by Stacy Collett

7 IT silver linings of the pandemic

Oct 26, 2020
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

Beyond just keeping business afloat, companies and IT leaders are finding unexpected benefits to COVID’s business disruptions.

Mihail Strusievici has been building business agility into Colliers International for the past four years — upgrading its tools, platforms and frameworks to deliver IT quickly, a big change for what traditionally had been the slowest part of corporate IT. So when the coronavirus pandemic hit in early spring, and the entire organization had to shift to Microsoft Teams for remote work and adopt new business processes, he wasn’t surprised by his team’s ability to pivot quickly.

“That’s an overnight success that was four years in the making,” says Strusievici, global vice president of IT. “We are capitalizing on good investments and good decisions we made before COVID-19.”

For many companies, business preparation has collided with opportunity brought on by the pandemic. Some CIOs call themselves lucky. Others call it planning for a digital future that happened to become reality in three months rather than three years — validation for years of pushing digital transformation, building business agility, beefing up security, adding collaboration tools and adopting flexible work policies.

Almost one third (30%) of IT leaders say the sudden business pivot affirmed their organization’s agility and flexibility, according to an IDG survey of 373 IT leaders in July to assess how the coronavirus pandemic has affected IT leaders’ roles and priorities.

But even with all the planning, some better-than-expected results have emerged from many organizations’ responses to the pandemic. IT leaders report that business changes caused by the pandemic have prompted them to focus more on driving business innovation, developing new go-to-market strategies and cultivating IT/business partnerships, according to the IDG survey. IT leaders also feel that their organizations have improved communication, are collaborating better, and are now using more efficient processes. Work-from-home strategies have also proven at least as productive as working from the office, for now.

These IT leaders identify seven silver linings to the pandemic, while some remain cautious about just how long those improvements will last.

1. Hyperefficiencies  

Some 64% of IT leaders say that increasing operational efficiencies is a top priority since the pandemic began, up from 53% who called it a top concern in 2019. Some companies are experiencing what they’re calling hyperefficiency as employees work from home with (presumably) fewer interruptions combined with the faster decision-making required during the pandemic.

Agero, a provider of roadside assistance services to carmakers and insurance providers, had implemented Zoom in October 2019 to better communicate with partners in India and around the country, in addition to Slack, so they were well positioned to bring those tools into the homes of their well-trained employees last spring.

“It took the clock speed of the company to a whole new level,” says Bernie Gracy, chief digital officer. When working remotely, “you don’t have those watercooler moments, and so we’ve just become hyperefficient.”

When COVID made in-person tech support unavailable, TRC Companies found that service desk calls didn’t really have to be handled on location at any one of its 150 offices. Now employee calls to the service desk can be answered and resolved by a support team member anywhere in the country.

“It really opened the company’s eyes to understand that I can rely on an external service desk. I don’t need to walk up to someone to ask them a question,” says Rob Petrone, vice president of IT. “It’s been a lot more efficient in the way we’re doing our day-to-day jobs.” Remote service desks have improved response and resolution times, and have created a better work-life balance for service desk staff.

But some CIOs think these sudden increases in efficiency won’t last. They’re buoyed by relationships and processes that were already established before remote work began, and those benefits will decrease over time as remote work continues.

“We can focus better now, but for the most part, you’re carrying relationships that pre-existed COVID into our remote work environment,” says Ben Cabrera, fractional CIO and principal at Freeman Clark. “When the team gets broken up and people move on to new projects, now you have to work with new people. It’s a challenge to be able to ‘click,’” he says. “Eventually, if we do it long enough, we can recoup these efficiencies, but over time I can see the efficiencies dropping off as people change teams or retire.”

2. New initiatives for competitive advantage

The pandemic has spawned new opportunities to create competitive advantage based on work from IT.

As the pandemic took its toll on hospitals and healthcare providers, Agero wanted to make sure that healthcare workers were at the front of the line in an auto emergency. It created a feature on its white label app where a user that identifies as a healthcare worker can be moved to the front of the digital queue. “It wasn’t something we planned, but we’re able to do it,” Gracy says.

