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Carl Lewis: Welcome to The Connected Enterprise podcast. I’m Carl Lewis, your host from Vision33, and my guest is Mark Loveys from Datagate.

Mark, welcome back. You were a guest early in the pandemic before anyone knew what we would go through. I want to discuss where we’ve been, what we’re doing now, and what we learned. But first, remind our listeners who you are and what Datagate is all about.

Mark Loveys: Thank you, Carl. It's great to be back. I've worked in the software business since the 1980s, so I’ve seen a lot of changes. I'm passionate about the software business and what it can do for people and businesses. My company is called Datagate. Our specialty is enabling managed service providers (MSPs) to produce telecom invoices. It sounds boring, but it's come into its own recently because phones and computers have become the same thing.

That means there's a significant opportunity for MSPs or people who work with computers to provide phone systems. To do that, you need special invoicing. There’s also tax and compliance, which is our specialty. Recently, we’ve focused on it even more as MSPs and IT companies increasingly enter the telecom space.

Things have definitely changed since you and I last spoke, Carl. I had just started spreading Datagate internationally and geographically. We relied heavily on our internal cloud software, which enabled us to act as an international business. We’re still using the cloud software, but we don’t have people working from offices anymore. We had no idea what was about to unfold.

Carl Lewis: Had you already moved to Vancouver?

Mark Loveys: Only just.

Carl Lewis: That's what I thought.

Mark Loveys: We did that interview from a hotel room, which we could do because all Datagate’s systems and processes were cloud-based. We could operate from anywhere, which was a luxury that meant we could expand and involve people from any location. The MSP industry was busy because companies had started seeing the advantages of cloud-based phone systems, just like the computer industry. The cloud is taking everything over, but in the phone industry, it brought all sorts of economics to make phone systems more flexible, lower cost, and able to be reconfigured and centrally managed without reliance on geography.

It was exciting. Then, COVID hit, and things took on a new level of urgency. The MSP industry was in demand to help businesses cope with enabling workers to work remotely. Remote working went from a luxury to a necessity, and businesses and essential services couldn’t operate without their phone and computer systems. So, our industry was in heavy demand, and our clients worked long hours. They needed the automation we gave them in our cloud software, where we could handle the telecom billing automatically. Cloud phone system usage went through the roof because it’s so much better in a distributed environment with people working from multiple locations.

Carl Lewis: It's an obvious but important observation: Many people were reluctant about the cloud before this, right?

Mark Loveys: Right.

Carl Lewis: Still holding off for their ERP and other systems. Now, people are saying, "The cloud proved itself because of the pandemic."

Mark Loveys: Absolutely.

Carl Lewis: Do you have offices for your operations, or is everybody working remotely?

Mark Loveys: We relinquished our offices. I asked our team, "Are you ok at home? How well is it working?" And everyone said, "We prefer this. We're more productive." And it’s true: Our productivity went up a lot. In fact, some people worked too much. When you work from home, it's easy to work all the time. That's been a concern – we want our people to be healthy. 

Another concern is people getting breaks. Many of us had restrictions from COVID and couldn’t travel or do other things we used to take for granted. We're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and I foresee many people wanting to take time off for vacation. There are so many interesting but unintended consequences that come from what we went through. Although I shouldn’t use past tense – we’re still going through it. COVID is still happening and is still a major issue.

But it pressed the fast-forward button on the cloud. The cloud used to be for people who liked to live on the cutting edge and be ahead of technology, but it’s essential now. It's frightening to think: How would a business like Datagate operate if it weren’t for cloud software? It would grind to a halt if we had to go back to the office to operate something. We're fortunate to be able to work entirely via cloud systems. Not everyone can.

Carl Lewis: Impossible for retailers and others. 

Mark Loveys: Exactly.

Carl Lewis: Imagine if this pandemic had occurred 15 years ago. Without the technology, it would have been more devastating and disastrous – worse than we experienced.

Mark, you alluded to the future of work. There will be more remote workers. Some will be in a hybrid mode with some office work, but more working at home will happen in every industry.

Mark Loveys: Absolutely.

Carl Lewis: It sounds like you’re involved in your employees’ lives. Like, "Take some time off." And you have to be more aggressive, like, "I know there’s no place to go, but I need you to take a vacation anyway." Right?

