Hotels, schools, airlines, and malls are emptying because of COVID-19 virus concerns. Stocks and interest rates have slipped back to Obama administration levels. Economists worry that a deep recession looms.
But John Beattie is busier than ever. “I’m just plain crazed with opportunity,” says Beattie, a principal consultant at Wayne-based Sungard Availability Services, who has been helping media, telecom, and financial companies plan for infectious-disease outbreaks, as well as storms, hackers, and other data disasters.
Sungard, which has nearly $1 billion a year in sales, was spun off by Sunoco in 1983 and now employs 3,000 at offices and “hardened” data centers in 45 cities in the U.S., Europe, and India. Those outposts include 2.1 million square feet — nearly as large as the two Comcast towers — in converted Center City auto and drug factories.
Beattie tells companies they have three, broad antiviral goals:
“First is providing people with a safe workplace, where social interaction is minimized. Home is a safe workplace, typically. But truck drivers, plant employees, service folks cannot work remotely. So it comes down to providing them as safe a workplace as possible.
“Two, deal with the unavailability of personnel. Folks will get ill. Or they will have family members who are ill,” and need tending, or force a worker into quarantine. “You will be understaffed. You may have to close an office. Any reduction-in-force means more errors, less productivity.
“Third is the changes in business dynamics," some of which could prove permanent — destructive, or even liberating.
For example, coronavirus prep raises tough questions about commercial real estate: The more who can work from home, the less space may be needed for a fancy downtown tower. “We had a meeting, and the client told us, ‘We just realized we are not using all this space and we are not losing productivity. Maybe we can cut that back,' ” Beattie says.
If a retail customer gets used to relying on Amazon after Gov. Wolf closed “nonessential retail” in Montgomery County, will they resume visiting stores? If a branch-banking regular finally feels forced to use the smartphone app, will they find they like it better? Either way, brace for a flood of help-desk calls.
Manufacturers like Tesla, which depended heavily on China-based suppliers that stopped work due to coronavirus, were hit fast and hard, Beattie added. “We are all learning that you don’t want to rely on a single source of anything.” So steps that looked like cost-cutting end up creating new expenses: “Anything you do to save money, increases your risk” in ways that need planning.
It has helped that since 2010, many companies have added remote systems to link workers and companies via smartphone and laptop. “We are absolutely getting more calls,” says Guy Fardone, chief executive at EvolveIP, a 400-person, Wayne-based company that uses Microsoft and Cisco products to build mobile and dispersed communications and data systems for call centers and other employers.
“You can see how Comcast built two huge towers to put a lot of people in offices in Philadelphia. But Comcast also has a huge proportion of people who now work remotely.”
These firms, with services “in the cloud,” have moved more easily to coronavirus protection schedules, and some multi-office medical and law practices are now rushing to sign up so at least their back-office staff can more easily work from home, Fardone said.
Bosses should plan for a drop in individual productivity as workers move home, says Sungard’s Beattie. There’s an adjustment and learning period, and the threat will rise from ransomware extortionists and other hackers who see distributed systems as an invitation. “This has the potential to increase your risk of being attacked successfully by bad actors.”
He’s been surprised that large financial institutions, which built up emergency offices after 9/11, didn’t jump more quickly to activate them in response to coronavirus and the inevitable restrictions on exposed traders and staff.
“The New York firms all have alternative trading stations. They are fully powered. The software is kept up to date." But his visits so far this month still showed "lots of people running around next to each other in tight spaces.” He said Nasdaq’s steps to create a backup office in Philadelphia Navy Yard office, which I reported on March 11, made it an early adopter in Wall Street’s coronavirus reaction.
Beattie is doing some of his own infectious-disease consulting long-distance, under the growing travel restrictions. He warns that workers from home should expect that the boss has many ways to measure productivity, or at least their attention. If you share company software or equipment, “there are ways to monitor IP addresses and how long people are not only connected but actually pushing keys,” he says. “There’s no way you can avoid being monitored, if the company wants to monitor you.”
The longer the pandemic lasts, the more companies are likely to change, he adds. “If people don’t build up immunity, if you can catch this and get it again, this has the potential to run for quite some time. So organizations have to be thinking long-term."
As digital-era epidemics pile up, are organizations getting smarter and better prepared? Beattie worries that we are distracted: “Memories are getting shorter on these dramatic events. We very quickly forget, move on, and then have to revitalize that thinking next time there is a real or potential threat.”
He concludes that disaster plans, like physical infrastructure, need regular maintenance: Sungard built an infectious-disease management plan several years ago for one client in financial services. “They called Friday and asked us to come in and refresh it,” to update contacts and software links. "They didn’t maintain it since we built it two and a half years ago,” he marveled. “I had to tell them, ‘We have so many other clients, I can’t jump on that for several weeks.’ ”