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More Done in a Day
Amplifying employee productivity
By Tracy Barbour

ears of living with lymphedema inspired Laura Oden to go into business. Because of fluid buildup, her feet were two different sizes, so shoe shopping was a hassle. She wasn’t the only person in need of a solution, so Oden co-founded Pandere, a specialty shoe outlet for unique feet.

While Oden calls Alaska home, Pandere has a worldwide reach with a distributed team selling stylish footwear that can be adjusted to accommodate swollen feet. Technology ties the operation together.

Strategic Technology
With the persistent shortage of workers today, technology that optimizes efficiency is even more urgent. Employee productivity is defined as the amount of work an individual can accomplish within a certain time. By working more effectively, an employee can complete tasks more quickly, lower labor expenses, and generate more value for the business.

From communication platforms and data analytics tools to automation and artificial intelligence (AI), Alaska businesses large and small are strategically implementing technology to maximize productivity. In general, they are automating repetitive, time-consuming, and unpleasant tasks like emailing responses, grant writing, contract generation, and financial reporting, says Jon Bittner, executive director of the Alaska Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

According to Bittner, many businesses use automation to reduce the amount of time employees need to spend interfacing with customers. This includes point-of-sale and self-checkout machines for customer transactions and the internet to provide more services online. “I think the scarcity in the workforce and high costs are driving people to be more efficient,” he says.

Bittner says technology represents a crucial tool for combating the ongoing labor shortage in Alaska. “We have to find a way to do more with less,” he says. “I honestly think technology is one of the only solutions we have.”

Effective Use of AI
Automation has been around since the Industrial Revolution, of course, but AI is different. Even at this stage of development, computers can take over communication and creative tasks reserved until very recently for humans alone. “I think it [AI] will be a game changer—as long as we can get people to connect with it in a way that is meaningful,” Bittner says.

The Alaska SBDC has been at the forefront of developing AI-based tools and training, says Christian Conroy, director of strategic initiatives at America’s SBDC, a nonprofit network of state and local centers.

The latest step forward happened in March, when Alaska SBDC formed its Artificial Intelligence Resource Center. “I’m proud of the Alaska SBDC’s leadership in this area which has resulted in the launching of the first-of-its-kind AI Resource Center to support our business advisors and small businesses alike,” says Bittner.

The Alaska SBDC followed that announcement by hosting a summit in Anchorage on using AI to drive innovation and boost productivity. Industry experts shared their knowledge on the transformative impact, opportunities, and implications of AI for Alaska’s businesses, culture, education, and government.

AI is already an asset for Spawn Ideas. The advertising agency is using AI to speed up initial thinking, brainstorming, and document preparation as well as spark content ideas and set up content calendars. The agency’s creative team also uses Adobe Creative Suite. Adobe has enhanced its programs with AI, so Spawn Ideas staff can replace or swap out parts of photographs with the click of a button and even create artwork from scratch.

“Our work stands out because of our commitment to what we call genuine human understanding,” says president and CEO Karen King. “When we understand our audiences, we can deliver messages that help them, persuade them, encourage their advocacy, and measure how they respond/convert. That human understanding comes through personal conversations, interviews, et cetera—but also through data analytics tools and consumer research tools like Ask Your Target Market.”

“We have to find a way to do more with less… I honestly think technology is one of the only solutions we have.”
Jon Bittner, Executive Director, Alaska Small Business Development Center
Staffing Analytics
Spawn Ideas is a nearly fifty-year-old advertising agency that combines in-house services with strategic partnerships to provide end-to-end services for its clients.

In its technological toolkit, Spawn Ideas employs Strata for in-house media planning and buying, optimization, and financial management; Workamajig marketing project management software for tracking budgets and invoicing; and Dropbox, Zoom, and Google tools for collaboration. “With Google Slides, for instance, multiple staff work simultaneously in a single document, ensuring that document is always the most up to date,” King says.

In the healthcare field, Providence Alaska Medical Center (PAMC) and the larger Providence organization continuously explore innovative technologies to utilize staff more effectively. For example, the PAMC emergency department uses predictive analytics based on patient visit data to schedule staff more effectively.

The application of technology is instrumental throughout PAMC’s staffing strategy. Even before recruitment, Providence uses predictive analytics to forecast expected turnover, so jobs can be posted before openings occur. Technology also plays an important role in retaining PAMC’s staff. For instance, PAMC provides free tuition assistance and/or reimbursement options for many degree programs. Providence also offers more remote/hybrid employment options, especially in non-clinical roles, that provide sought-after flexibility.

PAMC works attentively to curate the application of these ever-advancing technologies. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, PAMC centralized patient transfers to coordinate admissions. Previously, transfers had been coordinated on an informal, physician-to-physician basis. Now the transfer center tracks real-time bed availability and facilitates a simple, streamlined process to admit transfer patients. “The PAMC transfer center eases the way of referring physicians and ensures patients receive the right care at the right time in the right setting,” says Providence Alaska spokesperson Mikal Canfield.

Healthcare Technology
Providence employs about 5,200 Alaskans—the largest private sector employer in the state—and technology helps the staff multiply their effectiveness even further. For example, the hybrid operating room at the Anchorage campus—the first of its kind in Alaska—allows PAMC to provide the highest-quality cardiac, vascular, and neurovascular care in emergency situations and for elective procedures, according to Canfield. “With its innovative technologies, both traditional and minimally invasive procedures can be performed in combination or with other surgical services—all in the same room,” Canfield says. “For minimally invasive procedures, it has a cardiac catheterization lab. Benefits of these types of procedures include less postoperative pain, shorter hospital stays, and a faster recovery than traditional surgical approaches.”

