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Tech Leadership in the Next Normal: Prakash Kota on Returning to the Workplace

the next normal

Autodesk CIO Prakash Kota heads a workforce of more than 1,000 people in 21 countries around the globe. In the past four months, Kota and his team have spoken with hundreds of customers and employees as they grapple with the impact of COVID-19 on their business, their roles, and their lives. Now, as the workforce prepares to return, Kota shares his thoughts on how digital technology, automation, and strategic use of data can help shape and navigate “the next normal.”

Let’s begin by talking about the shift in work and the workplace. Where do you think we are, and what do you think things are going to look like during the next few months?
People have just adapted to this new way of working because we had to make the switch to a remote workforce overnight. So people had to figure out how to operate, how to collaborate with their peers while continuing to execute and deliver value to customers.

the next normal prakash kota
Autodesk CIO Prakash Kota. Illustration by Micke Tong.

But coming back to the next normal—whenever that is—will be a much slower process. Our top priority is keeping our employees safe, and we have proven that all employees are able to do what they need to do remotely. But having said that, a lot of us do want to go back to that work environment where we are hustling and looking over the desk and talking to somebody or having that coffee chat. We want to get back to that world.

So there will be lot of precautions, but the best thing about human beings is that we adapt so quickly. We will be able to adjust to those new norms, but it will take time.

What do you see from a technology perspective? What are you learning about how technology can support the return to the workplace?
The cloud continues to be a driver, and for those who have not embarked on the cloud journey, this is a wake-up call. The cloud is a huge advantage from a business-model standpoint because customers can access it from wherever they are.

The cloud requires foundational elements—from the underlying network to how people connect, keeping the consumer in mind without compromising on security. We’ve also been moving away from the idea that our network footprint is our security perimeter. Instead—especially as more workloads are “on the Internet” as opposed to being locked within our own network—we’ve been working toward a scenario in which employee identity is the security perimeter. Technologies such as single sign-on (SSO) and multifactor authentication (MFA) have already made this a reality for many of our workloads.

So that’s the critical element because, wherever we live in this world, we all have Internet access. If we lock down our systems and tools within our data center, and data has to crawl through that network depending upon the distance between your home and your data center, latency and performance will suffer. We have been adapting to a “zero-trust” model, which means that the system does not trust anyone by default, whether they are coming from within or outside the network, and which requires verification from everyone trying to gain access to resources on the network. This added layer of security has been shown to prevent data breaches.

What about the Internet of Things (IoT)? Are there ways of using sensors that could be helpful?
Our People and Places team is looking at all options. We’re looking at apps that permit people to check into a particular office location ahead of time. We also may ask them to self-certify that they have done their own temperature check to ensure we and our coworkers are safe and healthy.

the next normal susan etlinger
Author Susan Etlinger, senior analyst at Altimeter Group. Illustration by Micke Tong.

We also have to consider country and local laws. For example, in one of our offices in China, we have a limitation that we cannot have more than 50% of the population coming into work at one time. And if more than 50% of the population wants to go in at one time, we’ll run into a problem. So we are looking at all options where technology can help employees to be safe, healthy, productive, and effective so they’re not worried about what they’re getting into when they decide that they want to come in.

I would not be surprised if companies, as they plan to open their workplaces across the globe, start thinking about how many people are in a room—is it safe from a social-distance perspective? And cameras and systems should be able to sense and indicate to a cleaning person that a number of people have used a room, and it needs to be sanitized before somebody else uses it.

You can also look at the filters in air conditioners. If the room has a capacity of 16 people and three people are inside, you know what? Don’t increase the flow of the filters and air quality. But if there are 16 people in it, change the air quality rigorously so that it is cleaned to that capacity. And we could also get to a state where, when people walk in, there are sensors that identify their temperature; if their temperature is above normal, badge access to the building will be disabled until they go through additional tests. There are enormous opportunities for IoT; we just have to see how the real-estate folks and others across the globe decide to use it.

A lot of what you talked about is related to sensing; how can digital technologies give you more insight into the customer experience?
In this digital consumer world, everyone expects a personalized experience. Here are some things we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Leaning on data is important. COVID-19 is a one-of-a-kind large event and moving very fast. No one can predict from previous experience what will happen next and what customer behavior will be. Making optimal use of the data that we have about our customers is the key way to respond to this challenge. We want teams at Autodesk to break barriers to data access across business groups, channels, and customer segments—keeping customer privacy in mind—so we can define the best and most relevant actions and derive value for our customers during this difficult time.

2. Relevance and customer experience are key. We need to enable personalization at scale. Whatever the touch point—whether it is sending an email or talking to a customer about a problem we are trying to solve for them—we need to strive for a relevant and personalized experience.

In that context, we are working on capabilities that enable our customer success organization to leverage the power of data and machine learning to design personalized onboarding and adoption experiences and automate them at scale.

What about conversational technologies, especially since we hear so much about help desks being overwhelmed?
We’re going to see a lot of momentum in the ecosystem of chatbots and other conversational technologies. We have already deployed a lot of these tools for self-service, but people who have not are seeing an exponential investment in this space because now we don’t have people you can go to and have a conversation with over the desk or reach out to when you have questions.

the next normal
Illustration by Micke Tong.

Chatbots are becoming much more like digital assistants, because you need support when you work, and you may be working at a different time than the support specialist who usually sits next to you. This is where you need on-demand help and references that guide you to self-service. In most cases, you can have that conversation with a chatbot, and when you ask a question, it’ll deliver links to an article or a self-service option. So you don’t need to talk to a particular agent or call the help desk. And people are adapting to chatbots as long as the delivery of information is rich.

