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Summer 2020 Aflac NI 10 PA Consulting 18 Bazaarvoice 34


Resilience, adaptation and evolution

16 'Tech has let us increase recruitment numbers, despite COVID-19'

20 Embracing digital solutions to improve human connections through Covid

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Welcome to the Summer edition of the Sync NI magazine Foreword

Louis Kingston

Corporate Relationships Manager, Sync NI


elcome to the summer edition of the Sync NI magazine. Without question this special digital edition has been produced under the most extraordinary circumstances so it felt appropriate that we took the opportunity to show case a few of the exceptional companies across the local tech sector within Northern Ireland that truly represents the very epitome of Resilience, adaptation and evolution. These are the amazing companies currently developing the cutting edge technology of tomorrow that will shape our lives for many years to come, not just in Northern Ireland but globally, fundamentally changing the way we all use technology in our everyday lives both professionally and socially. In real-time we are currently witnessing the huge importance and positive impact of digital transformation from the classroom to the boardroom and everything in between. The reality is that the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated the implementation of this ‘new’ technology and demonstrated that whatever problems we face, we now live in an age where technology can provide innovative solutions to help us adapt and overcome many of the problems we face in the world we currently live in. There is an enormous pool of talent and expertise within the local tech sector working across multiple fields actively involved in mitigating and attempting to find treatments and ultimately a cure for Covid-19 and I cannot help but feel optimistic that they will prevail. Furthermore it is a testament to the leadership of our local technology companies that they were able to swiftly identify the enormous challenges the Covid-19 pandemic presented, secure the safety of

their workforce and implement effective remote working practices and seamlessly transition to new ways of working and in the process somehow manage to increase productivity across the business. It has been encouraging to view from the side lines and hear the many anecdotal stories of how HR departments throughout the sector have gone to extra mile to safeguard and support their staff in ways that only a few years ago would seem improbable or even incredulous. The sense of ‘we are all in this together’ has accelerated the reality that staff are no longer viewed as merely assets but rightly seen as more akin to family. Covid-19 will certainly leave some lasting legacies in ensuring closer bonds with our colleagues within and across organisations for years to come. It has been documented time and again how the people of Northern Ireland have famously faced many historical challenges and managed to overcome them to become more resilient and stronger as a result. The huge growth of the technology industry in recent years bears witness to this and it is no longer a surprise to see Northern Ireland fast becoming a global hub for FinTech, CyberSecurity and MedTech, falling not far behind London in tech sector growth. The evidence suggests that this trend will continue at an even faster pace as ever more new companies seek to invest in Northern Ireland, home grown companies expand globally alongside a flourishing start-up industry and all the while our universities consistently make headlines developing cutting edge ‘future tech’ as well as announcing major breakthroughs in the world of medical science. Despite the recent difficulties there are many reasons to be optimistic and trust that we will emerge from this crisis and evolve stronger than ever.

About Sync NI Sync NI is proud to be the voice of Northern Ireland’s vibrant technology and business sector. The Sync NI website and magazine brings readers the latest tech and business news, views, jobs and events in Belfast and beyond. Sync NI Contacts Editorial Phone: 028 9082 0944 Email: team@syncni.com Advertising & Partnerships Phone: 028 9082 0947 Email: louis@syncni.com General Enquiries Sync NI Rochester Building 28 Adelaide street Belfast BT2 8GD Phone: 028 9082 0944 Email: team@syncni.com Online: www.syncni.com Copyright No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyholder and publisher. Sync NI accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of contributed articles or statements appearing in this magazine and any views or opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Sync NI, unless otherwise indicated. No responsibility for loss or distress associated to any person acting or refraining from acting as a result of the material in this magazine can be accepted by the authors, contributors, editors or publishers. Sync NI does not endorse any goods or services advertised, nor any claims or representations made in any advertisement in this magazine.



Inside this edition 06 What’s it like to work in the tech sector and continue recruiting during a global pandemic?

20 Embracing digital solutions to improve human connections through Covid

10 Lessons learnt

24 How the great accelerator of COVID-19 is powering retail in the right direction

12 BT: Embracing digital 15 Paired programming from home – it can be done! 16 'Tech has let us increase recruitment numbers, despite COVID-19' 18 Your approach to digital will define your ability to grow after the COVID-19 crisis

30 Version 1: ‘Keep going, keep growing’ 32 Working from home could kick off the next NI tech boom 34 Measuring the impact of Covid-19 on e-commerce 38 Unlocking the power of the digital workforce


20 12






What’s it like to work in the tech sector and continue recruiting during a global pandemic? Sync NI spoke to Emma Mullan, Talent and Development Manager at Liberty IT to see how the landscape of Northern Ireland’s IT industry has changed her role q Tell us a little about your role in Liberty IT

As Talent and Development Manager in Liberty IT, I am responsible for the Talent Acquisition and Learning and Development functions and I oversee the Talent Management activities for the organisation. I love that my role impacts our employee brand in the market, and that we are right there at the beginning of an employee’s

journey with us. I’m proud that my team add so much value in terms of employee experience, from recruiting, onboarding, an employee's career and their personal development.

q Were many Liberty IT employees interested in

upskilling and personal development opportunities over lockdown? We moved quickly to 100% remote learning within a matter


 Author

of days following lockdown. This has meant we continued to offer learning and development opportunities, workshops, tech talks, conferences etc to employees as originally planned. Leveraging Microsoft Teams and many virtual whiteboards (!), we have completed over 20 different courses since March. We continue to encourage our teams to consider AWS accreditation as part of their development plans. Liberty is a huge investor in personal development, and it’s been an exciting year for me personally as I have been

fortunate to have been part of a Global Leadership Development Programme through 2019 and 2020. Within the organisation this year, I have been leading out on some exciting initiatives, including the introduction of technical coaching, the launch of an organisationwide consultancy programme, and getting some focus on planning for critical skills needed for in future.

q What areas in particular would

you say the majority of employees have wanted to upskill in? We are very much operating as business as usual, with projects


Niamh Campbell Journalist, Sync NI

continuing to be delivered from our Belfast and Dublin teams for our customers across the world. However, we always ensure teams have time for innovation sprints and learning and development. In addition to an increase in AWS accreditation, we’ve also seen an increased demand for all our “classroom” courses, ranging from specific technical training to professional skills training, such as communication skills, resilience building and commercial awareness courses. Upskilling our leaders has been front of mind also, all our people managers have

  



recently attended a 2 day “Leading at Liberty” workshop. Our employees are also taking full advantage of our online learning offerings within Pluralsight, Safari and LinkedIn learning.

q How do you think the

recruitment and talent development departments within Liberty IT (and indeed, across NI’s tech sector) will change post lockdown? We’ve continued to recruit and onboard employees throughout COVID-19, with the employee experience front and centre. We are delighted to have our 2020 graduate and intern programme intake join us in July as usual, we have been working hard to ensure their virtual onboarding experience is as engaging as possible. Like many, we’ve moved our recruitment process into the virtual world. I believe some of this will continue post lockdown – most of us are much more comfortable communicating in an online meeting now, plus the feedback from our candidates and new employees has been great. We’ve learned a lot from shifting to an all-virtual model. We will be carrying through lots of efficiencies and improvements to our “normal” processes in the future. From a talent development point of view, on demand training and development opportunities are giving our employees more flexibility to learn when it works for them and as the technology continues to develop and enhance the experience, I believe we will see more online learning as an alternative method to traditional classroom learning. I also think that we have all been positively surprised at just how well we can run virtual workshops, with learning outcomes the same if not better in some cases. While there will always be a need for some in person sessions, what this move to virtual has taught me is that we can overcome


obstacles like distance, and training room availability and cost quite easily!

q What are the most positive

things to have come out of lockdown for Liberty IT, talent and development wise?

Liberty IT has always embraced flexible working, with significant volumes of employees (including myself) working from home regularly and amending hours to work for them and their families. We will continue to trial and launch new development programmes and initiatives, and in June we launched a new intranet experience across the organisation as well as a new selfservice driven Talent platform – it’s been a busy time! For our team now, it’s about how we can continue to support our teams with the tools, programmes and the technology to keep enhancing and personalising their experience of working within our organisation. For me, lockdown has forced myself and my family to look at ways to have more balance. Although at times it's been a struggle to work full time with young children at home, Liberty IT has been exceptionally flexible and I’ve been able to adjust hours to suit family life. This has been time of reflection, a time to appreciate the simple things and of spending that quality time with my family. That said, I’m looking forward to some normality returning! My daughter Alice is starting preschool in a few weeks and my son Michael is looking forward to getting back to school to see his pals – we will see how long that lasts!

q Will working from home continue to be offered by Liberty IT?

