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CIO Q&A: Michael Gabriel on COVID-19 Reopen Plans

Michael Gabriel is a former EVP & CIO at HBO—you can thank him for creating and executing HBO GO—and  a partner at Fortium Partners LP, a provider of technology leadership services.

Gabriel is also on the Society for Information Management (SIM) National management team and is a Board member for SIM Metro New York. In recent weeks, Gabriel has been on calls with senior business professionals as well as with SIM members across the nation who are discussing how and when to reopen businesses. In large companies, Gabriel expects health monitoring and change management to be top priorities.

Gabriel spoke recently with Lambent about CIOs, COVID-19 and reopen strategies. The CIO & Executive series is being showcased by Lambent as we explore our role in helping campuses and venues reopen.

On CIO Pressures: “They’re getting more inundated with all the virtual meetings and emails they normally wouldn’t need—because people would be around them. They’re getting clobbered with a lot of virtual meetings and they’re extending the work day. And we all know that most companies and most people are not good at having effective meetings, where people keep to an agenda point without going off on tangents. So, time is actually a bigger problem now. I haven’t heard of one person yet say ‘My job is easier now.’ They actually have more to do than they did when they went to the office.

It’s tough. If I were a CIO now, one of the two biggest issues I would be facing is the impact on major projects, ones that you know you need to do—they’re stacking up, and the need for those projects isn’t going away. But what’s happening now is they’re getting pushed out. So, when we do reopen, you’re going to have intense pressure to get these delayed projects done as fast as possible. The other pressure I would be concerned about is my vendor relationships, where the account executives would often come [to my office.] My assistant would be curating all that; they might come in for a 15-minute or 30-minute update, and it was one after the other.  While I could do that virtually, it’s not the same.  When someone’s in the room, you could sense a certain energy. You could just sense things differently. If you have a project that is sliding, you can feel it.  You can’t necessarily see it. You can just feel it.  For now, that extra sense is gone.”

On Workplace Health: “Do you have it [COVID-19] or did you have it—and do you have the antibodies? Those things are crucial.  My personal feeling is that in large companies, the human resources department, which almost always has some medical assistance-will be bulked up.

Whether that is taking the temperature of people before they come in, whether it’s to assess [prior to reopening] who in their companies had it, or is showing symptoms. I think there’s going to be a lot of that surveillance, whether it’s with cameras, or whether it’s with people just reporting.

Are we going to have to wear masks? Probably advisable. Should the company provide those masks? Absolutely. They should have those available so that everyone coming in [to the building] has one.But social distancing with mass transit and office buildings is a definite concern. How are you going to distance anyone working in a large multi-floor building?  Is one person allowed on the staircase or an elevator at once? It doesn’t work. There’s no reasonable way I could think of social distancing working at any scale in those scenarios.

I would probably start by staggering it—some people work at home, and some people work at the office – in some rotation that makes sense based on the work they do. Everyone’s going to try some things and see what works and share some best practices. And if you end up with a breakout in your company, you’re probably going to retreat very quickly to everyone again working from home.”

On Trust: “It’s really tough. We know almost everywhere we go, some technology company or the government knows where we are— and what we’re doing. But for some reason, we feel less comfortable with our own company doing that. I think it would probably need to have some level of communication with the staff and possibly some polling of them to say that if we were going to use a particular application, we won’t know who you are. What we know is 10 people got on the elevator and that’s a bad thing. And if we use it purely for that purpose and had some vetting, maybe our external audit firm would be able to validate that privacy—and verify there’s no way we can see who it is or use that information for another purpose.”

On the New Normal: “I think anyone who’s saying this is the new company scenario—where there are no main physical locations, and everyone can be more productive at homes—is somewhat delusional. I really do. I know someone at [unnamed company] who needed to do network segmentation to improve security. Now they can’t continue with that because they can’t physically be in the building to address physical equipment. That can’t be done remotely.  Some projects are stopping, and people have things they need to do. I think we’re going to see more flexibility with work at home, but we already have seen a lot of it before COVID-19. I think we may just see more of this flexibility going forward–unless COVID-19 has strong medical mitigation, and even then we have to be prepared for the next outbreak.

People do want to go back, though. They miss the socializing. They miss  going out to lunches and dinners, breaking bread, and talking to people and sharing experiences. They miss the physical contact. Even if it’s a pat on the back, they miss that. You don’t get that through video. Most people I’ve spoken to are saying ‘I like some of the home time, but I really miss being in the office.’ I think if this continues it will also affect retention, because when you’re just working from home you don’t have the same level of attachment that you do in an office environment.”

On Implementing Change: “The success rate of any major change initiative, or any major project, unfortunately, has been about one-third successful—fully successful—for four decades.  Major change initiatives and projects, more likely than not, do not succeed. That’s with everyone being available, being able to go down to their office, being able to pull people into a meeting quickly, knowing where they are. We don’t know what that’s going to be like in this virtual world. We know that some people, like software engineers, actually can become more productive if they’re not bothered by everyone around them.  Some workers could be more productive working remotely, but if you’re part of a team, very few large teams could perform as well if they’re separated remotely. Communication usually starts to break down at some point, and I don’t think we’ve been doing it long enough to see the impact of that yet.”

Lambent is helping campuses and venues reopen with confidence by relying on AI-driven data to help company executives and employees make informed decisions about space utilization and workplace social distancing.

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