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LESSONS LEARNED FROM COVID-19: INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many industries, turning business models on their ear and driving prices for commodities like steel through the roof. While COVID is still a part of our lives, we can look back at the last two years and see how the industry has changed while evaluating lessons learned about key business elements.
In part three of our series, we discuss how COVID affected IT departments across the construction industry and how we were able to keep our systems up to standard at the peak of COVID, including some advice to take with us.

Lexi:

Welcome back to another episode of Metal Minutes by Cornerstone Building Brands. I'm your host, Lexi, and this is part three of our lessons learned from COVID series based on our recently published white paper. In part two, we spoke about the impact of COVID when it comes to human resources, including safety protocols, identified obstacles and lessons we learned along the way. Today we're covering a big one, technology. We'll discuss how COVID affected the IT department and how we were able to keep our systems up to standard at the peak of COVID, including some advice to take with us. To help me do that, I've got Tyler Harmeyer, he is the director of IT here at Cornerstone. Hi Tyler, how are you?

Tyler:

Doing well. How are you, Lexi?

Lexi:

Doing well. So I mentioned earlier that this episode is going to be a big topic because technology is one of the main contributors to the way we do business, and that's not just us, it's for every business in existence. But COVID really took our normal way of doing business and turned it upside down. Would you agree?

Tyler:

Yeah, I mean, technology's been drastically impacted on the way we've done business prior to COVID, and how we're conducting business post-COVID. One of the big illustrations that we can use to show the difference between pre-COVID and post-COVID is most of us remember prior to COVID, very few of us had interaction with Teams or calling via our cell phones or our computers. We were hardly doing any video conferencing or working from home. Now today that that landscape's changed immensely, we're starting to return to office. We're trying to conduct business the same way that we've done during the pandemic. Which included some of the same technologies that we were quick to roll out because we had to during COVID, such as those same ones, video conferencing Teams calls, et cetera. Our infrastructure that we had prior to COVID was set up and speced out to support pre-COVID infrastructure requirements. Due to the nature and what the pandemic hit, much of the nation and the rest of the world, we all had to rush to roll out tools that could help us operate efficiently, remotely to protect both our employees and our business processes and applications.

Lexi:

That's great. So can you describe the strain that the pandemic put on companies, IT infrastructures, maybe specifically construction companies' IT infrastructures after the pandemic began?

Tyler:

Yeah, so I think the construction and manufacturing industry as a whole, they typically lag behind in terms of investments in infrastructure and technology over the past couple of years or decades in some cases. So as we transition to more of a remote workforce, we still had to have plant workers in place. But a lot of our shared services across multiple organizations went to lockdown and started working remotely. And we look at a lot of the tools that we leverage today, even post-COVID thinking. I think you know of Teams, AudioVideo, abilities to VPN and be able to work remotely. Those demands greatly increased during COVID. So thinking about infrastructure that most of these organizations have at these different sites really truly hadn't got much attention until COVID. So trying to put new technologies on top of aging infrastructure was a challenge for most organizations as they had to upgrade their foundational systems to be able to support both remote workers and new ways of working and new tools that the different departments and teams were implementing throughout the organizations.

Lexi:

Did working from home complicate those matters further, or was that something that we were able to kind of taking stride?

Tyler:

At least for us, working from home, it kind of did both, right? There was a big rush inthe beginning to roll out some new tool sets and some cloud hosted applications for people to be able to work from home and communicate. A lot of companies use Zoom. We use Teams. At the point in time, we were still on our infancy rolling out Teams. So we had to get that out pretty rapidly and get the community accustomedto using it. I think that was a big learning curve, not just for our organization, but formost organizations on how to work intelligently remotely using those new tools and capabilities. But ultimately, it really didn't put much of a strain on us from a pandemic standpoint until people started trying to return to office and function the same way they had been working remotely for the past year and a half, two years.

Lexi:

Okay. No, that makes sense. So in your opinion, how can construction companies take a more proactive approach in their IT infrastructure instead of the reactive approach that we saw a lot during the pandemic?

Tyler:

Yeah, so that's a good question. I think companies can be proactive by diligently investing into their IT platforms, infrastructure, applications and services, right? A lot of us in the construction and manufacturing industry like to say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, is the running model, right? But in today's day and age, technology advances on a day to day basis. And we see it a lot in cybersecurity areas, right, where organizations fail to adopt the new norms or implement the new security policies or standards or replace aging equipment that exposes them to potential security threats.

