As COVID-19 vexes the world, SAP is helping its employees and customers lean into change
In early March, SAP North America’s President DJ Paoni began what has become his biggest leadership test since joining what was then an emerging technology company in the 1990s. Global COVID-19 numbers were spiking exponentially, leaving everything from the Dow Jones Industrial Average to hand sanitizer supplies reeling in its wake. Global supply chains once praised for their efficiency and scale broke down as the pandemic left factories shuttered. As any business leader reading this knows, crisis isn’t a time for idling. Effective change leadership requires triage. In charge of the largest region for a company that touches close to 80% of the world’s transactions, Paoni established two clear priorities early on that have since served as SAP’s ‘North Star’ and a lesson for other leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic: ensure the well-being of the company’s 25,000 employees in North America and the resiliency of its nearly 440,000 customers.
Steering employees through disruption
Given how quickly the virus’ impact has evolved, the global health pandemic has brought new meaning to scenario planning for Paoni. “Consider the very early days of COVID-19,” he said, “virtually little was known about the pandemic and how far it might spread. But uncertainty isn’t an excuse for inaction. We ran through scenario after scenario trying to confidently map how we could leverage our IT infrastructure and years of investment in innovation to enable SAP employees to transition to remote work virtually overnight.”
SAP has a well-established crisis team dedicated to supporting colleagues and customers through unforeseen business disruptions. The crisis team immediately established a specialized pandemic taskforce of employees and advisors from facilities management, IT, communications, the medical field, finance and business operations—all equipped and trained to lead an effective response. “We absolutely wouldn’t have been in the position we were in to effectively respond if it hadn’t been for preparation,” Paoni said. “A crisis response plan isn’t something buried in a drawer collecting dust, and the beginning of a crisis certainly isn’t the time to wish you had thought about a response plan earlier.”
The first swift action for SAP came when Paoni sent an email to all North America colleagues informing them that SAP would begin closing offices, restricting non-essential travel, and ensuring every employee that they could order the equipment they needed to work remotely. This wasn’t just limited to salaried employees either. As hourly workers who are critical to SAP’s facility operations were faced with reduced hours, Paoni assured those workers that they would receive their full wages despite facility closures.
Furthermore, recognizing that many employees were parents and now-stay-at-home teachers in light of schools closing, Paoni instituted a crisis leave policy for employees, allowing colleagues to take additional days off as needed to manage childcare and other unforeseen challenges related to COVID-19. “Empathy has to be at the core of your value set as a business leader, and in our mind, we wanted to give assurance to everyone in the SAP family that we would be there with them through this challenging time,” Paoni said.
How employee change management evolved with the virus
Now several months into the global health pandemic, how has Paoni’s leadership with employees evolved? “Creating a two-way communication stream with employees is absolutely essential to helping us understand what is top of mind for our employees as their needs change in a remote work environment,” Paoni said. SAP’s own Experience Management tool, Qualtrics, played a pivotal role in gauging this sentiment so he and his response team could make real-time adjustments to SAP’s policies and benefits. One of the biggest learnings from this exercise: The resources, communication, and assistance your employees need in the early days of a crisis could very well change as time goes on. “We saw that with the shift to working from home, many of our employees were finding it harder to shut down, which was having an adverse effect on their mental health,” Paoni shared. “With that information, we instituted an ‘Out of Home Office Day’ holiday to help curb burnout and give employees an extra day to log off, spend time with family, and come back refreshed.”
Paoni has worked with his leadership team to provide opportunities for employees to get involved with local communities who have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. As a board member of GENYOUth, a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing healthy, high-achieving school communities, Paoni recognized an immediate challenge as a result of the more than 124,000 school closures across the US. “This scale of school closures across the country has never happened before,” Paoni said. “Many families rely on schools for their kids’ meals, and schools during this time are not just serving their own students, they are making food available for any child under the age of 18. I saw a gap in the ability for schools to connect the meals they were still producing with the families who needed them most.” To address this issue, SAP employees built SAP4Kids, an app that offers families an intuitive way to find reliable and accessible assistance in their communities.
The pro bono effort, built in a matter of days, arrived at a time when needs were at their peak. At present, there are over 32,000 feeding sites included in the app across the entire US, with that number growing daily through crowd-sourced information and organizational adoption. “It’s important that families have the ability to locate the resources closest to them so that they can feed their children,” said Paoni. “This is what the app is all about—connecting supply with demand to keep our kids fed.”
Expanding the definition of customer success
In addition to ensuring the health and safety of SAP’s employees, SAP focused efforts on supporting its thousands of customers navigating newfound challenges of the pandemic. COVID-19 has accelerated trends that were already gaining traction in every industry—digital being one of them—and customers are turning to SAP to navigate through this change. Resiliency has become the primary focus and metric for success—and for its customers—and SAP plays an important part in their sustainability strategy.
“SAP supports mission-critical processes for thousands of businesses all over the world, so when macroeconomic challenges like COVID-19 surface, SAP is well positioned to help customers bolster their resiliency as they adjust for the near- and long-term future,” said Paoni. In addition to immediately providing free offerings of its software to help businesses in need, SAP’s mass network of customers across more than two dozen industries has enabled the organization to serve as a vital connector of supply and demand during the pandemic. In one such instance, Ram Tool Construction Supply contacted their SAP representative for help to source 500 hospital beds for a temporary facility outside New York City for COVID-19 patients in the height of the pandemic. With a quick search in SAP’s cloud-based procurement software SAP Ariba, another SAP customer, Joerns Healthcare, fulfilled the urgent order in less than 30 minutes.
But resiliency is more than being able to weather cash flow challenges or filling a supply order today. Paoni’s ongoing conversations with customers also include a focus on how they are positioning their company for success on the other side of COVID-19. “Industry-leading companies are in the position that they are now because they placed equal weight in operational excellence for today and continued innovation for tomorrow,” Paoni said. One example of how this has come to life in the age of COVID-19 is the heightened interest in cloud computing for the flexibility, speed, and time-to-value it delivers. CIOs, CDOs, CTOs, and other important executives are leading a renaissance in cloud computing as remote work continues for the foreseeable future and shifting customer behaviors surface opportunities for new business models.
Paoni’s guidance for leaders working with customers during times like these is to help them address today’s obstacles, but also challenge them to think bigger about the opportunity in front of them to increase their lead over the competition coming out of this pandemic. And for Paoni, support for SAP’s customers is not possible without his employees. “There’s a reason why the airline videos tell you to make sure you put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others,” he said. “The best way to ensure resiliency for your customers is to make sure your business and workforce are strong enough to do so.”
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