How Did the Pandemic Affect the Global Language Industry? A Webinar Recap

Panelist from CLI's webinar about the pandemic and the global language industry. Hosted by GALA.
The panelists: Simon Andriesen, CEO at MedLingua; Michelle Rabie, ST Communications; Jinny Bromberg, President at Bromberg & Associates; and Kristin Quinlan, CEO at Certified Languages International

In a webinar hosted by the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), leaders from four language companies gathered to reflect on what the heck happened over the last year.

Like most, these four shifted business to a full work-from-home model within a matter of days. From initial thoughts of “It will be over soon, right?” to gradual acceptance, they discussed how the pandemic challenged them, but also how it made them stronger. 

If you missed it, we’ve included the highlights of their conversation below, along with a link to the full video. Enjoy!

Who would have thought?

The webinar opened with an apt question: Did you have a contingency plan in place for something like a pandemic?

The short answer for everyone was … not exactly. 

While all did have business continuity strategies in place, the plans covered how to stay up and running during a major event — like a fire, flood, or carrier outage, for example — but not a global pandemic. 

“I don’t think anybody had a plan, specifically to address a global pandemic. Who would have thought?!” stated Jinny Bromberg, president of Bromberg & Associates.

“We did not have a contingency plan in place per se, but living in Africa, you are always prepared,” said Michelle Rabie, clinical trial and plain language specialist at ST Communications. “We have had frequent power interruptions, service delivery issues, protests, things like that. We’re almost always at the ready. We always take our laptops with us, so when the announcement came on the 23rd of March that we’re going into total lockdown, we were all basically set up.”

The challenges

The leaders noted two major bumps they had to address from the start: technology and mental well-being.   

Everyone is in IT

CLI had to move 100+ employees home, most of whom were not set up to work remotely. “Our fix,” stated CLI CEO Kristin Quinlan, “was a pretty heavy-duty Band-Aid. We sent them [CLI employees] home with technology that we sourced very fast. After we realized around week eight that this was not going to be changing any time soon, we went straight to laptops and a softphone.”

On-site interpreting abruptly stopped around March 20, 2020. Since her language company mainly focused on in-person interpretation, Jinny and team not only had to switch their on-site interpreters to remote interpreting, but they also had to help their clients learn the technology as well. 

“We said from the beginning,” stated Jinny, “it doesn’t matter what they use — Teams, Zoom, Meets, true VRI, OPI — whatever they want to use, whatever new platform they bring to us, we will figure it out. It’s amazing how many clients really did not use tech at all, so helping them get there and making sure their interpreting encounters are successful was our mission … now we’re in the space where we expect clients will need help with tech, and we’re ready for it.”

Becoming your team’s safety net

The uncertainty of the pandemic brought more stress, feelings of isolation, and depression to a lot of people. The leaders described how they helped their employees and contractors cope with such a big, overwhelming transition. 

Jinny’s team built an internal support system with daily check-ins and team-building exercises. Kristin created a weekly virtual break. (No work chat allowed!) Michelle described the need for regular check-ins, especially with their freelance linguists. Simon Andriesen, founder and managing director of MediLingua, eased the financial burden many faced by reallocating unused funds.

“After a few months when it looked like it [the pandemic] wouldn’t stop so soon, we paid everybody 300 euros, which we financed from our travel expense budget … we took that money and redistributed it. So everybody got 300 euros to buy a new laptop or to improve their WiFi or to get a better headset or a better chair. And then a few months later, we repeated that.” 

Lessons learned

As much pressure as the restrictions from COVID-19 put on Michelle, Kristin, Jinny, and Simon, it wasn’t all for naught. All four learned things that will help them build more resilient and prepared businesses moving forward. 

“Working in a small office often lulls you into a false sense of informality with training happening face-to-face. I think what we’ve learned is that we have to have instructions, clear instructions, written down, because more people are working remotely, and you don’t always have the luxury of face-to-face training. Another thing I’ve learned is that these instructions have to be in plain, simple language. 

Jinny echoed Michelle’s statement.

“We needed to figure out how to onboard people remotely when you can’t pick up the phone or walk over to their desk and do a quick training. Everything had to be much more formalized, much more intentional, much more process-oriented, and we had to keep in mind that people learn differently, especially when they’re under more stress than usual.”

Any advice? 

As much as we all want to put COVID behind us, it won’t be the last unexpected disruptor that the language, or any, industry will have to face. As such, the four shared their advice for companies looking to bolster their contingency plans.   

Kristin noted the value of collaboration, both with your clients and your competitors. “We’re all in this world together. We can lift each other up and still succeed.” 

Simon recommended taking care of your most valuable assets, whatever, or whomever, those might be. For Simon, it was making sure his freelance linguists had enough resources to make it through until work picked back up. “Freelancers who have less work from us, less work from their other customers … will they be in trouble? Will we lose them because they decided to do something totally different? So we offered to several of them, if they got into any financial trouble, they should let us know … and they could send us an invoice for future work and we would have paid it right away … take care that you don’t lose your valuable assets, the people who do the work, because you can’t do everything yourself.” 

Jinny suggested looking for opportunities based on what you do best. “Every organization has its strength, whether they know it or not, and they need to look at it and really analyze and be able to tap into it based on the circumstances as they may be at the time.”

Watch the Full Recording Now

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