‘Don’t Revert To Pre-Pandemic Habits’

As Lawson Products moves beyond Covid-19, CIO Kevin Hoople is ensuring the lessons—and benefits—of the pandemic workplace remain.

IT departments have had to think creatively to solve some of the internal, and external, communication problems caused by employees working remotely over the past few years.

Kevin Hoople, CIO of Lawson Products, a Chicago-based industrial distributor of maintenance and repair supplies, spoke with StrategicCIO360 about how his team handled challenges during the pandemic, what it learned and how it is shifting today, including in its approach to cybersecurity.

What are the biggest lessons learned from the Covid-19 shift to work from home?

The majority of our corporate support teams moved to work remotely. I should acknowledge that much of our organization continued to provide service to our customers at their locations and fulfill orders at our distribution centers.

The biggest lesson learned by far is that remote work is surprisingly efficient. Prior to Covid-19, I was skeptical about how effective remote work could be for most roles. I have an entirely different opinion now. The Lawson Products senior leadership team had each functional leader weigh in on productivity after we went remote, and every group came back with the opinion that there was no productivity decline based on both quantitative evidence and qualitative observation. 

Another lesson learned is that remote work can level the playing field if everyone uses the collaboration technology. Prior to the pandemic, we had a few individuals in the organization that were already remote. Back then, they would have joined a meeting where everyone in the office was in a conference room, and they were on a speakerphone missing some of the conversation as well as the non-verbal cues.

I think we have all experienced dialing in on one of those meetings and can relate to how frustrating they can be. Once remote work started, they had a square in the video conference grid just like everyone else and were no longer missing out. I have to believe that this shift has driven better engagement from remote workers.

One of the negative aspects to remote work is diminishing social contact and a sense of belonging in the organization. One of the reasons work from home is so efficient is there is little lost time on water cooler talk, but the downside is that you lose many of the opportunities to form and strengthen relationships that ultimately lead to great teamwork and work satisfaction.

One last observation is that there are some people who simply will not go on camera. I understand that people can be camera shy or that their home environment may not be conducive to having their camera on. However, when they don’t go on camera the other participants can’t read body language and it is a strike against work from home effectiveness. Unfortunately, I think it also leaves the impression with others that they are less engaged in the conversation even if that is totally untrue. This is one of those lessons we just have to accept with no good solution.

Have these Covid-19 lessons turned into permanent changes, new systems, added processes, new policies for Lawson Products? If so, please share a couple of examples.

We were fortunate to have collaboration and other technologies in place before the pandemic. We utilized Microsoft Teams before the pandemic, especially for posting questions, answers and comments on key topics. However, the chat and video conferencing utilization increased dramatically.

One challenge we faced was people leveraging the newer collaboration technology, but in some cases ignoring old technology like the classic desk phone. Lawson Products has a sales organization committed to providing high levels of service and expertise to customers at their location. The corporate office going remote has caused some problems with getting questions answered promptly—specifically from those corporate groups that lack a call center function.

We have provided everyone with softphones—software that runs on their desktop to mimic a desk phone using VOIP. However, there hasn’t been uniform adoption and sales reps that needed to address a customer question or concern struggled to connect with corporate resources. We are implementing a solution to chain communication technologies in a sequence. For example, someone calling my desk phone would also trigger a call to come through Teams or to my mobile phone.

As many companies have moved to and you are beginning your move to a hybrid work scenario, what are the top challenges and actions that information systems need to take?

We acquired conference room video conferencing technology so we can sustain the effectiveness of remote work. As I said, we use Microsoft Teams and the technology we implemented (Teams Room) allows a meeting to include both participants in the conference room as well as the remote people very seamlessly and with a familiar user experience. This includes a camera to capture the room whiteboard for improved collaboration.

However, getting the technology in place is only part of the battle. I think it is very important that we don’t revert to pre-pandemic habits such as conducting meetings with remote people on a speakerphone. If we do that the collaboration effectiveness of remote workers will drop and we could be right back to pre-pandemic thinking about remote work. IT and HR are partnering to develop operating guidelines for hybrid work that will address these behaviors.

Have you experienced workforce challenges in the last year? How have you managed these challenges?

We have been fortunate the Lawson Products IT team has remained stable through most of the pandemic. Lawson Products is a great place to work, and our turnover has historically been low—and it stayed that way through the last year. However, we are finding that the few open positions we have are more difficult to fill. 

One thing that has worked in our favor is our stance on hybrid work schedules and, for some unique roles, 100 percent remote work. The hybrid work model is attractive to people with lengthy commutes and has probably helped with retention and in attracting new talent.  

Additionally, in the last year we were able to hire a few very skilled full remote people by including candidates across the country instead of being limited to the Chicago area.

Given the increase in cybersecurity threats, what have you done to adapt?

As a mid-market industrial organization, we haven’t historically been in the crosshairs of cybercriminals like financial institutions and other traditional big targets. However, I think we have all seen that the ransomware groups are going after everybody regardless of size or industry. The board and the rest of our senior leadership team have been very supportive of our efforts to reduce this risk and we have made some significant investments in the last 12 months.

Given our mid-market size, I didn’t think it was practical to hire a CISO. Instead, we formed a cybersecurity technical committee that I chair. This is made up of leaders that are subject matter experts in IT infrastructure, end-user computing, custom application development, and others.

We also developed a cybersecurity program manager role. We knew that in this climate, it would be tough to fill that with a strong cybersecurity generalist, so we took a different approach and filled this with an existing employee who was already very strong relative to IT controls. The combination of this committee and the program manager is our answer to what you might think of CISO responsibilities in a larger organization.

We established a NIST Cybersecurity Framework approach to evaluating ourselves. This not only gives standards to measure and communicate our maturity, but it also helps us identify the elements that we might be missing or need to be strengthened.

A number of technical and service capabilities have been added. We enlisted an MSSP (managed security service provider) to provide SIEM services, vulnerability detection and prioritization, etc. We implemented a better endpoint management solution to help ensure consistency and better administer patch deployments. We also invested in a few additional vulnerability detection technologies.

This will certainly be a persistent and evolving problem, and we will continue to make more investments where they make sense.

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