by Shannon Gath

Why your COVID recovery strategy should put people first

Nov 05, 2020
IT LeadershipStaff Management

While security, business continuity, and operational efficiencies may top an IT leader's list of responsibilities, people and team dynamics may ultimately be the strongest or weakest links in a pandemic recovery game plan.

A laptop user wears a face mask and gloves in a post-COVID office workspace.
Credit: Fizkes / Getty Images

As companies make plans to gradually shift from nearly a 100% work-from-home environment to a hybrid workforce consisting of a percentage of people working within a highly modified office environment and a larger number continuing to work from home for the foreseeable future, IT departments will be called upon to provide technology support for this structure.

To effectively do this, IT must maintain productivity levels among their teams, improve existing infrastructures to make them more resilient, and continue to drive digital transformation — even though IT staffing may be reduced and technology budgets cut. IT leaders and staff may also be asked to sharpen their non-technical skills in communication and collaboration as they interact with peers on the business side to focus more on products and revenue-generating initiatives.

In this CIO Executive Council Point of View, Shannon Gath, CIO at AMAG Pharmaceuticals, outlines some of the challenges she faces as she continues to drive transformational change and deliver business value as part of the company’s COVID efforts.


COVID’s impact on workforce and culture

We have talked for years about the importance of business relationship management skills and functions that have really helped us grow and mature as CIOs. However, COVID presents an opportunity for CIOs to really show how well we understand the business and demonstrate how capable we are of leading cross-functional enterprise-wide change initiatives.

I think most every IT leader today knows that everything we do is grounded in a business first approach and realizes the hurdles faced by the business. This puts us in a great position to not only use the technology and strategic resources in our tool belt to address challenges, but to also understand how the integration of people, process, and technology can solve significant problems for the organization and help it thrive. This problem-solving capability is what will help companies thrive in these changing times and ultimately survive.

There is no doubt it is important for CIOs to make sure that a remote workforce is as productive and secure as possible. However, one of the unknowns and concerns at this point is what kind of an impact a long-term split workforce will have on the overall culture of an organization. 

Roughly two-thirds of U.S. employees are presently working from home during the pandemic, according to SHRM’s COVID-19 Business Index. Nearly 60% of U.S. workers who have worked at home during the crisis would also prefer to do this as much as possible once healthcare restrictions are lifted or a vaccine is widely available, notes Gallup research. A split workforce of those working from home and those working in the office presents a unique cultural shift.

The first step in countering, or at least acknowledging, the cultural challenge is for leaders to keep a close watch on the overall dynamics of the organization. Management should set aside time with every employee — both in the office and at home — to really understand where they are struggling and what their pain points are, since the experience is so individualized and personal. Supporting your team should never be ‘one size fits all.’ Having empathy is critical right now. Today, more than ever, its important you understand the personal situations for each employee and how management can meet them where they are to achieve the greatest level of productivity while helping to find a balance that will give them fulfillment both professionally and personally.

Keeping an eye on IT talent retention, recruitment, and diversity

From an IT leadership perspective, you must make sure you can scale up and scale down technology resources in a manner that allows you to continue to run and accelerate the business. When I evaluate future team members and leaders, I look for somebody I would profile as an athlete. They may come to the table with a certain level of expertise, but how fast do they come up to speed in different areas outside of their responsibilities and lean into other areas to take on more responsibility in a short period of time?

If you oversee an IT organization that must reduce its workforce by 50%, who among the remaining people are the ones who will help you move forward? It may not necessarily be the experts or specialists, but perhaps will be those people who can take on a lot more responsibility. I do think that well-rounded technology and collaboration athletes are really the future of the business, since these are the people who are resilient and will survive times of tumultuous change. In these times, those are the kind of people you want on your team.

You can identify these people, both in-office and remote, because they are the ones who have strong communication skills, strong training and change management skills. They not only understand how products like those in the Microsoft platform are evolving and what features are coming out, but they also know which ones are most relevant to solving the specific business problems at your company. They can filter everything else out and put the proper solutions in place, so the employees and customers get the greatest benefit out of features and functionality.

Being able to identify, motivate, and train such workers, as well as recruit new people as part of a companywide digital transformation effort, elevates the role of the CIO to a greater position to impact and advance the entire company — in many cases, extending that influence directly to the CEO.