Mark Loveys: Right.

Carl Lewis: What's that like? You're a likable guy. You care about people. But has that been hard?

Mark Loveys: A little, yes.

Carl Lewis: Asking, “How do I encourage people?”

Mark Loveys: People need a work-life balance. They can’t do good work if they aren’t healthy. We want people to thrive. COVID has changed the ground rules. Some will be permanent changes; others won’t. But working remotely is here to stay. Some businesses will always be location-based, but many have moved to working remotely. There's a learning process. Those of us who’ve been doing it for a while have learned to manage teams, understand what people are doing, and still prevent it from taking over our lives.

You're right that technology made this possible, where we can work spread around the world. We have great products like Microsoft Teams and Zoom that allow us to stay in touch and have face-to-face meetings regardless of location. But in terms of HR and looking after people, COVID pressed the reset button. Employers must learn how to get the best out of this situation.

The world is just starting to understand the unintended consequences. City businesses see fewer people downtown because people are working in outlying areas. What will that do to companies that rely on a high concentration of people? It’s something you don’t consider when you think of a virus. But we live in a world where we can take for granted that people use Teams and Zoom, and we can connect with them remotely. That gives us access to a much bigger market.

Also, Datagate – and similar companies – can now be super specialized. Before, there might not have been enough customers in a region to keep a specialized company going. But now, we can interact with and sell to people we’ll never meet in person. The pandemic shook things up and mixed them around. It hurt some people and helped others. It's intriguing.

Carl Lewis: I understand about making sure working from home doesn’t eat me up. Even so, the pandemic took away part of how I managed that. I learned to deal with not being in an office. There aren’t water cooler conversations and other casual things, but I got my people fix at conferences and other places I could sit down, have a drink, and discuss hobbies.

Some of those things will change as the pandemic releases its grip. That's one of the unknowns right now, but I’m curious to see how fast events open and have people face to face. And what will the consequences be?

Mark Loveys: Right.

Carl Lewis: What do you see in terms of the future of large gatherings?

Mark Loveys: The managed service provider industry is a big conference-focused industry. There are normally a lot of conferences, but during the pandemic, they went virtual. That's another learning exercise.

I remember all the conferences you've organized, Carl. And I realize how much learning it requires to plan a good conference. Virtual conferences are a whole different learning curve because they’re a cross between a conference and a TV show. We've been involved in those. Now, we see hybrid conferences coming out. If you want to attend virtually, you can. Or you can attend in person. That’s a different mix of complexities. The virtual part will reduce your real audience.

I keep getting surveys from conference companies asking me how confident I am about sending staff to conferences. That's what everybody wants to know. Some businesses say, "No, our staff won’t go to conferences until certain milestones are achieved with the virus." Others say, "Yes, we'll be there." Conference organizers are trying to understand what the turnout’s going to be. Different geographies will react differently.

Carl Lewis: The combination of virtual and in-person might be part of the new requirements, right?

Mark Loveys: Yes.

Carl Lewis: Even where lockdowns have been loosened dramatically, people are still cautious. I have a friend in Texas. There's no mask mandate, but people still wear them, and some businesses still require them. Some companies, like mine, require you to be vaccinated to travel and work onsite with customers.

Mark Loveys: Yes.

Carl Lewis: I don’t know how long it will last, but I wonder: Are these changes temporary, out of caution, or are they going to be expected in the future?

Mark Loveys: Technology has many opportunities to solve some of these things. We've seen new solutions for tracking these things, but there's a lot of work left. We're all wondering what will stay and what will revert to the old way. Datagate started doing more digital marketing since we were unable to go to conferences. A lot of other companies are doing the same thing.

Some people internally are questioning, "Digital is working. Do we need to go back to the conferences?" I passionately believe conferences are vital. Meeting people in person is the best way to start business relationships by building up some trust. Especially with partner businesses you’ll work with long term. Web conferencing is great – it's the next best alternative – but I'm a big believer in conferences. I certainly learned a lot from the conferences you and I have met in over the years, Carl. Those business relationships are long term.

Carl Lewis: They are. You mentioned the learning the process. I can tell you that when you're doing a live conference, you learn quickly because everyone can find you and complain to you onsite. With virtual conferences, it's a lot easier to hide.

