COVID-19 and the postponed digitalization

May 11, 2020

Frank Sielaff
Frank Sielaff Founder & Managing Director

COVID-19 is first and foremost a tragedy for those affected. But it also leads to massive restrictions on our economy. Why does it hit some companies harder than others, even though they are similarly structured and operate in a similar market? Yes, it is also about technology, but it is much more than that.

Solid & Co.

Norbert is in his late 30s and works at Solid & Co, a relatively large company with many employees in different countries.

Norbert’s working day is dominated by the tedious processing of e-mails. These usually contain some kind of interim results that colleagues send back and forth. Coordination also takes place via e-mail or in a 2-week team meeting. This is where the boss also distributes the newly upcoming tasks. Norbert has digitalized his personal task list in an Excel spreadsheet, which very quickly becomes outdated. He updates it at every team meeting at the latest.

In Norbert’s organization, decisions are mainly made by the boss and announced by e-mail or in the team meetings. The boss also uses the meetings to inform about the development of larger initiatives. Occasionally Norbert deepens his knowledge through the employee newspaper or the intranet. But that happens rarely. When Norbert is not working through e-mails, he sits in lengthy meetings. These are mainly used to gather opinions on various topics, which are then recorded by e-mail and forwarded to all those involved.

COVID-19 digitization

In mid-March 2020, Norbert is sent to the home office like all his colleagues because of the COVID-19-related contact restrictions. All physical meetings are switched to web meetings or cancelled. Luckily, access from home is working. The last stragglers are quickly equipped with compatible technology. Many are surprised how well it works when everyone has to work with it.

However, the meetings remain as inefficient as before. In addition, the number of e-mails is exploding, not only because all plans are being changed, but also because so many votes are now held by e-mail. Norbert is slowly losing control of his inbox. Since web meetings are extremely tough, he prefers to work through e-mails in parallel. Not much happens in these meetings anyway.

The tension among colleagues is increasing, as is the economic imbalance of Solid & Co. Apparently, many necessary adjustments are not being made quickly enough. The speed of the past is no longer sufficient. But more meetings and emails simply won’t work.

Virtual Wine

Norbert has a long-standing friend from his student days, with whom he maintains a very trustful relationship. Her name is Danielle. She is also in her mid-30s. Due to contact restrictions, the two have not seen each other for a few weeks. Danielle sends Norbert a text message: “How about we meet each other virtually tonight over a glass of wine?”

Danielle has entitled tonight’s video chat “Virtual Wine”. It feels amazingly good to be “sitting together” again in each other’s living rooms. After a while Norbert talks about the difficult situation at Solid & Co, the e-mails, the web meetings and the general economic situation. He wants to know how things are going at Danielle.

Liquid Inc.

Danielle works at Liquid Inc, a company similarly structured to Solid & Co. She tells Norbert that COVID-19 has also changed a lot for her employer. Some business areas are under pressure, but others have identified new market gaps and are in the process of filling them. There is a spirit of optimism. Many people are working from home, but that has less impact on good cooperation.

In the morning, Danielle logs into the collaboration platform of Liquid Inc. There she sees all the team tasks she is working on and everything else that is pending. If a task requires input from someone else, she simply assigns it to the colleague with a comment. E-mails are no longer written for this purpose. Instead, the team chat is used. As soon as Danielle types in a question, she gets an answer very quickly, sometimes different ones, because the colleagues have different ideas. Intermediate results are also not sent by e-mail. The platform ensures that changes to working documents are automatically synchronized with the colleagues.

And the multitude of web meetings? There aren’t many, either. Instead, the team meets once in the morning in a 15-minute standup and every two weeks in a team meeting via web conference. These are primarily intended to allow everyone to look each other in the face, even if only via webcam. In addition, the team captain provides the context for higher-level initiatives. This increases team spirit and energy. Since the team is spread over several countries, it is nothing new. Just the “Virtual Coffees” and “Virtual Wines” have only developed in the last weeks.

Norbert thinks about his Inbox, his meetings and the slowness of Solid & Co. He imagines how quickly Liquid Inc. must have adjusted to the crisis situation. Norbert is fascinated, at the same time countless questions shoot into his head:

  • Which technology does Liquid Inc. use for the internal communication platform to make it work so well?
  • How do you manage to get everyone involved in such a large company?
  • Can employees decide on their own responsibilities and what do the bosses say?

Thoughtfully and somewhat enviously, Norbert realizes: “Something like this never works for us, it would be chaos in no time!


Danielle replies that in the beginning things didn’t go well at Liquid Inc. either: “When the topic of collaboration was put on the agenda a few years ago, people thought that everything would be better just with new software. Soon the first enthusiasm was gone, and the technology was cursed. Some couldn’t log in and there were disconnections. The call for another software became louder and louder.

After IT had improved a few things, it was recognized the main problem is not really technology. For many conflicts’ technology is only the scapegoat. People did not participate because their work procedures did not require it or because they did not recognize the added value. Traditional, inefficient collaboration cannot become efficient just because software is used. It is much easier to rail against technology than to change your own behavior. But a functioning collaboration platform is only created when everyone participates.

Danielle remembers: “If we had approached things more strategically from the beginning, we could have been much faster.” Software can be installed quickly, but it takes a long time to re-motivate employees after initial attempts have failed. It wasn’t until the CEO announced the “new way of working together” as part of the company’s strategy that a plan was developed and the collaboration platform was born, which the employees of Liquid Inc. use today.

Neue Energie

The virtual meeting was coming to an end, but Danielle’s story had given Norbert courage. He feels a growing urge to change something at Solid & Co. How great might the unused potential be? And what is the best way to initiate the transformation? Even after the conversation, Norbert’s thoughts stay with the topic. The next morning, he sets off.

Airplane (by Amelie & Niklas Ohlrogge)

Remarks by the author

I wrote this story because I am convinced that in most companies there is a lot of untapped potential of communication and collaboration platforms. This belief has led me to start my own company “entrusted” in 2019.

Before that, I had the opportunity to experience for myself the effect such platforms can have. My experiences are gained in a DAX company where I was responsible for the introduction and operation of such platforms, first 7 years in IT and then another 7 years in corporate communications. Now we conceptualize and manage platform projects in various corporations.

As english is not my mother tongue, please indulge me.