Absolutely. With schools starting with only a few days a week, ensuring we continue to support our teams with flexibility is incredibly important. We are hoping to be back in the office with a reduced team on a voluntary basis from


the Autumn, but like many, we are using this experience to experiment and test new ways of working. We’ve recently launched “no meeting Fridays” which is great for focus time and like me, many are working outside the standard office hours. Being a parent and working full time is hard enough to balance, so I am extremely proud to work for an organization who always tells us to put family first.

About Emma Mullan A senior HR professional with nearly 20 years’ experience in the Talent and Recruitment fields. Currently Emma is Talent & Development Manager with Liberty IT, a subsidiary of Liberty Mutual Insurance, a Fortune 100 company. Prior to joining Liberty IT, Emma worked in Dublin for 10 years as a HR Delivery Manager/ BP for eir and Resourcing Manager for Meteor Mobile Communications. Emma is married to Stephen and they have two children together, Michael, aged eight and Alice, aged three. She loves music, art and has recently rediscovered the joys of cycling with the kids!



Lessons learnt  Author

Niamh Campbell Journalist, Sync NI

Aflac’s Keith Farley discusses what positive outcomes will emerge from everything that has happened over the previous months


ack in April, Sync NI spoke to Keith Farley, the managing director of Aflac’s Belfast office about the city’s resilience and adaptability during lockdown. While unfortunately many sectors within Northern Ireland and across the globe have been suffering due to Covid-19’s impact, our tech industry here has thankfully continued to thrive, and Keith assured Aflac was a part of this. Providing supplemental health insurance to customers in the US and Japan through its parent company, here the tech firm has doubled in size, from 20 to over 40 employees now all working remotely during the pandemic. More recently we spoke to Keith about his thoughts on what

the world and work in tech will look like now we are coming out of quarantine.

q For Aflac specifically, what lessons do you think you

have learned that you could bring forward coming out of lockdown? One thing we learned is how quickly we could react and mobilise to something. Essentially when we made the decision to go remote, within an hour we executed it. While it was good for us here with about 20 employees at the time, it was especially impressive for our parent company in the States, who also made a decision within 48 hours to completely shut down campus and have everyone working from home. It took roughly two weeks to execute the plan. I think as a large company with 5000+ employees, sometimes


decisions have to go through lots of levels and conversations and this has shown that when a decision does need to be made quickly, we can not only do that but also execute it quickly. Coming out of Covid-19 companies will learn that if you need to, you can react quickly and it will filter into other aspects of work as well. For example, it will hopefully teach firms how to parlay these lessons into other things, enabling them to operate with the same speed and agility that we’ve learned to do with this pandemic.

q There’s a lot of data coming

out of some NI tech firms that productivity has maintained a steady level during lockdown and even increased in some cases due to working from home and hence a more flexible way of working. A survey in May by tech recruiter Corvus Recruitment shows that 88% of NI tech staff may be working from home, and 61% expect home working to continue post-lockdown in some manner. Do you think this productivity will remain coming out of lockdown? I think after what everyone’s been through, if we don’t make some changes coming out of this then shame on us for missing an opportunity! God willing the virus will be gone at some point, but what adjustments can we make coming out if the pandemic that are longer lasting, not for fear of a pandemic but more in realising the increase in productivity and flexibility? From our standpoint, we were not focusing on introducing flexible working until our second year, because in our first year we wanted to build a culture in the office. We’re a brand new company in town and it’s very important for us that everybody gets to know everybody. A few months in though, with the pandemic, that changed for us and now we’ve proven to ourselves that we can all work remotely and get the job done.

We did an employee survey and the majority of our employees want to come back to work and work with each other. We’re going to look at a hybrid so maybe a couple of days a week you’re in the office and doing collaboration and innovation, but the other few days you’re at home getting the work done. So when you’re getting back to coding and developing things you probably don’t need to be around other people, but when you’re defining what the requirements are and having discussions, that might be a great time to be in the office. We’re looking at offices now as places to have meetings instead of a place to just go do work, because some people probably might be more efficient just doing their work from the comfort of their own homes.

q Have you had any new plans for

development come to fruition since the lockdown began? We broadened our view of where talent comes from in Northern Ireland. We actually just made an offer to someone from the North West, which was an interview and a job offer that may not have happened before lockdown, because we were previously focused on having everyone in the office. We were looking at just people from in and around Belfast. Now we’re all working remotely it’s widened our view and we’re looking at hiring more people from the North West. We have doubled (and then some) our workforce and we want to continue that. We’re taking on a summer intern and a couple of graduates and we still plan to have an Assured Skills Academy once a year, with our next one being in 2021 as our 2020 cohort has just finished. I also learned that there are things that happen in the office that I always thought were just ‘extra’ little things, like going to lunch with someone or grabbing a coffee with some colleagues,


or having a conversation in the hallway. What I’ve now realised is those moments weren’t just extra, they’re actually necessary for relationship building and understanding, and they made the project better and work more desirable as well. You don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s been taken away. I am more aware now of these many parts of work that don’t involve formal meetings or sitting at the computer with a mouse in your hand. The constructive collisions we have from being in the same physical space can be just as important as the planned work. Some people would say maybe, ‘oh that’s just time-wasting, water-cooler chat’ and I would argue that those informal conversations lead to better relationships and therefore better results. What is considered as bonus time or ‘non-productive’ time is just as vital. It was definitely a subconscious important part of work. I knew it was a part of culture, but I didn’t realise how important it is to the work too. Now that we don’t have that we have to be creative because we can’t have those corridor conversations, so we’re definitely keen to get back to work for those reasons.

Aflac announced back in October 2019 that it will be creating over 150 jobs in Northern Ireland over the next five years, offering opportunities in IT and cybersecurity with its new technology innovation centre. It currently employs around 5.300 employees in the US and 11,000 globally. In 2018, Fortune magazine recognised it as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in America for the 20th consecutive year. For more info, visit Aflac’s website or Aflac’s Company Hub on Sync NI.



Paul Murnaghan, Regional Director for BT’s Enterprise division in Northern Ireland explains how digital upskilling and development in online safety can help NI’s future despite current uncertainties


he onset of the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we all use technology and how we do business, highlighting the importance of digital transformation for economic survival. The long-term impact of the virus means that many people across Northern Ireland are having to contemplate a future of working from home for an extended period. Many successful businesses – especially sole traders and SMEs - now find themselves facing immense challenges in order to stay trading. Working from home for the first time could be very daunting for many, especially if you’re used to a busy, bustling workplace. For sole traders, SMEs, as well as large organisations in the public and private sectors, being able to adapt their business model and move their offer online is and continues to be absolutely essential. As a critical enabler and investor in Northern Ireland, that has generated £592 million total GVA impact locally, BT Group is working hard to help keep Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK up and running during this difficult time. Our priorities have been to our people and customers, keeping our colleagues safe and helping our customers stay connected. BT supports thousands of SMEs locally and around one million across the UK. As connectivity is more important

BT: Em digital




than ever, we’re helping businesses to stay operational during this period by providing them with a range of support and technology solutions. Ensuring the network resilience to enable Northern Ireland to stay connected, our networks are critical and we’re monitoring them closely to ensure that everyone, where possible, can effectively work remotely. We’ve seen weekday daytime traffic increase 35-60% but this is still nowhere near the large capacity that our networks can handle. BT is also working closely with Governments and public sector organisations to enable emergency responses as well as supporting Account NI, the finance arm of the Civil Service in getting crucial payments dispersed to small businesses. To date, the total value of these payments is over £152 million.

Digital Skills

As working from home continues to become our ‘new normal,’ and businesses need to become digital in order to succeed – they also need support to build their digital skills – and that’s where BT Skills for Tomorrow comes in. BT is supporting people by giving them access to the best technology, flexible options and training to help them navigate through this challenging period. BT Skills for Tomorrow offers free sessions as part of a major new programme, temporarily being moved online, designed to empower 10 million people across the UK by giving them the skills they need to flourish for the digital future. BT has collaborated with leading digital skills organisations to collate the best courses and information, in one easy to navigate place. Everyone is included - from school children to older people; from young adults looking for employment; to SMEs and larger public and private businesses looking for growth.



