By Jeff Spears

The Synectics Response to the Pandemic – An In-Progress Review

The Beginnings of the Pandemic

During a January 2020 Quality Risk Management meeting, Synectics leadership identified a risk to operations based on a report of human-to-human transmission of a novel coronavirus in China that was spreading to other countries in the region. At the time we assessed the risk of a global pandemic as low, but we assessed the potential impact as high. Therefore, Synectics conducted a tabletop exercise at the end of January to identify potential impacts on operations across all key operational, program, and functional areas. Based upon the results of this exercise, we updated policies, enhanced systems, communicated with key customers and vendors, and discussed how (and whether) we could operate if we had to work remotely for 30 days.  As the signs of a pandemic began to appear by early February, Synectics made the decision to share our exercise template openly through several pathways including LinkedIn and the NOVA Hispanic American Chamber of Commerce. This material was viewed over 1000 times during the first week by people across the United States, Europe, and Asia. See: COVID19 Threat Mitigation Virtual Table Top: Case Study

In less than six weeks, and under two months after the identification of the potential risk, on March 8, 2020, Synectics President, Ana Hirsbrunner, activated our remote telework plan for all personnel assigned at the Corporate Headquarters. Within a week, all our Government customers activated their remote work policies resulting in our workforce being entirely remote before the end of March.

Transition to Telework

Synectics transitioned its headquarters staff to telework over a 24-hour period with no notice other than what was being observed in the press. We had established as our trigger a confirmed report of a COVID-19 infection in the Arlington, Virginia area because of concerns that the METRO system could become a vector for the rapid spread of the disease. We found the lessons we learned during the tabletop exercise to be invaluable. All personnel had the equipment and accesses established to work remotely; weakness in the payroll system was identified and resolved, and Human Resources had already prepared a plan to recruit and onboard new employees remotely. IT was prepared to issue equipment to new employees and to coordinate with government security personnel to facilitate the issuance of necessary equipment. Although the new environment was unusual and required staff to adjust to the new conditions, Synectics’ planning and rehearsal prior to the activation of the telework policy resulted in a continuity of business without any delay or impact upon our ability to support our customers.

The value of this planning was further shown when, during the lockdown, we had received an award of a follow on and more complex contract with our largest customer. Transition activities and the kick-off meeting were conducted during March after both Synectics and the customer had transitioned to a telework environment.  Our ability to execute these activities during the early phases of a Pandemic shutdown without additional cost or delay, to include the onboarding of new employees, was formally recognized by our customer as an example of exceptional performance during a period of crisis.

Telework Continues

Our January 2020 Tabletop exercise was based upon a scenario where, because of human-to-human spread of what is now known as COVID-19, all offices were ordered closed without notice by government officials in the City of Arlington for 30 days. Of course, we are now 150 days into our telework posture, but we found that the scenario helped us to address issues as they arose in the extended shutdown. We also realized that extended telework gave rise to a different set of challenges and opportunities than those considered in the 30-day scenario initially exercised.

We found that the following areas needed to be addressed as it became apparent that the shutdown would endure: training sessions on how to improve efficiency and manage work-life balance in a telework environment; maintaining collaborative communication and synchronization of activities while remote; and, the preparation of a “Return to Office Plan” that explained how it would be conducted and included flexibility for the myriad of circumstances that could impact employees once they return to the office begins.

We undertook several activities to address issues related to working efficiency and work-life balance during an extended telework environment. We provided guidance to minimize scheduling widely attended meetings after 2:30 to help provide blocks of uninterrupted work time. HR arranged training sessions on managing work-life balance in a remote environment led by a professional coach, and HR also provided after-hours non-work-related opportunities for engagement.

We maintain collaboration and coordination thru two thirty-minute widely attended meetings: The morning BD Stand-Up, and the Noon COO Meeting. These two meetings have proven critical to maintaining a cohesive working environment while ensuring activities are properly synchronized and deconflicted. This practice has also reduced the number of additional meetings since information is shared across functional and operational areas during both standing meetings.  In conjunction with this, we placed greater emphasis on formal staffing of actions for decision in order to mitigate the risk that comes from the loss of routine interaction in the office environment.

Planning for the Return to the Office

Developing the Return to Office plan also identified numerous challenges that needed to be planned for and addressed. To bring these challenges into better focus, HR conducted another tabletop exercise that focused on identifying and addressing employee concerns, ensuring a safe workplace that will meet or exceed applicable standards, and identified circumstances that could impact employees as a result of the continuing impact of the COVID pandemic. This process was complemented by the distribution of anonymous surveys that captured employee attitudes and concerns regarding returning to the office when circumstances permit.

These activities resulted in several themes that were integrated into our return to work plan. First, Synectics will lag behind government guidance. Second, Synectics will not reopen its corporate office in Arlington, Virginia until Northern Virginia, Montgomery County, and the District of Columbia all reach Phase 3 and refrain from discouraging companies from returning to offices. Third, Synectics will not reopen the office until at least 14 days have passed after the implementation of these government actions. Lastly, this phase of office reopening will be elective for employees and the number of personnel in the office will be restricted. We will require masks and social distancing during all gatherings, and we have already procured proper PPE that will be available to all employees.  We refer to this phase as the “Elective Reopening Phase”, which will continue until it safe for everyone to return to the office in a normal state. The office will not fully reopen until approved by the Synectics President and after the end of continuous COVID-19 transmission in the DMV area.

Final Thoughts

To date, Synectics has managed this unprecedented challenge without the loss of our ability to deliver exceptional service to our customers while taking steps to protect our employees from a greater risk of infection. Though the operating environment remains challenging, we have been successful at identifying the risks, planning for these risks, and most importantly protecting our workforce by taking steps to mitigate the risk of spread. While the future path of this pandemic remains uncertain, Synectics will continue to plan, study the available data, and to take the steps necessary to protect our workforce and meet the needs of our customers.