Responding to COVID-19: How 7 Chicago Tech Companies Are Adapting Their Businesses

April 23, 2020

In the last few weeks, the following seven local companies have adjusted their business models to provide consumers with educational resources, temporary interest-free student loans and online learning.

Beyond temporary adjustments, however, many Chicago companies are planning for shifts in their respective industries.  

BallBox CEO Alexander Hejazi anticipates a greater dominance of e-commerce over traditional retail outlets. Nexus A.I. CEO Phil Alexander said that as the demand for freelancing and short-term roles increases, businesses will rely more and more on digital management tools. 

As product roadmaps and timelines shift, the following leaders emphasized the significance of overcommunication.

“Every day, our team is reminded of the importance of building a business that can grow, adapt and evolve with the world,” Hejazi said. 
 

Catalytic
Catalytic
Jimmy Samartzis
Managing Director

To help clients understand how to best enable a virtual work environment, Managing Director Jimmy Samartzis said Slalom is providing tech readiness and support. On a larger scale, the consulting firm is partnering with government institutions to help them fine-tune messaging around the pandemic. 

 

How are you shifting your products, pricing, sales positioning and business planning in response to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Some of our clients have been hit hard by COVID-19. Our primary concern is for those who are directly impacted, so we’re connecting with our clients just to check in and ensure that they and their families are well. 

We’re also working closely with major partners like AWS and Salesforce. Our onshore build capability across seven build centers in the U.S. and Canada is unencumbered by constraints that are showing up in international markets. 

Our commercial capabilities and partnerships help us support clients in the public sector, including governments accelerating their transition to digital services and looking to improve the efficiency of their services due to unforeseen volumes. 

We have made it a priority to offer to partner with and support mayors and governors with their responses to COVID-19. For example, we’re leveraging our data, analytics and insights capabilities to help inform policy changes and to bring visibility to needs across communities. We’ve developed and deployed tools to support healthcare leaders as they manage their operations in response to COVID-19. Recently, we moved up our annual food drive to help address the increasing challenges posed by food insecurity.

 

What steps have you taken to align your team around this shift, particularly with employees now working from home?

Our employees are accustomed to visiting with their clients and working from their client sites. This has enabled us to develop strong collaboration and virtual work capabilities. The shift to working from home has been relatively easy for us from a technology and capability perspective. What has been difficult, though, is the lack of in-person interaction with each other and our clients. We try to recreate virtual moments to connect, whether that’s through more frequent all-hands, client happy hours or via video calls. 

At the local market level, we’re focusing on the dynamics of each particular industry to create the right support and service model for the respective health of that industry. For example, our life sciences business is strong and our travel and hospitality business is weak, a direct correlation to the impact of COVID-19 on the health of those industries. We organize our service offerings and sales strategies accordingly — most importantly ensuring there is strong coordination across our now-virtual workforce. We’re investing in our people and in our clients to scenario plan and model.

The pandemic is giving rise to new ideas and forcing changes in long-held beliefs and behaviors.’’  

How do you think this shift will impact your business in the future? 

The long-term impacts are yet to be determined. We’re seeing a need to accelerate technology solutions development that enables our clients to quickly adapt and maintain loyalty with their customers. We’re seeing how critical data can be and believe our clients will want to dive deeper to transform their businesses into data-driven and data-enabled operations and offerings.

The pandemic is giving rise to new ideas and new companies and forcing changes in long-held beliefs and behaviors. Our people-first culture guides how we manage our firm and our relationships. COVID-19 is reminding us of the importance of caring for one another as the key measure to our collective success.

 

Calvin Sun
Director of Talent Management

Paylocity Director of Talent Management Calvin Sun says the team follows a “talent anywhere” hiring philosophy, meaning that they prioritize employee fit over where individuals are located. This thinking has made the adjustment to a remote work environment much more manageable, as about half the team already works from home. 
 

How are you shifting your products, pricing, sales positioning and business planning in response to the COVID-19 outbreak? 