Working with Google Digital Garage, Small Business Britain, and LinkedIn Learning, we’ve created numerous useful guides on how to do business online and develop effective digital skills. We’re also supporting small businesses via several webinars, to help with things like online presence, digital marketing, data analytics, social media and collaboration tools. Digital skills are important because Northern Ireland faces a digital skills gap, which is having a profound impact on us. The rapid pace of change is leaving people behind – as many as 11.3m UK adults and 10% of the UK workforce lack basic digital skills. This digital skills gap is costing the UK economy an estimated £63bn a year, according to BT’s latest Digital Impact and Sustainability Report. Some of the forthcoming free webinars will cover the best collaborative tools to support remote working, how businesses can connect with customers online and alternative business models using digital approaches.

Staying Safe Online

At BT, we’re also committed to ensuring that our business customers have the security solutions and knowledge necessary to stay safe online. With many SMEs and larger businesses working remotely, this can also pose security considerations in response to the ever growing threat from profit-orientated and highly organised cybercriminal enterprises. With cybercrime continuing to escalate, a new approach to digital risk is crucial. Businesses need to not only defend against cyberattacks in this ‘new normal’ working environment, but also disrupt the criminal organisations that launch these attacks. Companies’ need to help their employees to understand the potential risks. Security solutions that apply

 Author

Paul Murnaghan

Regional Director, BT Enterprise NI

granular controls on what apps and data users can access based on who they are, where they are, and what device they’re using, could make all the difference to an organisation’s future - as hackers and scammers look to exploit these new ways of working.

businesses across Northern Ireland, BT’s local specialist team works in conjunction with external experts to develop and provide advice - as well as a whole portfolio of security solutions to look after and manage cyber security risks for our customers.

BT is at the forefront of driving technology change and securing the UK’s digital infrastructure. We invested £632m in innovation last year, and we have around 3,000 cyber experts based around the world, focussed on protecting BT’s networks and those of our customers. This is a vital component in securing our business against increasingly sophisticated criminal gangs, who are supported by a highly developed and rapidly evolving black market.

At BT, we also have a ringside view of the latest attack landscape across cyberspace as a result of our work across global networks – and we’re using these capabilities and knowledge to help protect our customers. Our expertise can identify and stop the latest cyber security threats before they reach us, and we offer the same unique expertise to our customers.

Risks to both large and small businesses across Northern Ireland are evident in a variety of forms. This includes various types of malware or phishing attacks, high-end targeted assaults on finance systems, as well as more regular attacks on business information and on high net worth individuals within organisations. Criminal attacks are often used with the intent of fraud, extortion or theft of hard intellectual property. As a trusted service provider and advisor to private and public sector

Cyber security needs to become a focus for all of us and our businesses. It’s essential that companies adopt a change in mindset and to regard security not simply as a defence exercise – particularly in this new digital world of homeworking. It is, in fact, the enabler that facilitates digital innovation and ultimately drives business growth. The global pandemic that we are faced with has created a ‘new normal’ both in our working environments and home lives. BT has and continues to support all of its customers through these changes and will continue to adapt as our customers and the world around us does.



Paired programming from home – it can be done! How Allstate Northern Ireland achieved what we thought was impossible


ince lockdown began, Allstate Northern Ireland have ensured it’s still business as usual for them, with all 2400 of their employees working from home.

Watch the video below to hear about how some of the team have come together to drive results, but also keep the team spirit alive whilst at home.

For the most part this seemed easy for teams to do, but there were questions about how paired programmers could effectively work remotely as they’re traditionally known for being sat side by side from 9-5 every day. Allstate’s skilled developers and product managers within the CompoZed labs and Claims Tech Solutions teams have busted all the myths that their work cannot be done remotely by still delivering excellent products to Allstate in the US and also to external vendors. This challenging time has taught the team that a change in your working location doesn’t impact the ability to still deliver value to customers.

 Author

Lauren Murray Allstate NI



'Tech has let us increase recruitment numbers, despite COVID-19' Covid-19 has thrown onboarding for new starts into disarray, but professional services firm PwC thanks technology for their continued steady intake


wC typically hires around 1500 graduates and school leavers every year, making it one of the largest graduate employers in the UK. In March, the firm was due to bring on 180 new starts nationwide. Deborah Stevenson, student recruitment lead in PwC NI, explained the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. “Once it became clear that we could no longer safely welcome the new graduates face to face, we approached the Home Office to allow Right to Work checks to be completed virtually as legally these have to be completed in person. “We successfully got the change through and then trained our

recruitment team to do it digitally. We successfully onboarded all our graduates in Northern Ireland remotely - part of a total intake of 186 joiners across the UK - four days later and on time.” PwC planned to welcome nearly 400 graduates for internships this summer, but decided amidst the coronavirus crisis to postpone them. The company has guaranteed places on their training programme in autumn though, and said that thanks to technology it is now able to increase places on its work experience insight weeks. Deborah continued: “The insight weeks are some of our most important programmes as one of their priorities is attracting students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.



Thankfully, there were many people on hand to support and guide me through the process. “Our laptops and phones were sent via courier to our homes and over the initial few days, I met online with my colleagues from PwC Research and had an opportunity to chat to senior management who were happy to answer any questions I had. “This included a virtual induction with the Regional Leader from Scotland, Claire Reid, and Paul Norbury, the Senior Partner for the East Midlands office. They both took time to answer any questions we had, and it was interesting to hear about their career journeys in PwC. We also were able to

Michael Stewart

split off into groups to speak with our own Office Senior Partners. “Typically we’re limited due to group sizes but as this will now be offered as a virtual experience, we have been able to increase numbers invited in Northern Ireland from 30 to almost 300 students - across the UK that’s a total of 5500. “Underlining our confidence in the future, we’ve also sent out guaranteed job offers on our graduate programme to around 400 undergraduate students who were due to join us for an internship this summer. “This means the students will enter their final year of university knowing that they have a job at the end of their studies, in what will likely be

Deborah Stevenson

a challenging environment for new graduates. We decided this was the best solution in recognition of the investment and commitment the students have shown PwC.” Michael Stewart joined the Belfast office’s PwC Research team at the end of March. He said: “Starting a new job at any time can be daunting but doing so remotely has the potential to be more challenging.

“Throughout the induction, we were shown how to use the different PwC digital tools and resources available to us, where to get support when we need it and learned about PwC's commitment to employee wellbeing, creating an inclusive environment and increasing our social impact. It was great getting to know our fellow new joiners and I was impressed by just how engaging our induction was.” Find out more about what roles PwC NI and other tech firms across Northern Ireland have to offer on our Sync NI Jobs page here.



Your approach to digital will define your ability to grow after the COVID-19 crisis If you were nervous or sceptical of becoming more familiar with digital skills, now is the time to welcome and adapt to the tech transformation!


igital will be critical to the survival and growth of organisations as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and a new reality dawns.

to ensure they’re constantly able to learn, adapt, iterate and delight their customers.

Further prolonged disruption is on the way as customer behaviour, already materially changed due to social distancing measures, shifts. Effective, timely and convenient digital services will be key to adapting to these new behaviours, unlocking opportunities to grow revenue, build loyalty and thrive.

Digital drives innovation and lets you effectively accelerate new services to your customers. But it can only be truly transformative if it’s a priority for every level of the business, from the board to delivery teams.

In our work with digital leaders around the world, we’re seeing three practices that successful organisations have adopted

Make digital a priority for the whole organisation

Organisations succeeding at digital don’t treat it as a silo. While it might need dedicated leadership for board representation, it draws on internal expertise across the firm and external partnerships as needed. Digital doesn’t hire


substantial challenges to grow and succeed in the new reality than organisations that have made digital everyone’s priority.

Expand your definition of customer

 Author

Chris Walker

Digital Expert, PA Consulting

This article first appeared on PA Consulting's website and can be found here.

‘digital people’ into its own unit, but helps existing units hire digital natives to continually upskill and improve the entire organisation. These businesses also have a laser-like focus on understanding bottom-up customer need, rather than relying on top-down business assumption. This lets them actively meet customer needs, boosting loyalty, improving operational delivery efficiency and transforming financial performance. At the same time, their boards look to use iterative delivery to achieve demonstrable value in a shorter timescale. And they use customer experience, engagement and feedback as a key metric for judging success. If your organisation has ‘a digital bit’, you’ll need to overcome more


business validation, prioritisation and requirements. And everyone from across technology, product, legal, risk, finance and marketing needs to move as one. It can be done.

