The coronavirus pandemic has created challenges in virtually every aspect of business, in ways few people could have imagined just a few short months ago.
IT is certainly no exception, with CIOs and other technology leaders working overtime to cope with the disruptions, support the business, and continue to steer transformations into uncertain futures.
Here are some of the biggest challenges IT has had to address during the crisis.
Shifting business processes
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations across nearly every industry to alter how they deliver products and services. The entire education sector, for example, has had to close facilities and move to a distance learning model. This has had multiple repercussions for IT.
“Our university moved some 1,500 courses taught by over 600 faculty members online over about a 10-day span, while another 600 employees were faced with moving to a remote work environment at the same time,” says Bill Balint, CIO of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “The IT challenges remain monumental in many ways.”
Many local faculty had never taught fully online before, and none of the courses were designed to be conducted fully online. “And all faculty had to make this transition right in the middle of a semester,” Balint says. “Cancelling a course is not an option.”
Facilitating a full-scale shift in business operations such as this has been a common challenge for IT organizations across many industries.
Supporting the work-from-home model en masse
The pandemic has driven millions of people to work from home for the first time, as offices have been shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This has meant new challenges in connectivity, security, and management for IT.
“Employee IT remote setups are very diverse,” but a key to success relies upon having standard setup, Balint says. “Home users may have a very old PC, poor connectivity, outdated or unsupported software,” he says. They might also lack proper security patches and might be sharing equipment with family members.
“Some users are also trying to use tablets for tasks they did at work on a dedicated, enterprise-class IT environment,” Balint says. “To further complicate the challenges, IT and related organizations can really only learn of needs when contacted. If a user struggles but chooses not to engage, IT cannot provide custom solutions.”
CIOs need to keep in mind that not all activities, skill sets, equipment, and connectivity fit equally into a fully remote world. “Understanding this reality, we are finding the best response is to avoid trying to do too much too soon,” Balint says. “Instead, our IT philosophy is to help each user create a sound, solid IT environment where they can remain productive.”
Remaining proactive — even in reactive mode
During the pandemic, businesses need to strike a balance between being reactive and being proactive, says Josh Thurmer, IT director at Cousins Subs, a restaurant chain.
Crises by their nature send organizations into reactive mode, as disruptions arise and must be dealt with on the fly. For Cousins Subs, this means continuing to adapt its day-to-day business model to best serve customers during the pandemic. That includes launching initiatives such as curbside pickup and a new Cousins Cares pay-it-forward initiative, as well as ensuring that its technology is working efficiently during peak online ordering times.
But IT must also remain proactive to help keep the organization humming and positioned well as the pandemic subsides.
“To be proactive, businesses need to be collaborative,” Thurmer says. “Our IT department works with the training and marketing teams to ensure our digital offerings are designed to be beneficial to both guests and our business today, tomorrow, and long after the pandemic is over.”
As IT professionals, “it’s our job to have a pulse on the technological landscape in its current and future state,” Thurmer says. “While a portion of our role is reactionary during the pandemic, [we need to] think to the future and propose solutions to problems [we] anticipate the industry will experience.”
Training and retraining users
No one was prepared for the drastic changes that have occurred in the wake of the coronavirus, including having to work from different environments, on different devices, and under different circumstances.
Many employees have needed to be trained in how to operate computing devices they never used before, how to connect to core systems from their homes, how to correctly and securely use videoconferencing systems, and so on. And this means a massive uptick in user education initiatives.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania is leveraging remote desktops, virtual private networks, and virtual desktop tools to mimic onsite capabilities as much as possible, Balint says. Supporting a core set of video meeting, collaboration, and telecommunication tools is helping to substitute for face-to-face interactions.
“User education holds the potential to have a huge positive impact, but only if it does not try to do too much,” Balint says. “We provide frequent, common sense, practical workshops backed with targeted websites that can be updated daily as the situation evolves.”
Need for easy scalability
Many business models have been turned upside down because of the pandemic. Retailers, including grocery stores, have seen dramatic increases in online orders, as shoppers try to avoid going into physical stores.
The cloud, which was already becoming increasingly important for many companies, is now even more vital.
