Posted: 14 Apr. 2020 5 min. read

Machines can’t do that!

Posted by Josh Haims on April 14, 2020.

Sixteen hours that made a difference: Lessons learned on pivoting a live executive forum into a compelling virtual experience.

Deloitte’s 9th annual Workforce Innovation Forum (previously the Chief Learning Officer Forum) was converted from an in-person to a virtual event as a response to the evolving COVID-19 crisis. All within the span of 16 hours. The Forum team had an opportunity to sit down (virtually!) with Deloitte Consulting LLP principal and Forum co-dean, Josh Haims, to reflect on this high-stake transformational experience.

Can you give us a little background on the Forum?

Thank you for asking—I’ve been honored to be a co-dean of the Forum for the past nine years. What originated as a small gathering to showcase the then newly minted Deloitte University in Westlake, Texas, has grown into one of the leading global events exploring workforce innovation with a broad ecosystem of clients, thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and community organizations. This year represented a continued evolution. We continued a shift away from learning and development to the broader context of workforce innovation driven by the future of work.

How did you come to the decision to make the Forum virtual?

While we were constantly tracking the coronavirus events in Asia, and the early spread into Europe, we were not yet planning contingencies for a global pandemic that would impact our event. A month before the opening plenary was set to take place, we were notified of the first few dropouts from our clients in APAC, with an increasing amount in Europe and a few from across the US due to travel restrictions. We were disappointed to lose anyone from the Forum but sent a message to our participants with the hopes of proceeding. We were still a “go”.

Things took a rapid turn a few weeks later around March 4—a week before our attendees were supposed to first arrive. As each hour went on, we were receiving more and more declines, especially from our North America-based attendees. It was at this point that we started to question the live event and its viability. At the same time, I think we started asking ourselves the right questions. Would participants attend a virtual forum given the emerging disruption that was starting to become apparent in all our lives? How do we absorb the news of what looked like a global outbreak and a possible total lockdown of travel? What radical steps would we need to take in the US to help protect ourselves and others from the virus’ spread? We simply did not know what was going to happen next.

So, what did happen next?

Honestly, we found ourselves in a very human moment. First, many of us had an emotional response—the team that had worked tirelessly for the last six months to make the in-person event happen, members on the team who have been a part of this for the last nine years, and leaders and participants who were still wrapping their heads around the reality of this situation. It was overwhelming. We were internalizing the event while simultaneously absorbing the news and what it meant for us and our families and friends. 

Ultimately, the market, our clients and our people spoke for us. I remember the moment clearly. A group of us got together over the phone and I put forward a recommendation, with some trepidation but conviction, that we needed to announce the cancellation of the in-person Forum. The team quickly agreed—and our adaptability quotient kicked in. With full support of our business leadership, we made the decision to pivot to a virtual event. 

The team rallied, started contingency planning, built multiple “what if” scenarios, and discussed questions around how, who, when. Every minute mattered. Every conversation was important. Everyone’s ideas were put on the table. We looked at every angle. The whiteboard filled up fast with the to-do’s. We were committed to delivering something at a quality level that met the needs of the participants and stayed true to our original programming, while acknowledging the continually shifting global scenario. From the time we decided to cancel to the moment we sent the “save the date” announcement to the virtual forum, we had 16 hours. It was a whirlwind of decisions that we had to make based on collaboration, discussion on alternatives, instinct, and our gut. In the end, as a collective, we came up with what we thought was the best experience for our participants and we sent the save the date for the virtual event. We were relieved, exhausted, and happy at what we had done to set this in motion and got to work for prepping.

How did your participants react during the transition and during the event?

The response was overwhelmingly positive. We received great feedback—both internally and externally—that we were demonstrating resiliency, flexibility, and exemplary teaming behaviors in times of ambiguity and uncertainty. We created structure where none existed and provided our leaders and participants with a level of comfort.

The team reconfigured the program with three speakers across three hours with intermissions in between. We determined that our sessions with Julie Hiipakka on “Making Work Human,” Thomas Malone and Jeff Schwartz “Superminds,” and Dr. Kristen Swanson on “Engaging Untethered Teams,” were the right topics for the audience. On the day of the event, we went end-to-end without a glitch. No issues at all!

The day really hit home for me during the final session when talking about virtual teams. While there was some level of concern of people being able to make the pivot, the attendees were universally aligned on how to practically address the situation, provide guidance to their leaders and colleagues, and share how we could come together to exchange ideas with one another enabled by the network we have built through this forum. I’m more convinced than ever in the strength of this community and the value we provide to our participants. I’m excited about how this will evolve into 2021.

What were takeaways from this whole experience?

I will admit this was not without its challenges for me personally. While I was myself reacting to the news that was coming in and the reality that was upon us, I had to be there for my team, unconditionally. I believe in sharing my authentic self with colleagues and was very open with my team about the emotional strain it was having on me. It was a real leadership “moment” I found myself in. Being self-reflective—it was the easiest decision I have ever made but was one of the hardest to get to. I cannot help but to think about this year’s Forum topic about the interaction between humans and machines at work and how it influences businesses. What became crystal clear was that this was all about being human and no machine could have solely made these decisions.

There are five key things I have walked away with that made a difference.

  1. Teaming: Our ability to team and the power of teams came to the front. We would not have been able to do this if we were acting alone or in personal interest. We really came together.
  2. Agility: Our quick ability to think on our feet, rally around a solution, and pivot. I think the team that did this is an exemplar of how to be agile in times that are stressful and in need of real focused solutions.
  3. Resiliency: The way I interpret resiliency is accepting the emotional side of the situation, battling through, and then putting on our logic hat. We took a challenging moment, snapped back from it quickly, and re-focused our efforts. I lead with my heart and I go with my gut; there was a tremendous amount of emotion here and our ability to be resilient will be a theme over the next few months as well.
  4. Risk-management and optionality: We needed to think through several “what-ifs,” “can-we's,” and “will-they's,” questions. We asked ourselves a dozen times “Is this the right thing to do?” The answer was resoundingly YES.
  5. Communication: We had to communicate clearly and effectively without ambiguity and with decisiveness to our clients.

What does this mean about you, your team, and Deloitte?

This experience truly represented the best of our culture at Deloitte. I think when we get into tough situations we respond on a dime. We responded to crisis, to the needs of others, our friends, our family, our co-workers. It was an extraordinary human moment. Sometimes we question if an organization’s culture meets the demands of our people, clients, customers, partners…. I give ours firm two thumbs up.

So…what’s next?

The Forum team has been called upon to help other teams in the firm transition similar events to virtual formats—that’s recognition of the great job that they did. We are preparing for the next virtual installment of the forum occurring on Friday, April 17 with Ashley Goodall (SVP of Leadership & Team Intelligence at Cisco) and Kathi Enderes (VP of Talent & Workforce Research at Bersin™, Deloitte Consulting LLP).

I remain optimistic about the future and look forward to connecting with everyone in the weeks and months ahead

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Josh Haims

Josh Haims

Principal | Human Capital | Deloitte Consulting

Josh is a Financial Services principal solving his clients most complex and pressing Human Capital issues. In today’s world of constant disruption, those issues include: determining the future composition of the workforce; developing cloud-enabled talent models; and optimizing employee experience. He has extensive experience across all major functions including technology and operations, retail and wealth management, HR, compliance and risk. He is Dean of the Deloitte Workforce Innovation Forum and sponsoring Partner of the Financial Services Learning and Talent Executive Roundtable.