Tyler:

So I would say making sure that you're on a rolling refresh, wherever that is for your organization. But it's four, five years for certain assets. Making sure that you are doing regular quality checks on your equipment just as you would do safety checks, and ensure everything's in good working order. For us, we had challenges securing equipment. So making sure you have either access to equipment on standby if something fails or you have a good back stock to support if a critical system or application were to go down. And that you're not constrained by supply chain issues.

Lexi:

Okay. That's great advice. So now standing here where we are, two and a half years after the emergence of COVID, what are the most notable changes that IT departments have made across the US?

Tyler:

I think that, probably the most notable is that the spend regarding IT, kind of already touched on earlier. There's been a lot of investment in IT over the past two years. One, to enable those remote work from home, but two, as we support the return to office and people trying to work the same as they did in the past. So when we talked about it earlier, we talked about how majority of these sites and the construction, manufacturing industry hadn't been touched in years or decades. So during the COVID pandemic, we rolled out a bunch of new tool sets, as many new organizations did. So that aging infrastructure at the sites as people began to returnto work, no longer supported the new capabilities. So as we were coming out of the pandemic, we realized that we had to invest substantial amount of money into our existing sites to take advantage of capabilities and functionalities that were not there prior to the COVID pandemic.

Lexi:

Okay. So thinking back to 2020 and 2021 when COVID was ramping up and was at its peak, what were some of the biggest obstacles that you and your team faced in the IT department with the rollout of work from home, server limitations, et cetera?

Tyler:

So I think our biggest challenge that we continue to face today, I mentioned earlier, was the supply chain issues. We have some cases where people are ordering laptops and it's six months plus. We've done what we can to secure machines and devices for new hires. And we've got safety stock of those. But anything special order outside of those continues to be a challenge.

Lexi:

Okay. Now, looking back over the last few years and taking into account everything that we've learned, how would you say that COVID has affected not just our business, but the entire construction industry in the long term?

Tyler:

I think that hits home on all the topics that we've discussed today. It's not just us struggling, construction industry, manufacturing industry. But is always known for being one of the last two embraced technology, right? It's used in user equipment until it dies. And so what the industry is tending to do as a whole is they're reinvesting in technology throughout this pandemic. One, because they have to, because they've modified the way that they work pre and post pandemic. And two, to be a competitor in our space, ultimately today, a lot of your competitive advantages, how you can go to market quicker and easier. And a lot of that is through technology enablement.

Lexi:

Yeah, I think it's safe to say that we're definitely living in an age of technology. Everything is right at your fingertips at any moment. So I would say that that makesa lot of sense. So if there was one piece of advice that you could give in regards to technology or lessons learned from COVID, what would that be?

Tyler:

One recommendation across the board, no matter what organization you are, how big or how small, right. We've all seen it, especially during COVID. There continues to be bad players out there. And bad players always prey on the week. Fortunately for us, we're big enough to have a cybersecurity team and implement new policies and procedures and conduct audits on our security postures, but remain diligent out there regarding anything that looks suspicious. One of the biggest things that comes across, many of you have probably been educated on fishing attempts from malicious links that are sent via email by people pretending to be someone else. Make sure that you're regularly changing your passwords. Make sure you're reviewing your security policies, and always report any suspicious activity to your teams to ensure that you're able to catch those bad players before something turns malicious. I think that's a pretty relevant in today's day and age. We've seen it happen to pretty much every major company in the last few years.

Lexi:

Kind of going back to basics there, right?

Tyler:

Absolutely.

Lexi:

That's great, Tyler. Well, this has been a great conversation today. Do you have any parting words for our listeners?

Tyler:

No, I think that pretty much encapsulated it all. It's ever a changing environment. I'm sure we'll continue to have lessons learned as we go on beyond the COVID era. But it has fortunately or unfortunately helped expedite a lot of our initiatives in technology. And a lot of those will be realized here with... are currently being realized by many of these other projects that are set to be delivered in the next 12 to 24 months.

Lexi:

Sounds great. Well, I really appreciate you joining me to discuss this topic. I know that this one is, like you said, ever changing, but it's ever growing as well. I think that technology is always going to be something that we need to be discussing in our businesses always and keeping it at the forefront. So I really appreciate you providing us some insight into your world.

Tyler:

Yep, no worries. Thank you.