When developing or reviewing your digital strategy, there may be a strong focus on the end customer, but internal customers – such as your staff and key service delivery partners – are usually underrepresented. End customers, staff and partners should all fall under your definition of customer as all will either rely on, or be impacted by, your digital strategy in some way.

Your organisation is likely full of people eager to help move in this direction. You just need to find them, empower them and keep them focused on the outcomes the Board is seeking. This doesn’t mean you need to create a huge new team. To start, a small one will be more effective in developing business-specific agile approaches that colleagues can then adopt more widely.

Customer-centric thinking equally often focuses solely on the end customer, missing a huge opportunity to use digital techniques and technologies to fuse everyone’s needs in a way that benefits everyone.

To create a high performing, crossdiscipline team, free them from existing constraints driven by internal structures, technology norms and processes. Give them the power to be agile and focus on the customer. And ensure digital is their priority, not a side project. They need the time to develop a clear proposition, analyse needs and prioritise requirements.

If your digital strategy encompasses this broader definition of customer, it will lead to better overall outcomes – faster buy-in and adoption, more opportunities for innovation and greater insight into how to make incremental improvements. This will lead to better prioritisation, a happier customer set, more efficient use of budget and a substantially higher ROI. Practically, when looking at your digital strategy ask yourself these questions: 1. How do we broaden our approach to include the breadth of our stakeholders? 2. How can we use the expertise and insight of customers to accelerate effective delivery? 3.What do we need our internal customers to do differently so everyone aligns to the strategy and is prepared for the changes that will result?

Fully empower a cross-discipline squad to get things done At the heart of any digital strategy is delivery – if it doesn’t get made, it doesn’t matter. But digital moves as fast as customer expectations do. So, you need to drive rapid

Measure these teams against delivery of digital services, iteration in response to live feedback and adoption. In short, their key metric is customer engagement. Perhaps most importantly, recognise and reward them and their contribution as a team, not as individuals.

Be bold to grow after COVID-19

Whatever our new reality ends up being, it’s certain to be radically different to what we took for granted at the end of 2019. Digital will be an even more critical part of your organisation’s core moving forward. Now is the time to review where your digital journey has got you to date, and how you need to modify and accelerate your capabilities to adapt and grow in our shifting but shared reality. Be bold. Be ambitious. Be ready to learn fast and iterate faster.



Embracing digital solutions to improve human connections through Covid How has coronavirus changed the world of work?


ync NI caught up with Danske Bank’s Human Resources Director, Caroline van der Feltz, to talk about the Covid challenges currently facing employers and how the bank has overcome those challenges to ensure it is offering the service its customers need.

our customers. We have a lot of colleagues whose roles are customer facing and it could have been difficult, but we’ve been so proud of how they have responded and embraced the new normal. I think a lot of people have been buoyed by being classed as key workers and getting that recognition for how important their roles are in society.

q Hi Caroline. Taking stock of the last three or four

You might think that in the middle of pandemic staff absence would have gone up, but in fact we’ve seen a 41% reduction in absence, a 29% reduction in the number of days lost to stress and our highest ever employee engagement scores, so something has worked . Maintaining these levels of engagement requires strong leadership and we really want to harness the benefits of creating better ways of working to

months, how would you sum up the current environment from a HR perspective? Where do you begin? There’s no doubt it has been incredibly challenging for our people, both personally but also in terms of how they have had to adapt in order to do their jobs to serve


ensure sustained high engagement.

q Was working from home

something the bank previously allowed? Yes, it’s something we would always have ranked quite highly in terms of flexibility of working hours and independence. But the number of people working from home now is unlike anything we could have imagined and that has required a big change in mindset, greater use of technology

and a lot more focus on internal communications. Working from home relies on trust and trust is easier to maintain when communication is good. The overriding lesson of Covid19 from workforce perspective is that for most of us, work is an activity, not a place. Trusting people to work from home means trusting them to look after the company. I think we will be very careful not to go back to a situation where you have presenteeism and people feel obliged to be in the workplace for more


hours than is needed.

q As well as the health concerns of the virus it has taken a big mental toll on people. What measures have you brought in to look after wellbeing?

Again, it comes back to communication. We have established a dedicated resource and coronavirus testing support and guidance for our people, particularly those on the front line. But we are also aware of the need



for contact with those working at home and that has been a focus for managers at all levels. Lots of people are keen to get back to the office but others are anxious about this, which we understand. As we return to normal we will be keep discussing all of this in a positive way with those who are vulnerable, shielding or who have childcare issues. We have aimed to be collaborative and connected and embraced a virtual and video first approach. That has enabled our people to get a real window into colleagues’ lives and maybe get to know them better than before. It is a situation where embracing digital solutions has enabled us to have better human connections.

q How important has it been that the organisation has had strong leadership through this?

I think when you look at the employers who have done well through this, empathetic human leadership has shone through. We already focused on the sense of community in Danske Bank, but it’s now something we are having to do differently and which we are doing much more intentionally. But illness and health concerns are a real leveller. We are all at risk and most of us have had to leave the office or put in extensive measures for those physically on site. That has required improved communications and changed the sorts of conversations we are having by flattening the structure and enabling people who maybe wouldn’t have been so vocal in a normal setting to have an equal say. Extensive engagement with colleagues has been vital.

q Would you say Danske Bank has learned a lot from the pandemic?

Definitely. We have done more learning than we ever would have done in such a short space of time. For example,


we’ve brought in new systems to allow for virtual call centres. We have about 600 people doing different roles or taking on different responsibilities to their normal job. And by the start of June we had logged 1500 hours of training on systems or roles, across 900 different learning events for our colleagues. It has been a big learning experience and we have had to think about things differently. We feel like we have done a good job, but as we go forward we will also look closely at what hasn’t worked.

q As well as retraining you have

been recruiting. What has it been like hiring during lockdown? We’ve conducted over 200 interviews for roles during lockdown and we’ve actually had more than 70 people starting with the organisation who have never been in our building. Our graduates were recruited physically but inducted virtually, as were a number of senior specialist hires. The feedback has been that the induction experience has been really positive and is working. We wouldn’t have considered a remote interview before or signing digital contracts, but the uniqueness of the situation has forced the adoption of innovation. And it means the market for skills can become truly international. I think in all of this it has been important that we kept branches open and didn’t furlough staff, not just for our customers but for our employer brand. People have been confident to come to us and to move in a situation like this takes trust in the organisation you’re moving to and in the recruitment process.

q A lot of your staff are working in

branches but hundreds are working remotely. How are you preparing them for coming back? Our frontline staff have been amazing in working through what were initially very worrying conditions and we’re very proud


that all of our branches stayed open. We are really seeking people’s opinions, engaging with them to get their views on different ways of working and what they feel has worked and not worked during the crisis. We won’t bring non-essential staff back into the office until it is safe to do so but we’re also conscious that people need the sense of community that comes with being around other people.

q What do you think will be the future for offices and physical workspaces?

I’ve heard people speculate that there will be a need for less square footage in offices but I think the more pertinent question is what are you going to use the office for? We have to make sure we are using physical space in the right way and ensure there’s a clear understanding of what is of value. Why are you meeting in person? Do you need to be in the office or would it be more productive to maximise your time at home? And from a sustainability point of view can we be part of the greater good by having fewer people in at the same time and reducing travel to the workplace? In the short-term employers are going to have to work hard to maintain employee confidence, which might mean making returning on a voluntary basis or putting teams on split shifts. When people can safely come back the shape of offices will need to change and they will be used differently. That could mean more collaboration space, fewer closed off small rooms. I think there will be other practical challenges too. For example if people don’t want to get public transport but are prepared to cycle or run into work. Do you have showers? Do you have storage for bikes? These are questions a lot of employers will need to answer quickly as they adjust to new ways of working.



 Author

Mike Cassidy

Signifyd lead storyteller

How the great accelerator of COVID-19 is powering retail in the right direction “The Covid-19 pandemic is many things. Few of them are good” writes Mike Cassidy, Signifyd’s lead storyteller


ut what is becoming increasingly clear is that the health crisis is acting as the Great Accelerator — pushing trends, societies, governments, geographies, individuals, businesses and technologies into the future at rates they otherwise would not be achieving.

works with to help build successful businesses that are customer-obsessed and future-focused. Given that perspective, we thought it would be interesting to pause in the midst of the chaos unleashed by the novel coronavirus and reflect on how this disruption is helping push retail and ecommerce forward.