At Paylocity, we leverage our technology to help our clients and partners solve problems and create great places to work. So, while much has changed during this pandemic, our approach has not. The company’s top priority continues to be the success, safety and well-being of our employees and the employees of our clients. 

Internally, we provide frequent and timely updates via our community platform to make sure employees stay informed and can raise concerns and offer feedback. Externally, we’ve tweaked our product roadmap to focus on the elements of our system that are most critical to the new way people are working. 

The Paylocity sales teams have been provided with additional resources to ensure they can connect with prospects in different ways. We have launched additional training and resources for the client support teams to help them manage through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act changes in our product suite. 

  

What steps have you taken to align your team around this shift, particularly with employees now working from home? 

Paylocity has always followed a “talent anywhere” philosophy, which focuses on bringing on the right talent for our business, regardless of where they are. This positioned us to be prepared for this current shift since 45 percent of the workforce was already remote. As we moved into the current environment, the entire company quickly went fully remote with the exception of a few individuals that need to be onsite due to their job requirements.

At the same time, we do understand that the way people work, and their personal needs, have changed dramatically. As such, we are ensuring that everyone has the equipment and resources they need to be successful at home. We’ve launched additional health and wellness resources such as virtual yoga and expanded medical benefits and partnered with a vendor for virtual resiliency training. Perhaps most importantly, our executive team is hosting weekly live Q&A sessions to promote two-way dialog, listening to our employees and keeping everyone informed.

We see this as an opportunity to grow as an organization.’’   

How do you think this shift will impact your business in the future? 

We see this as an opportunity to grow as an organization. We are taking everything we are learning to help our clients move quickly into a fully remote work setup, just as our employees have. This shift has also sparked more cross-team collaboration than normal. It’s more important than ever to pull together resources for our clients to help them navigate new ways of work. 

Alexander Hejazi
CEO

According to Hejazi, companies across industries should understand that business will not carry on as usual for an extended period of time. Instead, businesses must adjust to a new normal, while putting employees and customers first. The on-demand kiosk company is adjusting some core offerings by testing features such as disinfectant technology for its rental kiosks. 

 

How are you shifting your products, pricing, sales positioning and business planning in response to the COVID-19 outbreak? 

Every day, our team is reminded of the importance of building a business that can grow, adapt and evolve with the world. As COVID-19 began to impact regions across the globe, we took the time to stop and reflect on all the ways it could affect our customers and supporters. We also tried to strategize how BallBox could rise to the challenge of providing the right products, services and features in response to this new reality. 

Fortunately, the core foundation of our operating model was built to weather a storm like this. Our parcel management lockers improve delivery efficiency while adding a layer of security for package couriers and recipients. We are also dedicating resources to enhance our core offerings by testing features such as disinfectant technology for our consumer product rental kiosks. 

As for our pricing models, we are looking to ease the financial burden for our partners by offering leasing and flexible payment options during these difficult times. 

I think it’s critical to understand that business will not carry on as usual for an extended period of time.’’

What steps have you taken to align your team around this shift, particularly with employees now working from home?

Like many companies that have formed in the last decade, BallBox is a global team spread across the U.S., Europe and Asia. We built this team with an emphasis on complementary skill sets and a collaborative culture. And while we sacrificed proximity, we gained diversity in perspective that has proved invaluable in understanding and predicting the future of our industry. 

We had to develop ways to communicate effectively from the very beginning, working remotely and managing different schedules and time zones. We were therefore well-equipped to deal with the impact that COVID-19 had on the workplace. In regards to our daily operating practices, I think it’s critical to understand that business will not carry on as usual for an extended period of time. We need to acclimate to a new lifestyle temporarily. We are currently prioritizing supporting one another and being there for our customers. 

 

How do you think this shift will impact your business in the future? 

It usually takes years for substantial behavioral shifts to occur in the market. During this pandemic, however, we have seen people adapt to change in a matter of weeks. The dominance of e-commerce over traditional retail outlets has been cemented and we’re excited about the potential of this ecosystem moving forward. Shifts in behavior as a result of the pandemic have only shortened the adoption curve of systems like BallBox.