It’s similar with provisioning licenses. Previously, when you onboarded people, you’d raise a ticket, then wait for somebody to approve and activate it. It takes time. But now we are trying to leverage robotic process automation (RPA) and other technologies to say: “If you’re this profile of a user, you come from finance. We know these are all the applications you need to have.” And the bot automatically provisions and sends you an email showing you how to activate them and start working so you are not overwhelmed and wondering whom to ask. So these new ways of operating and onboarding will evolve.

In the past, if a collaboration tool had an issue, it wasn’t the end of the world. But in this new world, it could have a huge impact because everybody’s collaborating through these tools. As CIO, I need to know instantaneously when these tools have issues, so now I have monitoring tools that communicate to chatbots that can fix issues. So I would say machine learning, artificial intelligence, and bots will grow in use and importance.

Do you see any difference in the way you’re using data for decision making? Are there more requests for data? Different types of use cases?
If we look at the return to the workplace, understanding the overall physical workplace occupancy, application usage, patterns, and employee sentiment enables us to continuously measure satisfaction. And we can do different types of analysis with the data that we capture and continuously learn through this process. It’s not like we are all experts in how to set up this new workplace—it’s all new. So we go in with a plan, with our best intuition, and then people start coming in and having new experiences. We learn.

And how are we going to learn? Not by surveying people to death—we will be able to capture a lot of information from different data points and do real-time analysis in the cloud. And we can also give guidance to senior leadership and let them know what we are seeing. If a team has negative sentiment, how do we reach out to them? What’s not working? What is? What can we learn from teams that are having a positive impact? How are they operating?

“Everybody has said that productivity has gone up during shelter-in-place, but we are actually concerned in some cases. Are people burning themselves out?”—Prakash Kota, Autodesk CIO

The common denominator is that, right now, we’re all remote—we all have an equal playing field. But when suddenly 50% of the workforce is coming in, we need to make sure the people who are remote or choose not to come in are not at a disadvantage.

When we return to work—whether it’s 20%, 30%, or 50% of the population in one place—the level of dialog, the engagement, the productivity will be different, and we need to learn and give guidance in real time so folks can have continuous, engaging conversations and stay productive. So data will continue to play a huge role.

Have you seen anything unusual since shelter-in-place began?
Everybody has said that productivity has gone up during shelter-in-place, but we are actually concerned in some cases. Are people burning themselves out? Because this is not a sprint; this is a marathon. People are showing a lot of heroic effort in stepping up, and sometimes work is a distraction.

But now we need to realize, yes, even if you cannot go out, that doesn’t mean you sit in front of your screen forever. You need to figure out alternatives so that you don’t burn yourself out. Those are things we can capture through data and then educate managers so they can have an appropriate dialog with employees and give them whatever coaching and guidance they need. Data plays a critical role in looking at all of the different activities that are happening and helping us make quick adjustments to what we need to do.

So something like comparing performance reviews by employees who are remote versus on-site might be helpful because you can see if there is a disadvantage for the remote folks? What new metrics might emerge from this experience?
It could be; we need to figure out what those new metrics will be and make sure we give people equal opportunity to be successful wherever they are. We don’t want people who work remotely to be at a disadvantage. In a lot of cases, they don’t choose to be remote—we ask them to work remotely because it can be done effectively. So those are some of the things we need to coach managers on, too, based on how they calibrate or how they give performance feedback.

We also see the need to invest in building skills for managers in managing distributed and diverse teams. How we enable people to do their best work regardless of location will be key. This is where we need to continuously learn as an ecosystem, because none of us has gone through something like this before. It’s one of those quick-learning opportunities—how quickly can we react?

How can you take what you’ve learned during the past few months and integrate it into the business once things begin to stabilize? How do you continue that work?
The first is to have a closer connection between teams and leadership. We were discussing the other day what we think are the good things that happened during COVID-19 that we really want to take forward. For example, we have these BYOB [bring your own beverage] chat sessions with my global team, and we don’t talk about projects or goals; it’s more personal. It’s people wanting to share their stories, their stress. They can be vulnerable.

I’m vulnerable in those meetings. I’ve shared my own stories, and that started bonding all of us so much that people are able to speak up, and I’m spending more time with my global team. And I have a workforce of over 1,000 people. That’s something that we are talking about. How do we continue these informal conversations that we started during COVID-19? That’s one piece of feedback that employees gave, that having this informal connection with leadership is very powerful, and they want these kinds of conversations to continue when we come back to the workplace.

The next is decision-making. Decisions are being made very fast right now. We are trying to poke around to see how we’re set up now that people can come together and execute and deliver great outcomes.

We want the same attribute post–COVID-19, too. We don’t want to get back to needing a big committee to make all these decisions; we really want that to become our culture. And we’re explicitly sharing those stories so they can become part of our DNA and how we operate. Those real-time stories are very important.

We are doing this with our customers, too. We are reaching out. We are telling them we are there for them. And the goal is not about upselling to make more revenue; that has not even once been a discussion. The discussion has always been: How do we ensure that customers are continuing to be productive and leverage our software and continue to have strong businesses?

Finally, the whole notion of empathy definitely has come forward. The walls that were there before—all of them have gone away, and everybody wants to support each other. This is the time when we will see what true leadership is.

[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]

About the Author

Susan Etlinger is a globally recognized expert in digital strategy, with a focus on artificial intelligence, technology ethics, and data. She is director, AI & Innovation, at Microsoft and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Her TED talk entitled “What Do We Do With All This Big Data?” has been translated into 25 languages and has been viewed more than 1.3 million times.

Profile Photo of Susan Etlinger, Microsoft Director, AI and Innovation