And that is a positive.

We sat down (virtually, of course) with a panel of Signifyd experts, each coming from a different vantage point to ask about how the pandemic is reshaping us and how the

The phenomenon is clear in retail, an industry that Signifyd


transformation is likely to play out, not just for the next few months, but for a time when the pandemic is no longer with us.

Signifyd Co-Founder and CEO Raj Ramanand

The role of automation in retail adaptation

Raj Ramanand has seen the kind of resiliency that retailers exhibit on an everyday basis blossom into a solid survival skill in the time of COVID-19. He talks about the enterprise retailer that, like others, suddenly found itself operating with an ecommerce staff that had been sent home to work. There were initial worries among the retailers’ executives about accessing necessary data and efficiently reviewing and processing online orders, which were exploding in volume, given widespread stay-at-home orders. But the enterprise adjusted quickly, relying on automated and cloud-based systems, including Signifyd’s Commerce

Protection Platform. The solutions allowed the retailer to scale up to meet the increased demand while still operating with the precision needed to protect the business and maintain success. Ramanand says there are lessons for

retailers about the ability to scale and adapt quickly to changing business conditions. “I think most retailers are in a similar position today with this new work environment,” he says. “They've got this influx of volume coming in and they have these pressure points. Their people and processes don’t scale as much as their technology scales and they need new technology to help them scale some of those backend processes.”

Finding alternatives to traditional delivery and in-store buying

Ramanand says some retailers quickly found new ways to deliver the goods — quite literally in the case of a major home goods store that adapted within


a week to the reality that its brickand-mortar stores would close to keep customers and workers healthy. “The heroic thing they did was to enable their stores to manage buy-onlinepick-up-at-curbside and scale that very rapidly to grow their business,”

Ramanand says. The increase in the drive-up form of click-and-collect is growing rapidly. Signifyd data shows that curbside and click-and-collect orders have increased at times by as much as 350% compared to pre-pandemic sales. Adding the service is a direct response to fulfillment challenges brought on by big increases in online orders and the need to keep warehouse workers safely distanced and healthy. And it’s what consumers want, as is apparent by their adoption of the practice.

A new focus on ecommerce

With brick-and-mortar stores forced to close for weeks at a time, retailers exhibited a renewed and urgent interest in their online channels. While



traditionally, online sales have been only a small percentage of an omnichannel retailer’s revenue, suddenly it was the only channel.

fast as they can?”

Signifyd Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer Michael Liberty

The challenge is that humans can only do so much more or operate so much faster or work so much longer. There are limits, particularly with whole

“The large offline retailers that didn't have an online presence, or offline retailers which had a very minimum online presence but were not investing in the channel, have realized the importance of online,” Ramanand says. And even retailers with a history of selling successfully online are refocusing their efforts, he says. The way the two groups look at optimizing ecommerce, however, are different. The first group is best served by taking an approach that Ramanand thinks of as the Mary Meeker model. The legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist somewhat famously laid out a blueprint for the modern ecommerce company. Meeker’s key advice: Partner with providers who specialize in the services that support the core business of serving consumers looking for a memorable buying experience. “So they should go with the Shopifys, the complete business in a box. They can get ramped fast; get online quickly and not sit there saying, ‘I’ll build everything from the ground up.’ So that would be the Shopifys, the Stripes, the Signifyds,” Ramanand says, listing the ecommerce platform, the payment gateway and fraud protection providers Meeker pointed to in one of her annual state of the internet presentations. Those already ensconced in ecommerce are more focused on improving fulfillment in a time of rapid online order growth. “I think they are seeing a larger push to thinking about fulfillment options, because that has changed,” Ramanand says. “What can I do to offer up different fulfilment options, improve wait times, figure out what products to show at the right time so they’re available to ship as

Automation + cloud = the future of retail Michael Liberty has watched the evolution of Signifyd’s products and the retail industry’s innovation since the company’s 2011 founding. This is different. This is evolution at warp speed. A daily transformation.

“Because of the speed with which this came on, retailers are gaining a new appreciation for automation in general and being able to scale up their operations quickly to deal with surges in orders,” Liberty says. “They’re used to having to scale up during holiday season, but they've got many months to plan for that. That wasn’t the case here. We see customers that are leaning on us more heavily than they might normally because they know we can scale up our capacity pretty rapidly.”

departments working at home and apart from each other. Which is where automation comes in — and precisely where it should come in is particular to each retailer’s operations. “No retailer can absorb a 2x-or-more increase in their volume and not run into some bottlenecks,” Liberty says. “For a lot of retailers, the answer to, ‘Where do the bottlenecks appear first,’ is, ‘Wherever you’re the least automated.’” The conversations around automation naturally spark adjacent conversations around cloud-based services, especially when teams are working remotely and need to collaborate while accessing large stores of sensitive data. “Really, any company that was depending on physically being onpremise for security was completely


unprepared for this,” Liberty says. “They really had to scramble, so I think that probably caused a shift in the IT community about having a single point

Consumers who had rarely, or never, shopped online were buying in significant numbers at ecommerce sites — and then returning to them again and again.

found anything surprising or adjusted his thinking regarding the remote workforce now that the pandemic has forced Signifyd to go 100% remote — at least temporarily?

So what to make of consumer behavior that exhibits itself during unprecedented times?

“It reaffirms some of the things I thought,” he says.

“I think a lot of it is here to stay,” Liberty says. “For one thing, there is just going to be a permanent reduction in brickand-mortar stores. Some have gone, or will be going, out of business because of this.” There simply won’t be as many physical places to shop. This will be especially true in sparsely populated areas. And many of the stores that remain are likely to be different from the large-footprint emporiums that were relatively common only a few years ago. In their place, think showroom-style stores made for browsing and trying out or trying on items that will ultimately be shipped to customers’ homes.

of failure where you actually need to have someone physically on premise to do their job or to secure information. You can’t depend on that in this environment.” “I think this is the direction things were headed anyway,” he adds. “Again, it’s just accelerated by several years.”

Old Commerce Meet the New Commerce

Liberty and Signifyd are in a prime position to chart the changes in consumer behavior. And what has been clear for months is that consumers aren’t shopping the way they once did. At its peak during the pandemic, ecommerce spending was up nearly three times above its pre-pandemic level, according to Signifyd data.


And certainly until there is a COVID-19 vaccine, people are going to think differently, not only about how they spend their time, but where they spend their time and with whom. For most, limiting potential exposure to the coronavirus will remain top of mind. “I just don't know how much people are going to be wanting to expend their exposure budget, so to speak, on being out shopping,” Liberty says. “I think we have a hurdle to cross here.”

A New Way of Work

Signifyd has a legacy of remote work. Many of the first engineers hired worked remotely. In fact, Liberty as co-founder, was the company’s first remote worker. But having some employees — even a significant number of employees — working remotely, is not having the entire company work remotely. So, has Liberty learned anything,

Like, that open and frequent communication is even more important when employees are operating remotely. Liberty advocates using open forums to chronicle the progress of projects and address challenges and raise questions or objections. “When you have a large team, you need to make a pretty deliberate effort to make sure that communication is happening across teams. And there is a risk of becoming insular and somewhat balkanized with your best practices. You really have to make the effort to promote that communication between teams.” As for surprises, Liberty says there was one — a pleasant one. Going into the shelter-and-work-from home phase of the pandemic, Liberty assumed it would understandably take time for employees to adapt to the arrangement. After all, those who were already working from home selfselected. It was the way they preferred to work. What about those who preferred an office setting? “I thought more people would take a long time to adapt,” he says. “Naturally, you might anticipate that. For the most part everyone has rolled with that very quickly.” With the home office comes increased flexibility. For instance, Liberty says, some employees attached to the Belfast office have chosen to work U.S. hours, in sync with their U.S.-based colleagues. That gives them time to care for their children in the morning, before swapping with a spouse or partner who picks up child-care duties



in the afternoon and evening. None of which means the office is obsolete, Liberty says. “I think there is still a benefit to having people at the same location, face-toface,” he says. “Maybe much smaller office footprints. You might have people who are just periodically coming into the office — a week in the office and a week out. I don’t think it’s the case that we’re looking at the mass end to the office.”