Over the next 24 months, we will accelerate deployment of our kiosks at apartments, hotels, beaches and parks across the U.S., improving e-commerce delivery logistics and enabling consumer product rentals at scale. We’re providing contactless solutions for e-commerce deliveries as well as a safe and convenient way for people to rent out products. 

 

Alexander said solutions that connect people are the way of the future. Employees around the globe have recently been relying on tools like Zoom and Slack to communicate with each other from their homes. The Nexus A.I. team hopes to leverage that trend with a cloud-based platform that recommends the teams and individuals most likely to succeed across projects.

 

How are you shifting your products, pricing, sales positioning and business planning in response to the COVID-19 outbreak?

The COVID-19 outbreak has pushed many businesses into a new operating model, where they must rely on remote and cross-functional teams. We have been aggressively advocating Nexus A.I. as the cloud platform that helps enterprises adapt to this new working paradigm. 

Over the last several years, more people are freelancing and full-time equivalents come into jobs with a much shorter expected tenure. The COVID-19 outbreak is likely to accelerate this change even further. 

As such, we are working to create easier paths to getting companies on our platform during a time where tools that create connectivity between people, like Zoom and Slack, are in such demand.

 

What steps have you taken to align your team around this shift, particularly with employees now working from home?

Our mantra right now is that everything needs to be over-communicated. When you are distributed across many locations, there are pockets of information that typically see the light in an office setting but may get left behind while you are all remote. 

We haven’t added a lot of meetings, but we have revisited meeting structures to ensure each one’s agenda allows us to extract input from everyone in an efficient manner. We have also had to become much more flexible with the understanding that home life will sometimes blend into periods previously dedicated to working.

Our mantra right now is that everything needs to be over-communicated.’’

How do you think this shift will impact your business in the future? 

Our vision is that Nexus A.I. will create a better infrastructure for connecting people to the right work opportunities. In our case, the vehicle for this is entirely cloud-based. It’s easy to optimize your talent when your company consists of 20 people on the same floor. It’s much more difficult if you’re remote or a large, distributed organization. 

While we are likely in for a stretch where companies are limiting spend on new vendors, we do believe that Nexus A.I. is a platform that is well-positioned for the future. 

 

CEO Sean Chou said that a healthtech client used Catalytic’s workplace automation solution to build a tool that allows them to collect responses across their national workforce, generating a daily report of employee health and productivity. 

 

How are you shifting your products, pricing, sales positioning and business planning in response to the COVID-19 outbreak?

We’ve been innovating our products and services to help our customers ensure digital agility during this uncertain business climate. From business continuity to workplace and resilience planning, our customers are leaning on our automation technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic. The continued spread of the coronavirus is pushing organizations to transform faster than ever before, and we’re helping them maintain uninterrupted work and services. 

For example, we’ve been helping companies assess risk and develop emergency response plans to the virus. We’ve partnered with audit, tax and advisory services company Grant Thornton to build a pandemic risk assessment tool with tailored resiliency plans.

We also understand the financial hardships that many companies are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. To do our part and mitigate this burden, we’re now offering free, unlimited access to our business continuity plan, which can be tailored to an organization’s needs for immediate use.

 

What steps have you taken to align your team around this shift, particularly with employees now working from home?

Our team has helped our customers roll out offerings to solve newfound challenges they’re facing as a result of the coronavirus. For example, a regional hospital in Illinois suddenly needed better labor-pool management. Their current solution was on-premise and they wanted remote access to a largely distributed workforce. Our team helped them quickly pivot to an entirely new process for managing their labor pool within four days. We created an integrated, end-to-end automated solution for onboarding and off-boarding.  

To keep our employees engaged, we’re actively evolving our human-centered workplace culture, virtually. We’re holding hangout sessions and lunches together over video conference. We’ve started a book club. We’ve set up chats for tips and tricks on working from home and we are communicating regularly. 

Employees have come up with creative ways to stay connected too. They’ve set up a virtual happy hour, created a digital workflow on our platform for an indoor fitness challenge, and shifted discussions in our gamer channel to virtual board games.