“If properly architected with scalability your system within the cloud will be seamless,” Thurmer says. Cousins Subs built its technology suite to operate in a worst-case scenario. “For this reason, we were ready for and able to serve the influx of customers who ordered, and continue to order, online for curbside pickup or delivery,” he says.
Because the technology is scalable, the company was able to introduce curbside pick up in three states in just three days. For other organizations, the pandemic has offered an opportunity to reframe efforts around the scalability of the cloud.
Managing a remote IT staff
Line-of-business workers are not the only users who have shifted to the work-from-home scenario. Many IT staffers are in the same situation, and this presents management challenges for CIOs.
“Within the IT organization, governance has never been more important,” Balint says. “IT leaders must set clear expectations for IT staff, clearly defining tasks, priorities and time management. IT leadership must also watch for staff burnout. The situation is proving very stressful for an extended period, and great leaders must factor this into both short- and long-term decisions.”
An important part of operating a scattered IT team is establishing a remote communications protocol. “Because we are not in the office, it was important that we set up an efficient way to staff our help desk to ensure all initiatives and priorities for each day are handled, and provide real-time support to our colleagues and restaurants,” Thurmer says.
To do so, Thurmer created a daily “sync meeting” with his team. “During this meeting, I delegate daily assignments to the members of our IT team, talk about the needs of the business, and plan ahead for the post-pandemic,” he says. “I believe good communication, being really responsive, and thoroughly teaching and training are the keys to our success within this ‘new normal.’”
Shifting to organization-wide virtual collaboration
A big part of the work-from-home strategy is making it easy for people to collaborate from their remote locations. Video conferencing has played a huge role in the effort, and in many cases organizations have had to scramble to get up to speed on deploying and using the latest platforms.
The City of Long Beach (Calif.) Technology & Innovation Department (TID) quickly deployed conferencing and voice technologies to enable staff to stay connected, whether they are in the office or teleworking.
TID rolled out Cisco’s Webex platform to more than 4,500 users citywide, says Lea Eriksen, director of technology and innovation and CIO. It also implemented Cisco’s unified messaging system to enable the integration of voicemail and Microsoft’s Outlook email and calendaring application for some 2,500 users.
“The implementation of Webex has been a success, as we are witnessing highs of over 270 Webex meetings per day with as many as 1,250 attendees per day,” Eriksen says. “Three months ago, the city had only been hosting six Webex meetings per day.”
Keeping up morale
The pandemic crisis is taking a toll on many, in part because of the all the change that has taken place and the continued unknowns. For IT, there’s the added stress of having to support users in remote locations operating devices that might not be in complete sync with the corporate IT environment.
Boosting morale is vitally important for IT leaders. “One of my favorite parts about working at Cousins Subs is our commitment to recognition,” Thurmer says. “Whether it’s via a handwritten thank you note or in-person praise at a team meeting, our leadership team is committed to giving credit where credit is due. During the pandemic, that’s still a priority through virtual praise.”
Facing business continuity needs
While nearly every business plans for them, business continuity and disaster recovery more often than not remain theoretical needs. This pandemic has made these issues real for nearly every organization, and all the planning in the world sometimes doesn’t prepare a company for what actually happens.
For example, a lot of departments at Mutual Bank had plans in place to have people work at home. But they had never ordered or allocated laptops for critical workers, says Gary Kern, who recently left his position as vice president and CIO of the bank.
The planning “just proved that they could work at home,” Kern says. “Now, when critical workers need to work at home we have to rush requests for VPN access, find and set up laptops, and try to quickly train people on the proper and secure way to do what they need to do.”
So much remote work has the potential to stress systems, so Kern
proactively reached out to networking vendors to see about temporary expansion of capacity or resources.
Putting innovation on hold
The pandemic has forced many IT teams to focus on the here and now, supporting the day-to-day needs of the organization. For many IT departments, this has meant shifting priorities away from innovation projects, as well as new challenges in addressing long-term projects when time allows.
“Certainly all forward-looking digital innovation projects have all been put on hold while IT struggles to keep the lights on and deals with a flood of work-at-home issues,” Kern says.
In addition, all brainstorming now has to be done virtually. “And with folks still figuring those processes out, doing anything more than daily have-to-do items is much harder, or at the very least a new process where we are early in the adoption curve,” Kern says. “On the positive side, coming out of this we will all have a much better idea of what we want to drive towards in a future work environment.”