Signifyd Managing Director, Europe Ed Whitehead

Retail Resiliency Reigns

Ed Whitehead spends his days talking to retailers about their challenges, their aspirations and their strategies. What’s struck him since London went on lockdown in March, is the way merchants adapt to circumstances now — no matter how quickly they arise or how disruptive they are.

“Talking to one of the major grocers, Tesco,” Whitehead says, “we learned how they were able to match and prioritize for online grocery shopping a huge number of vulnerable and isolated people.” Grocery delivery slots, of course, have at times been like gold during the lockdown and so for Tesco to determine how to serve people who most need delivery is certainly admirable. The initiative came as part of an effort that was admirable in its own right. Ecommerce and click-and-collect have traditionally been a sliver of grocery sales. But that changed quickly when stay-athome orders were issued. Tesco and other grocers were inundated with online orders. Tesco went to work hiring 4,000 new drivers and 12,000 workers to pick orders. “They also expanded online shopping capacity from 500,000 per week to 1 million by the end of April, with a target of over 1.2 million weekly. This is obviously a huge increase in capacity over such a short time. It is really quite

start of the pandemic. The brand sells sophisticated, electronic, at-home grooming and self-care products and has been growing rapidly for years. Its products obviously remained very popular during shelter-at-home, when people couldn’t visit barbers, stylists or spas. The story was similar with Lyco, an electrical lighting seller, Whitehead says. “Both have benefited from deploying Signifyd, fully automating the fraud review process, and thus allowing the customer service team to focus on managing customer inquiries,” he said. “With huge surges in people needing to carry out personal care such as beard trims, haircuts and other spa treatments from home, you could almost say CurrentBody is carrying out a critical service!”

The future of strolling the high street

The surge in ecommerce has been remarkable and a significant portion is likely here to stay. But robust retail will continue on the high street and in shopping centers, even if it will look very different from the way it looked in February. “High street opened up on the 15th of June,” Whitehead says. “I walked past one of the local high streets and people were queuing around the block for Primark.” Queues at Primark and stories of people waiting seven hours to get into IKEA made it clear, he says, that consumers miss the sensation of shopping and they are anxious to get it back.

impressive.” More remarkable is that retailers were able to exercise such agility while many on their ecommerce teams were working from home. Consider CurrentBody, which shifted to a work-from-home model with the

“I think people will return to the high street because it is a core fabric of people’s social life and their daily activity.” And yes, retailers will have to invest in technology to serve their customers in what will be a now-normal, if not a new


normal. “I think retailers need to make shopping more contactless actually,” Whitehead says. “There are a variety of ways to do that, whether it’s better virtual changing rooms online or the ability to really look at items. With ASOS, you’re able to put the dress on you online. You can try items on digitally.” Other innovations will go a long way toward putting shoppers’ minds at ease while keeping them connected with merchants. “Anything that lets the main research be done at home, even if ultimately the customer goes to the store for the final try-on,” Whitehead says. “I have seen lately is a type of remote personal shopping — so the store staff have their phone, which they use as a camera and communication tool and connect directly with customers at home browsing. They can talk them through the look, feel, style of the item and give a much better experience than simply browsing online.”

Signifyd Director of Engineering and Belfast Site Lead Tevor McCullough

The upside of working together while apart

As the site lead of Signifyd’s Belfast office, Trevor McCullough has helped guide a team of about 70 through the disruptions and uncertainties of work life in a pandemic. The Belfast

team, which includes engineers, HR specialists, data scientists, customer success specialists among others, is accustomed to working together at its River House headquarters. But that ended in mid-March, when like many, the team scattered to their homes to work from there. Initially McCullough was worried about the effect on morale and productivity. “In fact, we haven’t seen any impact on productivity,” McCullough says. “In some ways the comradeship, our team aspect, has increased. Whenever people get put in stressful positions, it can either damage them, or it can bring them together. We've seen universally, across the team, people have come together to help each other while we’re in this situation.” McCullough attributes the strong bond to compassion — the sense that everybody is living and working through this pandemic together. And everyone is working from home. Communication is heightened. If someone misses a meeting, or the proverbial memo, others are quick to fill that person in on important details.


home, because we just become a bit more adept at it. We become more adept at communication.” As team members develop those skills, it’s likely that will lead to more flexibility around how people work in the future.

Technology as a business savior in the time of COVID-19

The same factors that make working from home successful are helping Signifyd ensure that the company’s customers also navigate the pandemic successfully. “We’re cloud based,” McCullough says. “That has allowed our engineers to continue to be productive at home and it’s also continued our operational effectiveness in terms of our uptime without disruption.” Chances are, he says, that wouldn’t be the case if his team were relying on large, onsite infrastructure to keep ecommerce humming along. The cloud has been vital, he adds, in a time when ecommerce order volumes have spiked and remained well above pre-pandemic levels for months.

“We’ve always had a pretty good or excellent team spirit,” he says. “So maybe it’s not such a big surprise that we’ve done so well in this period.”

“It’s not just the accessibility and the robustness of it,” he says. “It’s also the elasticity of it. We’ve obviously seen volume spikes. The elastic nature of our infrastructure has helped us handle sustained loads.”

The experience could drive change in the way the Belfast team works, but like Liberty, McCullough says that doesn’t mean the physical office is going

All of which is reflected in everyday lives and the pandemic-driven societal changes that will have a lasting effect even once the novel coronavirus is vanquished.

away. In fact, the Belfast office is in the midst of an expansion. There are positives that I’ve seen now and there are positives that might come down in the future,” he says. “People become more effective working from

“There obviously is an acceleration in the way people use technology and the way people are more open to the online experience vs. brick-and-mortar,” McCullough says. “It’s obviously going to encourage innovation around how people work and the technologies we employ.”



Version 1: ‘Keep going, keep How communication and trust have been key factors in maintaining the Version 1 NI’s continued success during lockdown


orna McAdoo, director of operations and business development within Version 1 NI, affirmed that the IT services and solutions firm is “not a lot different from the other tech companies” here in NI when it came to lockdown. She added: “There was a lot of uncertainty in the early days, and we worried about how many of our people were going to be ill or how long lockdown would last.” Lorna attributed the company’s achievements and composure over the last few months, to its concentration on communication, praising updates from Version 1’s HR department in Dublin, and explaining how they set up ways of

people being able to e-mail into the organisation about their needs. She continued: “Communication was probably a challenge initially, but we’ve been able to come out the other side of coronavirus stronger because of it. “We have had great feedback from the staff, particularly in Belfast. We do quarterly surveys and at the end of Q1 (which was around the end of March and start of April), the feedback was that communication was excellent and people felt secure and in safe hands. “There were constant e-mails and video updates from our


on client sites, people based in the office and people working remotely so obviously the big challenge was then making sure everyone could work from home with sufficient equipment and connectivity. We’ve never had any infrastructure or support services issues during that whole time as a firm.” I asked Lorna not only about the trials of working in a global crisis, but also the unexpected positive outcomes that may arise from one. She said: “I guess for me personally, I’m a leader that loves having people around me, in that you can be able to see whether they’re happy or if they’re having issues. For me, being very heavily reliant on regular team or Zoom calls instead of being able to just go to them and have a chat, I’ve struggled with that.

 Author

Niamh Campbell Journalist, Sync NI


“We opened the office two weeks ago to 30% of the staff and to date only a very small number have been in. I think a lot of that is down to the fact that people are quite happy to work from home, but also people are genuinely nervous about coming back into a working environment. It’s still early days, but so far, we’ve come out very positive.”

CEO in terms of what we were doing, managing the impact, and relaying what we were hearing from the news and the government.

I then suggested that as humans, we are creatures of habit and so working from home has therefore now become our daily custom, to which Lorna agreed, even noting that it has resulted in progression within Version 1;

“That level of trust has just continued to increase for us. When you’re working for a company and you’re in the middle of a pandemic, the one thing you really need is trust; to know that your employer cares about you, your family and your customers. That has certainly been the case in Version 1 during this time.

“We never furloughed anybody across the entire organisation during lockdown and we’ve actually still been recruiting with new joiners onboarding during this time. Usually we would have induction sessions in Dublin so we’ve been doing them virtually instead which is strange. It’s quite difficult for new people as they don’t know anyone.

