Since the annual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium had to be canceled this year, MIT made the decision to launch a CIO Digital Learning Series. Episode 3 was broken into two parts, beginning with a fireside chat on the post-pandemic workplace, moderated by Irving Wladawsky-Berger with Catchpoint’s CEO Mehdi Daoudi and Eash Sundaram, Executive Vice President, Chief Digital and Technology at JetBlue, which was followed by a panel led by Paul Michelman on customer experience strategies.  

Three-quarters of office workers have become remote over the last few months due to social distancing measures worldwide, according to Wladawsky-Berger’s opening remarks. This has presented both challenges and opportunities for enterprises of all sizes and industry types, and MIT’s fireside chat delved into many of these, along with other ways that the epidemic is continuing to impact us. 

What Kind of COVID-19 Challenges are Enterprise Leaders Experiencing? 

JetBlue and the wider airline industry began to experience COVID-19 related challenges as early as January, Sundaram shared, when traffic from Asia and Europe began to slow down, which led to unprecedented challenges a few months later. “Who would ever have imagined,” he asked, “a situation when airline traffic would shut down to near zero, as was the case in May?”  

JetBlue’s focus over the last few months has been on survival: driving health and safety measures for crew and passengers, as well as securing financial wellness and assuring employees of their jobs with the company.  Sundaram also spoke to the social challenges the digital workplace was posing. “JetBlue is in the business of providing social experiences,” he explained. “The virtual world makes it difficult to do this when you can’t see or speak to people in real-time.”   

Mehdi also pinpointed major challenges around communication in the digital workplace and the way in which he and other leaders were going out of their way to communicate more frequently in ways that emphasize the human interaction. The loss of in-person human interaction, particularly around whiteboarding, Mehdi explained, is very important to software engineering. It has been hard to find digital alternatives that can truly replicate the experience of being in the same room. Mehdi also explained the challenge of being fully remote has hit especially hard for “the newbies” with recent college graduates being “the ones most impacted.” 

A wider societal challenge, which Mehdi brought up was the digital divide in the US and the challenges we have with Internet connectivity here compared to other parts of the world. “We need to ensure that we don’t have a digital divide,” Mehdi stressed, comparing it to the health divide that we’ve seen during COVID-19. “Are we going to leave an entire population out?”, he asked us to consider

Leveraging Unforeseen Opportunities  

While there are very real challenges related to a remote workforce, especially when deployed so suddenly, both JetBlue and Catchpoint have found themselves benefitting from a range of unforeseen opportunities. These include the ability to hire more widely distributed talent, something Mehdi described as transformational in being able to “find and hire unbelievable candidates.”  

Mehdi also discussed his sense of excitement about the fact that more and more people would almost certainly be working from home for the foreseeable future. “Even after COVID,” he said, “people will find it’s better to stay home and work remotely enjoying greater productivity and more time with their families.” With this in mind, Mehdi shared his enthusiasm around edge computing and the way in which it has the potential to bring more compute capabilities as close as possible to the end consumer “to give everyone a first-class experience” at a time when a typical workforce has gone “from 2,000 employees in three offices to 2,000 employees in 2,000 offices.” 

JetBlue’s goal across the pandemic, Sundaram explained, has been “to drive a new global standard in health and wellness to ensure safe and frictionless travel for customers” through digital transformation measures such as hastening contactless touchpoints, automated biometrics, and developing an ultraviolet cleaning process. JetBlue has also been investing in data science, AI and ML tools to predict and monitor customer behavior.  

One way in which JetBlue has done this over the pandemic was in relation to last-minute cancellations, Sundaram shared. This was a new kind of challenge for the company and using AI to predict customer no shows had been instrumental. “Being able to leverage data sets beyond what we have at JetBlue has been fascinating,” he said. 

Driving New Customer Experience Strategies Through Technology 

The panel that followed also discussed corporate responses to COVID with a focus on new customer experience strategies. Gail Evans, Chief Digital Officer at Mercer, spoke to this in asking the question, “what customer trends are here to stay?” She encouraged businesses to look at the entire customer journey across all the meaningful interactions they have inside and outside their firm when figuring out how to best serve them across and after the pandemic. “We need to understand the meaning of customer value and what they seek”, she counseled. “That will stay with us long after this.” Evans also talked about a current shift in tech “from features and functions” to “understanding the customer experience and being able to dynamically extract insights.” 

Renee Richardson Gosline, Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, built on this theme, encouraging CIOs, CEOs and CTOs to be more bullish. She cited Satya Nadella of Microsoft saying the software giant had experienced more digital transformation in the first three months of the epidemic than within the two years previous. “I don’t think that genie will be going back in the bottle,” Gosline said.  

In addition to new customer expectations for digital experiences, Gosline emphasized the need for companies to recognize customers’ needs, to recognize them as humans going through a profoundly difficult time. “When we look at the economic and social reverberations of this time”, she said, “there is an imprint on people, similar to the Great Depression.” Customers, she pointed out, want to know to what degree businesses are changing their processes to ensure this transition is less painful on them than previously. 

Akash Khurana, Global Vice President, CIO and CDO of McDermott Inc. said McDermott had been focused on employing tech with the customer experience in mind for a number of years. McDermott uses the design thinking framework as a guide to do a deep dive into the journey of employees and customers to clear out pain points. The goal is to understand if there is a solution to the process from a tech perspective. The next step, Akash emphasized, is to understand the ethics component and the impact of the human side of that on tech. “This framework,” he said, “has allowed us to bring two worlds together.”  

Centering the Human Experience 

Gosline continued to emphasize the need to put the human experience at the center of enterprise digital strategy and “avoid being on autopilot, a bad mode in crisis.” This, she said, can lead to “automatic and quick thinking”, but not necessarily “the best decisions” at times when a more deliberative type of thinking is necessary. Returning to the theme of technology and customer experience, Gosline celebrated the ways in which people have awakened to the role that tech can play in our lives and the tremendous opportunity it presents to democratize data.  

Along with this, she stressed, is the responsibility of an enterprise to ensure customer security and trust in part through visibility and through greater accountability. “The makeups of our exec teams are important,” she said, “because you don’t know what you don’t know. You need representation that understands the various customers in the setting. It’s very important”, she said, “to ensure that guiding principles include customer welfare and empowerment.” 

What Have We Gained Over the Last Few Months? 

The event closed with a discussion on ways to avoid losing what has been unexpectedly gained over the last few months. Evans said that for her, the biggest gain she’d like to keep is “continuous learning”, continuing to learn more about clients and colleagues to drive value. That value, she said, is not necessarily about the point of view of your own company, but more importantly, those of your clients. In understanding their values, enterprise leaders are better able to take advantage of “the pulse that tech allows us to take” and “serve our clients better.” 

Khurana agreed and added an additional point that the pandemic is teaching us “something different about change.” By being forced to change in an accelerated manner, it shows “how adaptable we can be, even in a crisis like this one.” Tech has a role to play, he emphasized, in ensuring we’re focused on our customers and being adaptable to their needs and the changing needs of the time.  

Gosline encouraged listeners to take this opportunity to rethink customer experience as not merely one process, but “a series of touchpoints with linked behavioral decisions”, mediated by technology and stressed that we can impact one another at each of these touchpoints. People tend to think about humans versus machines, she said, but that dichotomy is false. There will be increasing amounts of human and machine cognition, she said, and enterprises need to consider this from the point of view of both customer and stakeholder, in understanding how to do this in the most optimal way. In moving forward with lessons learned from the pandemic, she advised enterprise leaders “to be bullish, yet also thoughtful.”