The pandemic has reinforced the power of the ecosystem, he adds. “We’re doing more and more work not just as a white label provider on behalf of our clients, but recognizing there’s an ecosystem of different players, where you’re exposing your API, you’re collaborating now across different providers — where you’re really talking about cross-enterprise collaboration on behalf of a shared client or space or ecosystem.”

3. More skilled talent available, locationless hiring

The pandemic’s wildly uneven effect on industry sectors has created layoffs for many IT workers. At the outset of the pandemic, more than 105,000 US IT jobs were lost as companies retrenched in the face of COVID-19, more than erasing the 90,200 IT jobs added in all of 2019, according to management consultancy Janco Associates.

Those unexpected layoffs “gave us an opportunity to capture some great talent that we otherwise would’ve fought for — and now we’re able to get it,” says Richard Wiedenbeck, CIO at insurance, financial services and employee benefits firm Ameritas, which has added 30 new hires during the pandemic. 

“It has also opened the door faster to the idea of the gig workers and locationless hiring,” he says. “The challenges are the same with remote work, but it’s more about process and management discipline than it is about the worker.” 

An employee’s location, at least for now, is less relevant because of work-from-home mandates, but it raises questions about salaries and whether to pay for the skillset or the worker’s location. In Silicon Valley, companies are already planning for a future with decentralized staffs. That could mean cutting salaries by 15 percent or more depending on where an employee chooses to live, according to one report.

Wiedenbeck says he would rely on the national average salary for a given position in those cases.

4. Cost savings

Some companies are realizing cost savings that weren’t expected or that came as a result of COVID restrictions.

TRC Companies plans to get rid of its office phone system and instead use Microsoft Teams voice capabilities. Petrone anticipates the move saving the company $200,000 annually plus the cost of ongoing support and maintenance.

With business travel shut down, some globetrotting IT leaders found unexpected travel cost and time savings. “When the pandemic happened, I could participate in many more events than I had before — roundtables, meeting with peers, partners,” Strusievici says. What’s more, “We have good conversations. They’re more relaxed and honest.”

5. Better, ‘more human’ communication

More than a third (37%) of IT leaders say process or technology changes they’ve made in response to the pandemic have improved communication and collaboration, and have created more efficient workflows and processes.

Strusievici finds that communicating while working from home has blurred the office hierarchy. “In a twisted way, it has made us more accessible, and has made us more human,” he says. “I’m seeing people [on the screen], and their cat jumps on their lap or the kids come in and say hi. I’m in a t-shirt, not a suit. For so many, that has changed the tone of the conversation. We have become somehow more understanding, human, connected on a different level.”

6. Shorter chain of command, decision-making pushed down

Agero’s Gracy has been pushing down more responsibility and decision-making, which has become key to maintaining speed and agility. “We’ve decentralized. We focus on speed, agility, innovation, so you really need people who are teaming, proactively communicating, taking ownership and who do data-driven decision-making,” he says.

At the executive level, the business conversations around technology are much easier than they were a year ago, Cabrera says. “There have been times when I needed to talk to the CFO and I couldn’t get 10 minutes with him. I don’t see that happening now. It’s more of an engagement. There’s no playbook for the pandemic, so you’re learning as you go.”

Leaders tend to be more direct in their communication because we’re remote, Cabrera adds. “I tend to go direct to the source to deal with an issue,” rather than gathering a group together to discuss it.

7. Elevation of the CIO role

Some 54% of IT leaders expect collaboration between IT and lines of business to increase over the next year as a result of the pandemic, and IT leadership will take center stage.

“COVID is giving us an opportunity to show that we’ve been right,” Strusievici says. “Going forward, a lot of things will be reshaped in society, and there will be plenty of opportunities for digital transformation to go one way or the other, but the ability of an organization to be agile will be fundamental to take on those opportunities.”