“We have a mixture of people in Version 1 Belfast of people working

“It is pretty exciting that we have been able to do it though. We had a company


briefing recently and it’s great to hear how we’ve not been impacted by coronavirus. Keep on going, keep on growing! She assured that all of Version 1’s customer contracts have kept going, and the services delivered haven’t changed either, with the exception of providing some additional Covid-19 business support (as is to be expected). My final question to Lorna, was what she thinks the future of working in Version 1 will look like. She concluded: “Change is inevitable, and things have already changed. The future workplace will be different. People are used to working from home now and before this, there was always that flexibility where you had the option to work a few days from home. Now it’s almost turned on its head and it’s like, ‘well you can now work a few days in the office if you want’. “We pride ourselves at Version 1 as being a great place to work and we put a lot of effort into staff engagement, social events, and all sorts of things such as diversity and inclusion events. I guess we are going to have to focus on that in a different way; to continue the momentum, but in a way that can be done virtually instead of face-toface meetings. So, staff engagement is definitely going to be different going forwards. “It’s great as an organisation we’ve got positive news coming out the other end of the pandemic. Hopefully, we are on the outside of it all now and we won’t go back there. “I think it’s a great for the IT sector that the news is so positive as we are always wanting to get more people into our industry. It’s a great, strong message to get out there that the best sector to work in, in terms of security and a challenging environment is always going to be in IT!”



Working from home could kick off the next NI tech boom Working from home could become the norm in the global tech industry, and that’s good news for Northern Ireland


lobal tech firms such as Facebook and Microsoft have attracted thousands of talented tech workers from around the world, with offices in major cities from San Francisco and London to Dublin and beyond. A virtual war for tech talent has been taking place in these key cities, with salaries rising and companies offering everincreasing perks in an effort to retain their top people. Companies now routinely have private gyms in the office, free food and drink offered in the building, in-house doctors, fully-equipped chill-out or gaming spaces, and even spas for employees to relax in. The tech industry has been more than willing to throw crazy office perks and even free equipment at staff, but the one perk many firms have been reluctant to provide is remote or highly flexible work ‌ until now.

The impact of Covid-19 on remote work

While the Covid-19 pandemic caused many customer-facing businesses to close their doors temporarily, the tech sector was quick to adapt by largely shifting to a work-from-home

model. Companies that had never invested the time and money to build solid remote working processes and get the required equipment and training in place were forced to do so on short notice. Companies shifted their in-person meetings to online conference calls, set up virtual management and collaboration tools, and issued employees with equipment to use at home. This unexpected experiment in remote work has now produced hard data on the impact of offering employees remote and flexible work as a perk, and the results are surprising. While the switch to remote work did cause disruption and require some retraining, many tech firms are now finding that their staff are actually more productive at home than they were in the office. PwC reported that a whopping 76% of its workers in Northern Ireland were more productive when working at home, higher than the still impressive UK average of 61%. This may even be an underestimation of the positive impact working from home can have, as those who normally work from home are actually reporting a drop in productivity



Remote work could lead the next NI tech boom

Northern Ireland’s tech sector has been in a remarkable boom period over the past several years. Innovative local start-ups are regularly securing millions of pounds in investment for new tech products and services, and a number of major US tech companies have now set up NI offices to access our local talent.

 Author

due to the pandemic.

roles can’t be remote.

Remote working is here to stay

Twitter went one step further and announced that it would be allowing staff to continue working from home indefinitely even after the pandemic as long as they’re in suitable roles. Microsoft similarly told all of its employees that they can continue to work from home through October unless their job requires them to be in the office, though the firm is unlikely to keep the majority of its staff remote on a permanent basis.

The UK lockdown has been slowly easing as businesses such as cafes and restaurants try to get back to normal, but the tech industry seems in very little hurry to get back to the office. When Facebook announced that its offices in Dublin and Cork that service around 5,000 employees would be re-opening in early July, it was careful to specify that most of its workforce would remain remote where possible. The only reason the office was opening was because certain highly sensitive data is not permitted to leave the company’s offices, so certain

Flexibility is the new killer perk

Now that companies have figured out remote work processes, remote work and extreme flexibility may prove to be the new killer perks for

Brendan Drain Journalist, Sync NI

tech recruitment. Employees have also now had a taste of remote work and many will be seeking out permanent remote positions if their current companies don’t offer some flexibility when the pandemic ends. While not everyone will want to be remote and not all positions make it feasible, firms may have to offer it as an option to stay competitive in the future job market. Offering remote work as an option also comes with some serious benefits for companies that are currently struggling to fill job roles with qualified workers. It opens the industry to people with complex medical needs who can’t leave their homes, disabled people for whom the typical tech office may be poorly equipped, and people with care responsibilities at home. Working from home opens the industry to a whole section of society that has been left behind in the tech boom.

Belfast is fast becoming a global hub for FinTech, Cyber-Security, and MedTech, coming in not far behind London in tech sector growth. Part of the reason US-based firms have their eyes on Northern Ireland is that they can get two or three highly qualified employees here for the same cost as one in Silicon Valley. The actual location of employees doesn’t seem to matter so much now that companies are used to managing remote work and organising important meetings online, so investing in Northern Ireland may look even more attractive to US firms postpandemic. Even firms that only offer a percentage of remote positions stand to gain over those that don’t offer it at all, as remote employees have significantly lower office overheads. The future for Northern Ireland’s tech sector could look very different in a post-Covid-19 world, with smaller core teams in flexible office spaces managing larger remote workforces.



Measuring the impact of Covid-19 on e-commerce

Bazaarvoice digs down into its platform data from March to May 2020 to show the changes in online shopping habits during the lockdown


ith an overwhelming amount of information available about the impact of COVID-19, it can feel difficult to identify which information is relevant to your business and how it should shape your strategy moving forward. With a network of over 6,200 brand and retailer sites as our client base, we have unique visibility into shopping activity. To combat some of the fatigue from combing through multiple

information sources, we regularly compiled data from across our network to help you understand how this pandemic is influencing consumers. We watched for patterns and changes in shopping behavior – increases and decreases in product page views, orders placed, reviews submitted, and more. We looked at the data globally and across more than 20 product categories and compared it to the same time period in 2019, as well as earlier months in 2020.



happened in March. Order count began to surge on March 11th, the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and the US-Europe travel ban was announced.

Essentials and entertainment were priority purchases We saw year-over-year page view and order count increases across almost every product category. Food, Beverages, and Tobacco, Toys and Games, and Sporting Goods were the three categories that were in the top five for growth in both page views and order count. As consumers evaluated what they needed to live comfortably and entertain themselves and their children for the duration of stay-athome orders, it’s not surprising these are the categories they’ve been drawn to.

March 2020 Online shopping was on the rise, with browsing outpacing buying

Throughout the month of March, data from our network shows that customers started to prepare for the long haul of being home. Yearover-year, we saw page views and order counts increase 25% and 21%, respectively. Looking at order numbers

Key stats March 20 vs March 19 q Page views up 25% q Order count up 21% q Submission of reviews up 0% q Submission of questions up 4%

for 2020 in itself, March orders are up from February. While order count in 2020 saw a 2% YOY increase in January and a 6% increase in February, it jumped to a 21% increase in March, when social distancing and shelter-in-place advisories started to become widely adopted. In addition, the top ten days with the most orders on our network in 2020

The growth in the Food, Beverages, and Tobacco category was especially noteworthy as more shoppers have turned to online grocery shopping, some for the first time. Similarly, categories like Business and Industrial (includes work safety gear and medical products), Office Supplies, and Software also saw high growth in March. While consumer browsing activity is on par with last year for Apparel and Accessories products, buying behavior is down. Understandably, browsing and



buying behavior for Luggage and Bags products are down as consumers are not leaving the house or traveling.

April 2020

week of April. This could potentially be because the end of the month may be a more challenging time for consumers financially, particularly with unemployment climbing.