Organizations are realizing the need for digital agility and transformation.’’ 

How do you think this shift will impact your business in the future? 

In the long run, we expect to see an increased demand for our platform since organizations are realizing the need for digital agility and transformation. COVID-19 is forcing the digital transformation of organizations. 

As employees continue to work remotely, the pandemic is pushing leaders to think about adopting automation technologies at scale to improve their workflows and employee productivity. 

 

CEO Hao Liu said student loan finance company Boro is using its platform to lend support to students, offering educational online resources in addition to a one-month period of interest-free loans, up to $350.
 

How are you shifting your products, pricing, sales positioning and business planning in response to the COVID-19 outbreak?

We know that this is a difficult time for college students so we’ve focused on doing what we can to support them. Their school year ended abruptly, they had to scramble to get back home and many lost their jobs. Boro is offering one month of interest-free loans for up to $350 to help students deal with the shock of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Additionally, we’ve created a resource page on our website that provides educational content for students, such as information about the stimulus bill and financial tips for individuals whose schools have closed unexpectedly. 

 

What steps have you taken to align your team around this shift, particularly with employees now working from home?

Our team is focused on supporting students through this crisis. We hold video calls every day to make sure that everyone is caught up on the latest developments and our frontline employees are consistently giving us feedback about how their peers are reacting. We’ve also shifted our media focus to campus press so that we can offer our expertise in a time of uncertainty. 

With the increased focus on our mission, we’ve expedited our product pipeline.’’

How do you think this shift will impact your business in the future?

In many ways, our business has stayed the same. But with the increased focus on our mission, we’ve expedited our product pipeline. We’re close to launching a completely new version of the Boro app that will use machine learning to provide every student with personalized insights and financial education based on how and where they spend their money. 

For many students, the financial impact of this pandemic will last longer than just the quarantine period, so we’re taking steps to become a support system in the long term.

 

For edtech platform ThinkCERCA, the biggest barrier to success is access. A real concern for many of the company’s partner schools and districts is the ability to access technical devices and the internet, said CEO Walter Sherwood. For partners whose students don’t have access to devices at home, the team has created a number of lessons students can complete offline. 

 

How are you shifting your products, pricing, sales positioning and business planning in response to the COVID-19 outbreak?

The world of education, like all sectors, is being dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. In the last month, nearly every school across the U.S. shifted instruction to remote learning. Within a week of the first school closures, we shifted our strategy away from selling and toward being a go-to resource for districts and schools looking for a remote-friendly curriculum. Through June 30, we’re providing free licenses to any school or district. Additionally, we’ve built out a number of new resources for our customers to help them make the transition to remote learning. 

ThinkCERCA is actually in a great spot to support the remote needs of schools since we’re already a blended, web-based learning solution. Students can complete lessons online via our platform without the physical walls of a school building. The biggest barrier to being successful with a product like ours is access to devices and the internet, which is a real concern for many of our partner schools and districts. 
 

Students can complete lessons online via our platform without the physical walls of a school building.’’

What steps have you taken to align your team around this shift, particularly with employees now working from home?

The health and safety of our employees, partners and students is our No. 1 priority. We’re monitoring news from the CDC and the World Health Organization closely to make sure we’re up to date on their recommendations and disseminating that information to our team. 

Luckily, ThinkCERCA is already a remote-friendly organization, with employees working across the U.S. So even though we’ve closed our Chicago headquarters, we’re already accustomed to the benefits and challenges of working remotely. That said, our communications with the team about what’s expected of them at this time has changed. Many of our team members are parents, so we’ve been extra communicative about the company needing to be more flexible and accommodating with irregular schedules. 

 

How do you think this shift will impact your business in the future? 

If this was a normal year, typically we would be going into buying season with schools and districts that are preparing for September. COVID-19 has disrupted the typical buying patterns of our customers so it’s hard to say what the full impact on our business will be. But our finance team is currently working on several models to map out different scenarios so we’re prepared for whatever may happen. 

 

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