There's no opportunity to walk the floors as the conference director and be accosted by people saying, "It would be better if ..." Right?

Mark Loveys: That's right.

Carl Lewis: I can't tell you how many hundreds of times I heard that. "This is great, but it would be better if ..."

Mark Loveys: Absolutely. And you can't undervalue the ability to walk up and start a casual conversation with somebody. I struggle with that at virtual conferences because they’re more structured. It's hard to casually start a conversation. I find that that's how we work in real-world conferences – someone walks past your booth, you comment, and suddenly there’s a conversation where you understand that person, their requirements, and their business.

It's hard to do in the structured virtual world. People can talk to the booth if they press a button and say, "I want to talk to this company." But that's so formal. It's quite different in person. Conversations can be leisurely.

Carl Lewis: Exactly. I've always been a fan of technology. I thought, "People will buy groceries online. They’ll buy stuff that comes in boxes online. But nobody will buy big-ticket items like automobiles or new ERP systems online." Right? They won’t buy what Datagate does. Or anything with a lot of services attached to a multi-year relationship. At least without meeting in person. But I'm cautious about my words now because people do buy automobiles online. I’m in an interesting place where I don't feel attached to what the future is because I just don't know. I'll never buy an automobile online, let's put it that way! But I don't know about other people anymore. I was convinced in years past, but no longer.

Mark Loveys: That's right. It's all this rapid change. I'm amazed. Even COVID-19 – who would’ve seen that coming? It’s science fiction stuff the whole world is going through together. I think the same thing when I look back at 9/11 and other significant events in my lifetime. Big changes can happen, so what we know today won’t always be the way things are. But coming back to technology, how would we have gotten through this without the technology?

And not just the technology in IT. There’s the technology of people making vaccines and the frontline workers and people who have put in heroic efforts to keep society operating. It's great to see humanity dealing with something and appreciating that there are so many vital cogs in this machine: People and technology providing solutions that have enabled essential services and businesses to keep functioning while all this is happening. I would never have appreciated this before, but now I've witnessed it all happening.

Carl Lewis: You're right. There haven’t been many of these global events – I call them “tectonic events” – in my life. There have been regional disasters and wars, but it's been a long time since the world fought the same thing together.

Mark Loveys: Yes.

Carl Lewis: We have to hope we’re capable of collaborating across the globe to take care of things like a pandemic because that’s a necessity.

Mark Loveys: Exactly.

Carl Lewis: Mark, you have a crystal ball. How long are we out of the pandemic before we can categorize all the changes, good and bad? Where will we be? What date is that?

Mark Loveys: I'm constantly monitoring people's opinions. I'm especially interested in when things like travel free up around the world. I normally travel a lot, and I miss it. I’ve heard people say we're halfway through this. That's depressing in some ways, but it's hard to say. Everybody's making predictions. But historians will look back at this and see so many societal changes, like what we saw with other significant events like World War II. These are things that change the structure of the world.

The cloud will continue, so collaboration will increase, and we’ll see more specialization and more teams working together from all geographies. The cloud is a unifying technology, and COVID pressed the fast-forward button. It will enable scientists from across the globe to work together and allow businesses to expand and address markets faster than ever.

It's a unifying thing, and it’s exciting. I can’t say it’s all good because it’s not. COVID is a terrible thing that has hurt people. But one of the unintended consequences is a unification through technology and the cloud.

Carl Lewis: I agree that we’re maybe only halfway through if you look at it through a global lens.

Mark Loveys: Yes.

Carl Lewis: We live in what we arrogantly call the First World, right?

Mark Loveys: Yes.

Carl Lewis: But other places are far behind in technology and are depending on more advanced and fortunate countries’ generosity to get through this. It feels like that’s just beginning, and it may be another year before that's truly globally been affected for us.

Mark Loveys: Exactly.

Carl Lewis: Well, Mark, it's always good to chat with you. I look forward to walking the conference floor again together someday.

Mark Loveys: Likewise, Carl. Thank you for having me on today.

Carl Lewis: You’re welcome. And to our audience, thank you for being a part of The Connected Enterprise. Until we meet again, stay connected.