April outpaced March in growth year-over-year

April was all about entertainment, activity, and DIY

Based on the data, March 2020 growth was massive for e-commerce, but April 2020 grew even faster with every indicator we track (page views, order count, review submission, question submission) more than 3x the March 2020 numbers, and growth in each is growing more than 2.5x faster than it was pre-crisis. March ended with a 25% YOY growth for page views, and April ended with an 88% increase. Page view growth accelerated every week since the week beginning March 15. Order count was also trending upward, with April 2020 year-over-year growth of 96%. For comparison – March closed with a 21% YOY increase in order count. While in March, browsing behavior (page views) was outpacing purchasing behavior (order count), this trend reversed in April, with consumers buying more this month. While the week of April 19-25th had the highest percentage of year-overyear growth for order count, order count slowed a little bit over the final

Key stats April 20 vs April 19 q Page views up 88% q Order count up 96% q Submission of reviews up 37% q Submission of questions up 57%

When COVID-19 was first declared a global pandemic, consumers rushed to buy non-perishable food items, face masks, and home office supplies, and our network data reflected that. When we first looked at data towards the end of March, the top categories for page view growth were Business and Industrial, followed by Toys and Games, Food, Beverage, and Tobacco, Office Supplies, and Health and Beauty. Finishing the month of April, the top categories for page views were Toys and Games, Arts and Entertainment, Sporting Goods, Animals and Pet Supplies, and Business and Industrial. Looking at order count growth, March saw Food, Beverages, and Tobacco growing the most year-over-year, followed by Sporting Goods, Business and Industrial, Software, and Health and Beauty. For April, the top five categories were Hardware, Sporting Goods, Vehicles and Parts, Business and Industrial, and Arts and Entertainment. Shoppers had adjusted to the new

normal and were finding ways to keep occupied and productive during an uncertain time period. They took this month to build their home gyms, find new forms of entertainment, take extra care of their pets, and start DIY projects at home, including car repairs.

Shoppers were leaving more reviews and asking more questions about products When looking at the number of reviews submitted by consumers across our clients, March saw 0% growth yearover-year — that changed drastically in April with a 37% increase year-overyear. Many shoppers made a larger percentage of purchases online than they had in the past, which could have been triggering more post-interaction emails than usual.

Spikes in review submission often occur after spikes in purchases, with the delay accounting for shoppers receiving their items. Review submission in April surpassed growth seen in that time frame last year, and the partial week of April 26-30 saw the highest review submission YOY growth this year up until this point with a 64% increase. Question submission saw even larger growth. In April, question submission was up 57% year-over-year, compared to just 4% YOY in March. The week of April 19-25th saw the highest YOY



growth for question submissions with a 77% increase. This influx of reviews and questions from shoppers helps other shoppers make informed purchases and buy with greater confidence. For brands, this influx supports conversion and provides additional customer insights at a time when shoppers needs are changing. Brands should identify highlights and lowlights of their products from reviews, compile or update an existing list of frequently asked questions, and respond to customers as they reach out. Shoppers will remember the brands who made their quarantine easier.

May 2020 Buying behavior slowed down, but was still tremendous While May 2020 experienced a period of significant, sustained growth, buying behavior slowed down slightly compared to April 2020. May saw a YOY growth rate of 83% compared to May 2019, while April saw an order count increase of 96% year-over-year compared to April 2019. Based on the trends in the second half of May, it seems that April will serve as the growth peak. Pre-crisis we typically saw shoppers browse more than they bought;

Key stats May 20 vs May 19 q Page views up 90% q Order count up 83% q Submission of reviews up 38% q Submission of questions up 62%

however, in late March and continuing through much of April we saw buying outpace browsing. Order count began to surge on March 11th, the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and the US-Europe travel ban was announced. In May, shopper behavior returned to the pre-crisis pattern of browsing outpacing buying. On top of browsing, shoppers were continuing to leave more reviews and ask more questions, benefitting future shoppers as they reach the buying decision phase of the shopper journey.

As the economy reopens, consumer needs are shifting

While many countries and towns were still in varying degrees of shelter-inplace or lockdown, some markets began to reopen and this has led to a shift

in consumer buying behavior. Many categories saw order count and page view year-over-year growth moderate between April and May. The Services category bucked the trend, growing faster in May than in April. Services (which includes education, financial services, real estate, and travel) saw page view growth more than double, reaching 62% YOY in May, compared to 26% in April. Service order count accelerated to 216% YOY in May, compared to 128% in April. With many travel bans lifted and economies reopening, some of the services previously less utilized during lockdown were seeing greater need. For example – in the U.S., more housing listings were appearing online than in the previous month, and hotel bookings and air travel were both trending upwards.



Unlocking the power of the digital workforce Expleo’s Rob McConnell delves into how robotics and automation will play a pivotal part in Northern Ireland’s economic recovery


he last number of months have seen immense changes in how we work.

As enterprises become increasingly digital, their demand for IT and technical skills is increasing in tandem – to a point where demand is far outstripping supply and many companies are unable to afford the highly sought-after specialists they need to compete on a local and global level. So, what can businesses do? Rob McConnell, Global Head of Digital Labs at Expleo, a technology consultancy firm delivering innovative solutions to local and global enterprises from its Belfast base. Guiding organisations through every step of their digital transformation journey, Expleo sees the challenges facing Northern Irish businesses every day. McConnell says part of the solution to the skills dilemma must come from increased investment and deployment of automation and associated technologies. “Companies are still investing massively in IT and digital capabilities; integrating and upgrading systems in order to stay competitive,” says McConnell. “Digital enablement and

transformation, spurred on by COVID-19, are top of the agenda in most global boardrooms. That will not change anytime soon: the current global situation requires it. “Every business is now trying to quickly understand the future of work, how people will collaborate and how technology will better support a new business model. We keep hearing the term ‘the new norm’ but few really understand what that might mean. Part of the answer must lie in evolving the digital workforce. By that, we don’t just mean training people in digital processes and technologies, more that the use of robotic process automation (RPA) will be a key driver of change.” By this, McConnell isn’t suggesting replacing one workforce with another, but rather fuelling economic growth – and therefore jobs – with automation. Since COVID-19 restrictions on people and businesses were announced in March, we have seen how automation has helped organisations to stay afloat. It has allowed those who have experienced a rise in demand to meet that need, enabled others to cut costs, and has aided businesses in clearing backlogs caused by the sudden disruption to their business.



to digital transformation, is no code/ low code technologies and platforms,” he explains. “As the name suggests, the key principle of low code is that it greatly reduces the need for specialist technical skills. The low code platforms offered by big-name vendors such as Microsoft, OutSystems and Salesforce have matured significantly in recent years to the point where they now offer a real, scalable alternative to traditional approaches.” Attendees at this year’s virtual BelTech conference may already have been familiar with the promise of low code technologies. There, attendees were shown how business applications can be built using low code platforms in just one day. However, McConnell points out that greater simplicity doesn’t make these platforms a silver bullet.

 Author

McConnell predicts that the very act of getting people back to work and in the office – at least some of the time – will be a mammoth task that, if it is to be efficient, will require the automation of systems and processes. As technology continues to advance, so too will automation and its various applications. Businesses therefore must ensure that they are using the right technology, in the right way, with the right people. “Automation is providing speed, capacity and freeing people up to focus on more creative tasks,” says McConnell. “It has matured to not just offer support on tedious and time-consuming processes, but also the handling of front office tasks such as interacting directly with customers, offering options, giving feedback and taking and processing

Rob McConnell Director, Expleo

orders. “As with all technology investment, the business case has to stack up. The change approach has to be well orchestrated and managed to be successful. Like so many other IT investments, RPA can fail to deliver and meet business needs and expectations if it is not implemented correctly and for the right reasons.”

He explains: “If used and implemented correctly within the right delivery processes and teams, low code technologies can be highly effective; delivering speed and cost benefits for the development of digital solutions. However, the focus should always be on quality and user experience. It is easy for businesses to lose sight of this and instead get bogged down with ensuring they are using the technology to its full potential. If it is helping an enterprise to address an unmet technology need, or is helping software engineers to become more productive, then it has worked.”

This presents a conundrum: organisations need to digitise more and more processes to compete, yet the dearth of skilled IT professionals who can implement the necessary changes remains. It sounds like the making of an IT headache for businesses, but McConnell says it needn’t be.

The ‘new norm’ may well be a concept that few of us can grasp right now. However, what we do know is that technology will be critical to business success, while issues with access to talent are likely to remain. The key for Northern Ireland’s enterprises right now should therefore be using that technology smartly so that every organisation can play its part in reigniting the economy.

“One rapidly growing and mature aspect of process automation, and an aid

To find out more, visit the Expleo website or talk to the team today.

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Sync NI Magazine Summer 2020: Resilience, adaptation and evolution  

The Summer 2020 edition of the Sync NI magazine

Sync NI Magazine Summer 2020: Resilience, adaptation and evolution  

The Summer 2020 edition of the Sync NI magazine

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