The hybrid operating room also includes a bi-plane imaging system that provides real-time views of blood vessels and tissue. Its three-dimensional technology allows for more precise diagnosis and treatment. “For example, in an emergency like a brain aneurysm, surgeons can use the biplane to instantly diagnose the problem and perform life-saving surgery at the same time,” Canfield says.

PAMC was also the first in Alaska to offer the Ion robot-assisted bronchoscopy platform for minimally invasive biopsy in the lung, according to Canfield. “Using 3D imaging, it allows providers to insert a 3.5 mm catheter into a patient’s lungs and navigate to any of the eighteen segments of the lung,” he says. “The catheter includes real-time vision of the airway, so physicians can reach specific nodules and lock the catheter into place. A needle is then used to collect a tissue sample, which can then be tested for signs of lung cancer. Because of its small size, Ion can collect a tissue sample at the first signs of cancer, leading to an earlier diagnosis and treatment, improving patient outcomes.”

Virtual Impression
Beryl Castillo is extremely keen on capitalizing on technology for her North Pole-based résumé writing, interview preparation, and career consulting company, First Impressions BC. Castillo—who has a doctorate in business administration and researched crowdsourcing as part of her dissertation—fully appreciates the impact technology can have on improving business processes.
“The result of finding excellent applications that do a lot of heavy lifting is that it leaves time for us to do the part that only we can do: the job of being the human in the room.”
Laura Oden, Co-Founder, Pandere
Without the virtual presence achieved through technology, Castillo’s one-person operation wouldn’t be able to cater to businesses nationwide. The company mainly works with local businesses but also serves clients in Florida, Utah, and Washington, relying on email, text, video conferencing, and phone calls to facilitate communications.

Among many other technological solutions, First Impressions BC takes advantage of Meta business suite to manage and track business insights and activities across Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. These analytics make it possible for Castillo to tailor her publicity efforts to her target market. “When I create a post on Facebook, I can see whether it was well received by the community based on the number of shares, the people it reached, and how many people engaged with the post,” she says. “This way, I can make adjustments and create posts that appeal more to my audience.”

Having access to time-saving technology also provides Castillo with another important benefit. Thanks to the internet, video conferencing, and other products, she can work as a volunteer tutor for English speakers with the Literacy Council of Alaska. “If we didn’t have online tutoring as an option, I would not be able to give back to the community as a business owner,” she says.

Remote Work, Big and Small
GCI, Alaska’s largest telecommunications company, has nearly 1,900 employees and is always looking for ways to work more efficiently. At GCI, technology is the “name of the game,” says Corporate Communications Director Megan Webb. “Since GCI moved to a remote-first approach, our quick adoption of virtual collaboration tools and other technology has been vital for maintaining productivity, clear communication, and keeping the company’s projects on track,” Webb explains.

Collaboration and project management tools have proven more valuable than ever, Webb says. With tools like Microsoft Teams, employees have access to features that enhance communications and productivity, like chat, video conferencing, calendars, task management, and Viva Engage. “Many teams within GCI also use Asana to help track, manage, and collaborate on projects we have underway. Its task, goal tracking, and reporting capabilities make it a powerful tool in our tech toolkit,” Webb says.

Spawn Ideas is exactly 1 percent the size of GCI with nineteen employees (counting Bore Tide One Source, a printing/promotional items subsidiary), yet the firm uses the same type of technology solutions to facilitate workflow. “We could not work together [hybrid and distance workers] or serve our clients efficiently without technology,” says King. “It makes meetings, data collection and sharing, recommendations and approvals, invoicing, media planning and buying, graphic arts production and editing, and so much more possible.”

Matron of Machines
Technology is essential for the success of Jasmin Smith’s businesses: Baby Vend, Umoja CoWorking & Incubator, and The Business Boutique.

Smith is the owner/operator of The Business Boutique, a consultancy offering business mentoring, training, and project/event coordination. Umoja Coworking & Incubator, which has three employees, is a Mountain View-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering underrepresented communities through collaboration, mentorship, and entrepreneurship.

Her most sprawling venture is Baby Vend. With eight employees, the company operates vending machines stocked with products geared toward families traveling with young children. Machines are located throughout the Anchorage area, including in the Anchorage Museum, 5th Avenue Mall, Dimond Center, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The company website lists further locations in Washington, California, Florida, New York, and an online shop for a “go box” of travel essentials is coming soon.

Heavy Lifting
E-commerce is likewise key to Pandere’s success. Instead of a traditional staff, the Anchorage-based business relies on a distributed team of contractors. “They all interact with various apps that subsequently allow each of them to accomplish the same amount of work that probably just a few years ago would have required multiple people,” says Oden.

Pandere has nearly twenty apps integrated in its Shopify store, each playing a critical role in streamlining onboarding for contractors. Describing the importance of this technology to her business, Oden says, “The result of finding excellent applications that do a lot of heavy lifting is that it leaves time for us to do the part that only we can do: the job of being the human in the room, writing personal emails, addressing customers’ concerns with thoughtfulness and compassion, and learning together how to improve our team, smooth out bumps, and pivot when something isn’t working.”

At Smith’s headquarters in Mountain View, she stays connected with clients, employees, and Baby Vend locations using Slack to simplify communication and Calendly for appointment scheduling. Smith says software solutions replace cumbersome group emails with faster, more convenient ways to interact.

Smith’s employees also enjoy using the productivity and collaboration app because it lets them plan, organize, and track work more efficiently. “They can take a big task and break it down into pieces,” she explains. “I can check and see where employees are and then see if they need help. It helps people streamline [work] and stay organized.”

Technology allows Smith’s employees to significantly optimize their efforts. “Good software can allow people to work smarter, not harder,” Smith says. “It allows employees to get more done because they don’t have to start from scratch.”