Gornik: “While working remotely, the hardest thing is to maintain the company’s internal rhythm.”

Interview with Tomaž Gornik was published in Slovene business magazine Svet Kapitala:

A conversation with the manager of the high-tech company Better, who says that communication with their clients improved during the epidemic, but that employees felt a lack of social interaction with each other.

The company Better already has a 30-year history in health IT, and is very thoroughly digitised. In Slovenia, they are known for their eHealth infrastructure design, for their two registries, ZORA (a cervical-cancer screening programme*) and DORA (a national breast-cancer screening programme*), and for providing the server component for the health cards of ZZZS (the Health Insurance Institute of Slovenia*). They are consistently active at the Institute of Oncology Ljubljana and at University Medical Centre Ljubljana, Division of Paediatrics, as well as in 15 other countries, where they have become active in the last six years and have generated 80% of their total revenue. Their largest foreign client is the city of Moscow, which now stores the information of 12 million residents, and 500 health institutions and hospitals on Better’s platform. This same platform is also used by German, English, and Italian hospitals for monitoring data on the novel Coronavirus, all of which is then used by the World Health Organisation. 

This year Better established a daughter company in London, but their plans were slightly altered by the pandemic. The situation saved companies from having to travel internationally and accelerated digitisation, but the lack of social contact between employees was noticeable, emphasised Tomaž Gornik, CEO of Better. He added that in the last few months, most of the companies they have been working with have also realised the benefits of doing business online. He told Svet Kapitala what the companies learned during this epidemic, what the biggest challenges of working remotely were, and how prepared they are for a new wave of infections.

The epidemic in Slovenia seriously tested all the ways of doing business. What did companies learn about their business? 

I dare say that for most companies the biggest lesson was a new awareness about how much work can actually be done online. Until half a year ago, we were completely convinced that some things could only be done in person, but now meetings, coordination, negotiations, and even signing contracts all run smoothly online. 

Online business is very important to us, as we generate more than 80% of our revenue abroad, and this means a lot of travel for me. Often, I would spend three quarters of a month in other countries, and I have even I travelled to London and back again just for a single meeting. Doing these activities online is now more convenient for all those involved. If it was true before that clients appreciated an in-person meeting, they now appreciate you not coming. The benefits of online business are great, and I am almost certain that companies will not return to their old ways of doing business. 

Did you encounter any obstacles while doing business on-line? 

We work in health informatics, so most of our clients work in healthcare, and this means that they were severely affected by this pandemic. Their IT departments were primarily concerned with ensuring the smooth operation of medical activities, and external contractors were understandably somewhat on the side-lines. Consequently, we had trouble establishing contacts and conducting meetings with clients. The healthcare industry was on the front lines, fighting against Coronavirus, and personal contact was out of the question. 

Communication outside the company was difficult for us at the time of the epidemic, while now – due to the increased use of online tools – it is even more effective than it was before the epidemic.

How did you adapt to the changes in communication within the company?

We were lucky that we upgraded our online communications system a few days before the peak of the epidemic. Prior to that, the majority of communications took place via email, and we had barely any video conferences. What saved us was the fact that we had already made the transition to digital communication before the biggest wave of infections came.

However, during the quarantine we noticed that, within the company, it was necessary to maintain the company's rhythm and maintain constant contact with employees. To do this, we encouraged as much communication as possible, and our managers had daily meetings with all team members. At the same time, we paid attention to informal communication, as the social part of employment suffered the most, and that was what we wanted to strengthen. Hands-on meetings with all employees now take place every month, whereas previously they were held only four times a year. Internally, we also publish a weekly blog with a summary of everything that happened the week before, but we also publish it on our intranet, which is the centre of all internal communications.

What were the biggest challenges of working remotely, and how did you respond to them?

We had to pay attention to what was going on in employees' private lives. Not because we wanted to control what they did, but because we needed to coordinate work with those who have younger children. They had difficulties attending meetings during normal business hours due to the closures of schools and kindergartens, so internal meetings were held early in the morning or late in the evening. This gave them the opportunity to engage with their children during the day. I myself have grown-up children, but this is not the case for many of our employees, so we adapted our work process to suit them.

In this way, we significantly increased the efficiency of formal meetings. We also introduced informal virtual coffee breaks, but informal in-person communication was still extremely difficult to replace with digital tools.

No one expected the pandemic, and responses to it were very different. Are you now ready for a possible new wave of infections, and how could companies even prepare for that?

Absolutely. We have definitely prepared ourselves. And now, at this point, we are ready to completely shift to working remotely in just one day. This is due to the fact that our infrastructure is connected to the cloud, and we practically do not need anything physical from the office.

The ability to work from home is an advantage in our industry, which is very specific and makes such a response possible. This cannot be done, for example, in production, where employees must be present. At least for us, I would say that the changes we made to the way we work are certainly long-term, and will persist even when COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

Has the pandemic affected the demand for digital solutions?

An interesting positive consequence of the pandemic for the health segment is accelerated digitisation. According to some estimates, digital transformation has been accelerated by as much as five to seven years. At first, digitisation increased because there wasn’t as much desire for physical contact, but at the same time, there was a growing emphasis on getting quality data.

Precisely because of this, we have finally digitalised all our processes and built new communication tools into our products. In practice, this means that doctors can communicate within our platform and can refer directly to patient data while in conversation. This also increases the privacy of those conversations, as the conversations between doctors previously took place on third-party applications, where we had no control over security. This kind of practice is certainly a big step forward for healthcare, and facilitates easier and faster patient care.

What digital solutions were sought?

At the beginning of the epidemic, the demand for communication services increased. Patients were interested in how they could access the healthcare system remotely. Technologically, this is nothing new, but it is a question of business models. For example, the question of whether a patient's "digital visit" is charged the same way as a physical visit.

Another aspect of communication, however, is the online conversation between doctors, which has improved, especially in the field of more complex, multi-disciplinary treatments. Take oncology, for example, where the consultation of several specialists is crucial. If they are not physically present, they must still have access to the same data, and this was a considerable technical challenge. The solution being attempted involves shared databases and built-in communication channels, which improves efficiency and facilitates organisation.

Such infrastructure can be easily designed with the tools we use today, but implementing it on a national scale is much more difficult, and for that a long-term national (health) strategy and secured funding are needed.


Source: Svet kapitala, 30. 07. 2020, Aljoša Črnko
The interview was published here 

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