When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, Jason Chong and his IT team were on the frontlines of establishing cybersecurity protocols for the firm and ensuring everyone could work from home in the new remote environment. The smoothness of the remote transition, and the IT team’s high-quality service year-round in helping our professionals handle unforeseen technical issues, resulted in them winning the Clark Nuber Values Award in 2020.
We recently sat down to talk with Jason about what the last couple years have been like for him and his team, how they worked together to overcome remote hurdles, and how he helped lead Clark Nuber through the global crisis.
You and your team are responsible for the overall cybersecurity of Clark Nuber. How has your role evolved since the pandemic began?
“I wouldn’t say our role has evolved, necessarily, but the pandemic definitely widened the scope and put a spotlight on data security, especially with a majority of users now taking their laptop and working from home. Security has always been top of mind for my team and I, but now it’s a priority outside of IT as well.
Traditionally for our firm, work-from-home was a minimal event. Now, it’s largely a requirement. So, when the pandemic began, we quickly had to analyze if any new risks were being introduced or had been elevated due to the number of users working from home. We had to worry about insecure home networks, users sharing their laptop with household members, and even kids accessing their parents’ laptops since they were now home 24/7.
I think our role has really shifted from putting the break/fix and technical support side of our jobs first, to putting security first and constantly evaluating and evolving our security practices and policies as the environment changes.”
A lot was still unknown at the start of the pandemic in terms of quarantines, office closures, etc. How did you navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic and provide clarity as a leader?
“I think it was mostly about just being open, flexible, nimble, and communicating with the other departments and our CEO to make sure we were all in alignment.
The majority of the credit goes to my team though, for being willing to do whatever was necessary. They would often check with others in the firm to see if there were any needs that we weren’t hearing about. We had an “all hands on deck, let’s power through this” mentality, and we did whatever it took to make things work.
People say I showed leadership, but I couldn’t have done it without my team. They were coming into the office whenever it was needed. They were core team players.”
As a leader did you feel pressured to have all the answers in an uncertain time?
“I never felt pressure. I mean, there was a lot that was asked of our group at the time. But it’s always been my philosophy to power through and knock big lists of tasks off. So, my team and I just did whatever was needed and requested of us when the pandemic started.”
What were those early days of COVID-19 like for you and your team? And did you foresee that we’d be transitioning to a remote-work model?
“I would say hectic, but, reflecting back, it could have been worse if Clark Nuber had not previously invested in technology and been open to improving security measures in past years.
Before COVID-19, we had already moved to deploying laptops for all our users, but this was mainly done so that they’d have flexibility if the need arose to work remotely on occasion or if they needed to bring their laptop to a meeting. Never did the thought cross my mind that a pandemic would force a closure of the office and all staff would be required to work from home for a prolonged period of time.
Ongoing investments in technology and capacity, and purchasing hardware early that allowed us to grow, was the biggest life saver. We had previously built out our backend remote infrastructure for additional capacity. Thankfully, the firm’s forward thinking paid off, and everything ran smoothly from the onset in terms of bandwidth and capacity for our remote connections.”
Tell me about the transition period to all-remote work. Was it difficult? Had you taken earlier steps that made the process easier?
I think the hardest part of the transition was making sure all our users had the technology that they needed to work from home. Our Human Resources team had previously introduced a remote worker model for a few users who lived in other states, so the foundation for what users would need was already there. But, as we found out, many users had unique requirements as well, either due to their job functions, space constraints, and sometimes even physical limitations based on where they lived.”
How did you coordinate and communicate with your team for the all-remote roll-out? I imagine there were a lot of “boxes” to check to ensure everyone in the firm was set up safe and securely.
“I wish there was a checklist, but due to the rapid move to work-from-home, the checkboxes created themselves on the fly. And my team just had to power through and figure it out and try to do the best that we could, especially since everyone’s home setup was unique, and we really had no “eyes” on the full picture of what we were supporting.
With remote support being the main method during quarantine, we had to adjust our whole traditional support structure and really figure out how to aid and advise all these users remotely in a very challenging time. Luckily, our team had adopted Microsoft Teams as our collaboration platform, so our internal communications didn’t need to change and, having been on that platform already, we had the technology in place to stay in constant communication.”
What were the largest hurdles you didn’t see coming? And how did your team handle them?
“The largest hurdle was overcoming some users’ poor at-home internet. From families all working or going to school online, and the introduction of video meetings as a core communications tool for both adults and kids during the pandemic, the strain on the Internet connection was larger than we would have imagined. Other issues involved outdated and misconfigured hardware and being in a location that didn’t have good residential internet available.
In the beginning, we took these issues on a case-by-case basis. But as we started to hear more and more about these connection issues, we had to start analyzing and developing a more sustainable plan to test the issue and help alleviate it.
Unfortunately, there may not have been solutions for every problem. But our goal was to help users try to understand their issue and find a solution if possible. From changing wireless configurations, to recommending new home network equipment, to advising users to upgrade their Internet service plans, my team did it all to get users’ connections as fast and stable as possible.”
Do you think the nature of the IT field will have changed now that remote work is so prevalent?
“Yes and no. The field of technology is always changing and that was the case even before the pandemic. The pace of change has just increased exponentially due to the pandemic, and I don’t see that stopping or slowing down. If anything, it’s just going to move faster and faster.
I think end users are now more adept than ever in finding solutions that both help streamline their work and provide them the capacity to take care of all their home and work responsibilities. As an IT team, I think the traditional control we used to like to have needs to be re-evaluated. We still need control for security reasons, but we also need to work together with all our ends users and groups to find new and novel solutions to provide the ultimate flexibility for our users.”
Were there any particularly innovative approaches that your team came up with for responding to the pandemic that you’re proud of?
“Organizationally, I think Clark Nuber was innovative with our Work-at-Home Technology Purchase Program, especially with how early we rolled it out during the onset of the pandemic. The firm provided all our staff with funds to purchase work-from-home technology that replicated their in-office workspace. The list initially included monitors, docking stations, keyboards, and mice, but it later expanded to include webcams, wireless network systems, stand-up desks, and task chairs as we settled into the long quarantine.”
Your team was recognized at last year’s all firm meeting for their exceptional work. What would you say the secret is to your success?
“My entire team is awesome. Honestly, I don’t think any of what I personally do is that important right now. They’re the ones always out there helping people, and that’s the core of what we do.
There was so much unknown during the early part of the pandemic and my whole team really stepped up and had the mindset of doing whatever was needed to get the job done. They, along with a group of others from across all our departments, were our essential workers, coming into the office when needed while many others were able to shelter-in-place at home. I don’t think they’ve said “no” to anything in the last two years.”
This article is part of the Learning, Adapting, and Growing: Leadership Perspectives series, which explores the role of leadership from a diverse array of perspectives. Each article is written by a Clark Nuber leader who shares their ideas on the unique challenges and opportunities they have experienced, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
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