Fractional CTO Jon Williams Discusses the Pandemic, Burnout and the Transition to Working at Home

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May 27, 2020  By Bill Atkinson, CEO at Atkinson Strategic Communications

Jon Williams fell in love with technology at an early age.

As a young man, he immersed himself in computers, software, systems and eventually the internet. When he entered the job market, he liked what he did so much he worked seven days a week, which was unusual, he says, for the typical Australian during that time.

“I was an outcast,” he says with a laugh. “I said I am living in the wrong country and I decided I would move.”

He did. For the last 33 years Jon has been working in New York as a chief technology officer for an array of US companies that include Experian CheetahMail, iVillage / NBC, Kaplan, Grey Healthcare, CDnow, 24/7 Media, and Flat World Knowledge. Jon has worked as a Fractional CTO for Scholastic, GreatMinds, Petplan, Pebblepost, HealthReveal, Audubon, and Earthjustice. In 2000, Jon co-founded the New York CTO Club, a non-profit professional organization, which provides a monthly forum for more than 100 technology leaders from many of New York’s best-known companies to share strategies and ideas in a collaborative and collegial environment.

Jon is also a strategic technology consultant at Think and works closely with its middle-market companies and their executives.

Jon has a more measured pace these days, but he worries that employees in technology are working harder than ever before, partly because they are trapped inside their homes by the pandemic. These employees appear to be fueling a productivity boom. We caught up with Jon to find out more about what he is seeing while the world tries to adapt to life in era of the coronavirus.

Q. First off, how are you faring during the pandemic?

A. Like everyone else in technology, I am working from home. I was able to setup an independent office for myself with good lighting and video background. I’ve setup a new daily routine for myself, which includes early rise, workout, brief news catchup, full day of work at desk/video, a one hour walk at end of day, along with zoom with friends/dinner.

Q. You mentioned you have seen a productivity boom with the different technology teams you work with. What’s the downside of the productivity boom?

A. Burnout. I don’t even like that word , burnout. I think there is going to be a different type of burnout. This is all new, it is a different thing. It will have a different impact. A year ago, if someone said “I am burning out” I would say you need to go home early, spend more time with your family, take a trip. But you can’t do any of that anymore.

Q. Burnout is burnout, isn’t it? Why is this different?

A. Every leader I talk to says that their teams are more productive than ever before. I am worried executives will attribute the productivity increase to working at home or reducing commuting time. The bottom line is tech employees are working longer hours. It is just that simple. If I was to go to a CEO and say, “The tech team is working longer hours and getting a lot done,” she would say, “Great.” But I don’t think it is sustainable. Some people I know who work in tech have told me they are working 12 to 14 hours a day. It’s not that they have to, it is because they have nothing else pulling on their time.

Q. What’s your advice to avoid burnout?

A. I like what organizations are doing with virtual workouts, virtual coffee hours, virtual yoga and the like. A big trend I am seeing is a virtual holiday / day off. Some organizations tried encouraging individuals to take personal days, but found it works better if the whole company is off, you don’t have to check email.

Q. So, well-being and mental health are big issues companies in the pandemic have to address?

A. Companies really need to focus on employee health and productivity. Are they taking breaks? Are they getting away from their desks and going outside? Are they looking up from their computers? Some companies are allowing anyone with little kids at home to work 20 hours a week, so you are actually seeing two sides to this temporary productivity shift.

Q. Are you surprised companies, both small and large, have made the transition from working from an office to the home so quickly?

A. If this had happened five years ago this would have been a mess. Everyone is really surprised at how productive everyone is at home. It is multi-person video conferencing and cloud computing. Five years ago, it would have been mostly audio conference calls. Five years ago you had to have a VPN connection to internal servers, and it would have failed or been too slow at scale. Almost everyone is set up to utilize the cloud today. I have been doing consulting engagements for the last five years and nearly 100 percent of the companies I work with are using the cloud. Big companies that aren’t all of the way there are accelerating their cloud plans. It is not an accident that all of the stocks are going up with these big tech companies. Everybody is preparing for the future.

Q. Is this the new reality? Working from home?

A. Good question. There is not doubt that work will change once we get past the pandemic, but how? The promise to be able to work anywhere and not be dependent on your corporate infrastructure is being delivered in real time. Also, home connectivity bandwidth has increased many-fold in the last five years. Some organizations are discouraging people for going back to the office regardless of what happens when regulations change.

Q. What is the one tool you wish you had working from home?

A. A whiteboard. This is one tool missing from work from home. Whiteboarding is a crucial tool for digital and technology teams. There are digital whiteboards out there, but they don’t yet foster the same interaction and collaboration that a physical whiteboard does.

Q. Is there anything else executives should be thinking about as we work our way through the pandemic?

A. I worry about what are we losing from no in-person interactions. Some of the biggest technology ideas have been in-person meetings, either one-on-one or in a group. Offsite meetings help companies create alignment and breakthrough with staff. Being at home online is good, but do you have big ideas online? Do big ideas need nonverbal communication and in-person interaction as a catalyst? If you are on a virtual meeting, what if no one asks a question? I have never had a problem of no questions in an in-person meetings. But I have seen it in an online meeting. What if people ask too many questions? What if nobody asks a question?

Bill Atkinson

Bill Atkinson is President and CEO of
Atkinson Strategic Communications.
Think Systems is a client.