity and quality that remained unaffected. Unexpectedly, areas of the business where home office was not usual, such as HR, Accounts, and IT Support, were as effective as before. Keeping the operation going created extra work for line, project, and sales account managers - it took more effort to maintain team spirit and keep communications flowing. But it was worth it because our high staff morale allowed us to respond flexibly to customers’ changing needs. We were also learning lessons that could be used in evolving new ways of working after lockdown.
As the end of lockdown approached, we asked the staff what they felt about home office. Over 80% responded, almost all agreeing that working from home had advantages, such as reduced commuting time; a substantial majority favoured a higher proportion of home office than before. Using this, we planned our exit from lockdown and how we would operate when the pandemic was eventually over. We made offices safe to work in with more regular cleaning of shared work surfaces, space for social distancing, reduced crowding in lifts and meetings and greater use of video conferencing to reduce the need for travel. Now we are updating the home office rules to allow more home office and introducing hot desking. Many of us have been back in office for a few weeks and all is working well and we will soon begin to introduce new working patterns in carefully controlled phases.
The pandemic has affected our customers to a surprisingly varied degree – from severely to not at all. CN Group always tries to see the world from our customers’ perspective, responding to their needs in a way that precisely fits their targets and working culture. In this crisis we were able to respond flexibly to changing circumstances, making it easier for some to scale down or cancel projects, or others to scale up or even start new projects.
Although the pandemic is for now under control, there is the economic fallout from all of this to come, both for customers and ourselves. In preparation, we are increasing investment in sales, marketing, and customer care, and improving our ability to find and employ the people with skills our customers need. We are taking on extra customer support staff and extending the range of services we offer. Our presence online is increased through our newly upgraded website, greater presence on social media, and new knowledge transfer activities, such as the popular public educational webinar series we started during the lockdown. These, and a renewed focus on our key markets – including domestic ones – will help us, in partnership with our customers, survive the difficult months to come.