Leading a growing team of product and technology professionals comes with the excitement of collaborating with the best talent to build industry-leading services. However, keeping everyone aligned on both the long-term strategy and the immediate requirements is a daily challenge.
Throughout the pandemic, these aspects of my job at SiteMinder were heightened, as we doubled down on the drive to develop products that would help our hotel customers succeed when the impacts of limited travel abated. At the same time an almost overnight shift to company-wide remote working forced us to redefine what successful collaboration (a process that usually involved a lot of face-to-face interaction and whiteboards) should look like.
While there were many potential distractions and temptations during the pandemic to pivot our business towards, what was critical for motivation and confidence was maintaining our focus on the strategic programs of work we knew would surprise and delight our customers; alongside delivering a couple of tactical initiatives to alleviate COVID-driven customer needs. We then turned our focus to our ways of working.
Realigning our work habits
New initiatives like Open Working @ SiteMinder, which allow staff to choose how and when they work remotely or from the office, provided everyone with the autonomy to consciously choose working environments that suited their needs. We also introduced Social SiteMinder, whereby all managers were given their own budget to organise team events, rather than being dictated to by executive or global mandates.
Collaboration sessions that had involved lots of Post-it notes were digitised overnight. We explored new tools allowing us to mimic our typical physical whiteboarding sessions, and we found we needed many more alignment meetings than usual to ensure everyone was on the same page. When you don’t have everyone in the same room, it’s harder to gauge how actively people are listening and you can’t see the body language to understand how well something has landed.
At the same time, we took the opportunity to step up our customer research capability and testing efforts to ensure we had the evolving needs of our customers at the forefront of our product development. Team members now have much more empathy for our customers’ context and needs, and it helps us all to focus on real people and real needs versus “highfalutin” ideas.
Once we were allowed to return to the office, it was a good time to run regular small group events to keep the spirit and culture of SiteMinder alive and integrate new team members. People need to feel a sense of team, start forming the relationships required to get their jobs done, and create a connection with the organisation. Communication has always been important, but working remotely puts additional emphasis on this and it takes much more effort and energy to be engaging on Zoom or Hangouts than it does in person.
In more personal settings, whether in one-on-one meetings or small groups, I make sure I check in at the start to see where people are at. I always ask, “What’s your number out of 10?” and then something more personal like, “What’s the best thing that happened to you today?” or “What’s challenging you this week?” This helps to understand where people’s energy is at and how much effort I need to put in, as well as giving me and the rest of the group an insight into what’s going on for everyone.
Even so, keeping spirits high and maintaining innovative mindsets during a pandemic is easier said than done. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) recently found that three-quarters of companies are prioritising innovation in 2021, though only 20 percent of businesses are ready and equipped to innovate. Meanwhile, healthtech and medtech companies were standout innovators in 2020, accelerating the pace of capabilities like vaccine readiness to unprecedented levels. Australia also experienced a spike in new science and medtech startups to reflect the boost in consumer interest in tech-led health and science innovations.
These seemingly contrasting findings could be explained by organisational psychologist Dr Amantha Imber’s theory: that creativity thrives on constraint and that “constraints can be a catalyst for activating and harnessing new and better ideas”. Consequently, when industries such as healthcare and medicine were under enormous pressure to deliver specific outcomes within tight timeframes, they were actually better positioned to thrive than companies or industries working from a blank canvas.
Drawing innovation from our customers’ ‘constraints’
Hotels have been trying for years to catch up with the tech-driven appetite of their guests, who are increasingly expecting everything from booking, checking in, entering their room, ordering service, checking out, and leaving a review to be a seamless and intuitive digital experience. Furthermore, the industry has a history of being highly susceptible to cybersecurity attacks, and the pandemic introduced new levels of vulnerability and threats among hotels for scammers to take advantage of.
Keeping our customers’ ambitions top of mind, balanced with what they could realistically manage amid the pandemic, we quickly introduced features, capabilities and technologies behind the scenes to set them up for success when facing their guests in the real world. This included enforcing two-factor authentication to reduce the risk of successful phishing attacks, introducing a new security monitoring platform that identifies more advanced threats, and enhancing our anti-fraud controls and processes.
During the pandemic hotels were also under severe pressure to upgrade their online presence and capabilities to meet the changing needs of travellers. There was a sudden shift from corporate to leisure travel, from international to domestic holidays, and from long-term planning around seasons to short-term opportunistic trips. We saw many rural hotels thrive with a change in customer base, hotels on state borders rapidly transition to catering for interstate travellers by car, and many city-based hotels pivot to being quarantine stations.
Once we understood our customers’ challenges and needs during the pandemic, which was and continues to be an ongoing exercise in customer communications, data analysis, and feedback loops, we could then direct where our motivation, creativity, and innovation should go.
It is through this lens that we are planning for the future across our product, security, and technology teams. Our new ways of working are designed for the long-term, but remain flexible with the expectation that there will be ongoing changes to our economy throughout and following the rollout of the vaccine. Most importantly, our focus on hoteliers and their changing needs continues to be at the forefront of our business and technology strategies – the more focused our efforts, the greater the innovations that can be delivered to them.
As originally published in Women in Security Magazine.