“My biggest New Year’s resolution is getting back to the human.”

Little did I know how this statement would shape 2020 when I said it during this interview in January. I just knew that I was burned out. It was a personal commitment to work/life balance.

Fast-forward six weeks: my role at Cisco expanded as the entire world changed before my eyes. My new team, some 16,000 strong, saw its workload triple overnight. We all began working from home. People were scared, their futures uncertain. My “old way” of doing things—just work more hours—wasn’t going to cut it anymore. It wasn’t sustainable under the new circumstances.

Instead, we made things work with a three-pronged approach: innovation, workforce agility, and time affluence. That’s how we could all get back to the human. Here’s what I learned:

Innovation: speed, at scale

Under the specter of COVID-19, organizations all over the world sent employees home and scrambled to keep those employees productive and their information safe with secure collaboration tools. Tools like Cisco Webex videoconferencing. Webex usage jumped from 160 million meeting attendees in February to half a billion in April. With that demand came a commensurate increase in the number of customers—many first-time Webex users—asking for help.

Speed and scale were always our goal. When the pandemic hit, speed and scale became our tools. Instead of holding ourselves back with bureaucratic processes, we charged ahead with early-stage innovations. Small pilots gave way to rapid scaling as we opted to fine-tune “in the wild”. Risk was embraced; growth hastened.

That’s how we launched innovations like TAC Connect Bot, a personal digital assistant that provides customers, partners, and employees with a self-service experience. The bot was already in the pipeline, so we accelerated development and launched in March. It was a risk, but the timing couldn’t have been better: freed from the monotony of repetitive tasks, engineers could focus on complex issues or take time for themselves.

A year ago, testing at scale would have been unthinkable, but COVID gave us license to try anything. Now it’s our new baseline for technology and the workforce.

Workforce agility: not every innovation is a technical innovation

When the number of Webex cases skyrocketed, the team asked for help, hoping to get some aid from a few dozen engineers. Who was up for a short-term reassignment to the Webex support team?

The company responded in droves. Between mid-March and late May, more than 1,800 engineers—from interns to experts, from all over Cisco—volunteered to take Webex cases. Impressive, but they still needed training before they could help customers. Our typical, three-month curriculum was out of the question. Enter innovation (again): we modularized the material, carving out a subset that could be mastered in three days to focus on triage. Collaboration experts still handle ongoing treatment.

It worked. Engineers who raised their hands on Monday were taking cases by Friday. And these engineers, known as the Webex Warriors, took one-third of the Webex cases for months. That’s equivalent to all of our normal, pre-COVID volume. They also enjoyed celebrity status throughout Cisco, with recognition in company meetings.

The Webex Warriors weren’t a byproduct of the pandemic. They were a product of a culture that gives employees the freedom to raise their hands. A culture that recognizes excellence. And one in which innovation—technical or otherwise—is embraced.

Time affluence: discretionary income for the calendar

Many people running on adrenaline in March are running on fumes today. People are scared, sometimes isolated, and often pushed to their limits with too many demands on their time. Time is our most valuable resource and there’s never enough.

As leaders, we can’t add hours to the day or days to the year, but we can emphasize time affluence. Think of time affluence like discretionary income for the calendar—it’s about time spent deriving joy from meaningful activities. This looks different for every person: a vacation, some quiet working time, even a new opportunity.

Time affluence pays real dividends to the business. The innovations I mentioned earlier? Made possible by leaders giving people the time and space to think. The Webex Warriors? They had the time and space to volunteer. But let’s be real: those innovators and warriors might be worn out by now. Their leaders will need to replenish their reserves of time affluence. It’s the fastest way back to the human.

Is it working?

Innovation, workforce agility, and time affluence. How do I know this trifecta is working? We measure every customer support experience, review the data continuously, and act on it quickly. Even a slight dip triggers a deeper analysis around factors known to cause dissatisfaction. That’s what allowed us to get the benefits from innovation and workforce agility so quickly.

All of this means that customer satisfaction, so often seen only in the rearview mirror, is now used to run our day-to-day business proactively, with almost instantaneous adjustments in areas like staffing. That’s one of the reasons our customer satisfaction levels remained high over the past six months.

Getting back to the human isn’t about compromising our standards. We measured ourselves more stringently than ever and still came out ahead. Our customers came out ahead. It’s almost the end of the year and I’ve kept my New Year’s resolution. But it’s more than that and it’s bigger than me. What began as a personal resolution became a business imperative for my entire team.


Ruba Borno

SVP/GM, Global CX Centers