Reports from the Workday front line in a time of COVID-19

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 21, 2020
The opening session of Workday's virtual analyst summit today was dominated by stories of how the company and its customers are adapting to COVID-19

Aneel Bhusri Workday Innovation Summit 2020 by @holgermu
Aneel Bhusri, Workday (by @holgermu)

Cloud HCM and financials vendor Workday gave some insights how the company and its customers around the world are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, during the opening of its virtual summit for industry analysts today.

While the purpose of the session was to brief analysts on the company's products, technology and go-to-market strategy, inevitably the impact of COVID-19 was a dominant theme. But Workday executives were also keen to emphasize how the crisis had shown off the adaptability and resilience of the company and its technology. Citing customers in distribution, retail and healthcare, CEO Aneel Bhusri commented:

It's been a recognition that our systems truly are mission critical for our customers. They rely on Workday for their core systems and taking care of their people, so they can focus in on their customers or their patients. And it's really our moment to shine and to show that we really can do a great job of taking care of customers.

How customers are adapting

There were various stories of customers quickly adapting to their new circumstances, using Workday for emergency workforce planning, to track employee health status, to rapidly introduce additional pay or benefits for frontline workers, or, using Scout RFP, to quickly source urgent supplies. One global professional services company had quickly set up a new category of 'essential worker' says EVP of Product Development Pete Schlampp, who quoted its CHRO:

We never thought of essential worker as a category when we first put Workday in. But now we're in a new world, and essential workers are the heroes on the frontline.

There was also plenty of talk about how the current crisis has brought out the benefits of running in the cloud, whether it's a finance team closing the books while working remotely or a ventilator manufacturer suddenly needing to run at five times its normal analytics load. EVP Technology Sayan Chakraborty said:

We have planned for the unexpected, that the black swan is going to come again. So we have built a platform that is designed to help us adapt quickly so that our customers can adapt quickly ...

I think it's important to consider that cloud has never been more valuable. That its reliability, its elasticity, its ability to adapt on a dime, is critical to keeping businesses operational in a time like this.

How Workday has responded

Workday's own operations have been shaken up by the pandemic and associated shelter-in-place orders, says Bhusri:

COVID-19 has definitely thrown a wrench into the way that we run the company. So much of my time today and in the last month-and-a-half has been focused on how do we run a business remotely? How do we make sure we maintain high levels of customer satisfaction when many of our people are working from home?

Despite the shift to home working, Schlampp says product plans remain on track. Many developers prefer to be away from the distractions of the office, says Bhusri, adding "We'll see how that works longer term." On the customer success side of the business, all education and training sessions are now running online, while deployment projects have gone fully online too. Chief Customer Officer Emily McEvilly explains:

Our Workday deployment methodology has allowed for projects already to be 60 to 70% remote since we started.

Now with the support of our customers, our services organization and our partners, Workday has already seamlessly transitioned all existing project activities to be 100% virtual.

Go-lives on core HCM and financials are significantly up on a year ago, she added.

We've had over 70 go-lives on core HCM and financials in the past 30 days, and we'll have more than 40 in the next 30 days. That's a 15 and a 25% increase year over year from last year.

My take

Current conditions are certainly providing an opportunity for cloud vendors like Workday to show off the agility and resilience of their platforms. Today's session provided plenty of examples of how customers have been adjusting to their new circumstances, as well as Workday's own response. One comment from McEvilly about how the company is communicating with customers at this time was particularly well received:

We've done it in true Workday style, not leading with broad-based emails or marketing, but a very personalized manner because each of our customers is experiencing this crisis in a unique way.

However the format today allowed no real opportunity to drill into the examples quoted or challenge on any points. There are interactive Town Hall sessions planned for later in the week — we'll be at both and report back.

In previous years, this has been an in-person event for a select band of a few dozen analysts, all of whom are well-known to executives and to each other too in the main. There's a lot of interaction in the room with speakers and a fair bit of time is usually set aside for that. That made the contrast with today's proceedings particularly stark and somewhat disappointing. No one can pre-record a presentation with the same energy a speaker feels when walking into a room to present live to that kind of audience. Nor can the audience feel as engaged.

I should reserve judgement until after I've seen how the Town Hall sessions go, but for now this virtual event is a poor substitute, albeit unavoidable at this time, for the in-person experience. We can live with that as a temporary replacement, but if some form of lockdown, particularly on travel, is going to remain in place for much longer, the state of the art in virtual events is going to have to go through some dramatic evolution — something my colleague Jon Reed has been following closely.

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