IT Leadership in the COVID-19 Era
2020 was a wakeup call not just to the IT industry, but to people in every industry and walk of life. The scenario that many scientists had been predicting unfolded, and despite their warnings, the world was not ready.
Suddenly, many IT workers became ‘essential’. The front lines that had been formed to fight this invisible threat put medical professionals shoulder to shoulder with ISP, communications, and infrastructure personnel, just to keep hospitals and cities functioning.
So how did IT leadership react to the very real possibility that they were putting lives on the line so that people could work from home, order medical supplies, and keep the lights on? Additionally, what lessons can be learned from all this?
The New Priorities
Both inside and outside the IT industry, working from home became the safest and most sane route to maintaining some measure of normality during the Covid-19 crisis. IDG’s Q3 CIO survey puts digital transformation at the top of all business initiatives during the pandemic. Businesses across every sector who could have people working from home wished to increase their capacity to function with remote teams. 41% of ITDMs anticipated tech budget increases as a result, while 35% anticipated stability.
Leadership development strategy has also come under intense examination in recent months. Amy Bernstein and Larry Clark of Harvard Business note a widening leadership competence gap between those who can cope with crisis, and those who are ill equipped. The leaders who were most successful were able to use three key leadership skills: Leading through uncertainty, cultivating team trust, and reskilling both themselves and team members for the new opportunities that were emerging. The flexibility theme is one that is hit over and over, in just about every study of successful responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. This will become a cornerstone of leadership development and training in the years to come.
In the same study, one IT CHRO said, “Teams will need to build new ways of working, for employees as well as for leaders. It’s an important time for HR.” This dynamic shift in where, how, and even when people work has put HR within IT companies in a critical leadership role, now more than ever before. They need to determine what is reasonable, and how to deal with ineffective remote departmental leadership.
Strategies IT Leaders Should Adopt
With the real possibility of putting people in harm’s way if they need to be physically present for something, IT automation has taken on a new level of importance. In Gartner’s list of short and long term actions for CIOs, several of their suggestions involve IT automation. This includes AI job application screening, virtual assistants for customer service, expanded client self-service options, centralized communications pushes, and the like. In essence, automate anything that will allow employees to focus on the changes that need to be made, rather than the predictable day to day business that has already been adapted to digital channels.
They also talk about anxiety relief and mental stress, which is a theme that has been echoed across the industry (by Deloitte, by McKinsey, and more) in these challenging times. Several months before the crisis, IT leaders were examining the WHO report on mental health in the workplace. One of the key takeaways is that work is good for mental health, but a stressful work environment can lead to serious mental health problems.
In order to keep work related stress down in times like these, both Gartner and the WHO encourage a centralized source for business ‘truth’. Getting conflicting orders and directives is one of the primary sources of mental breakdown in the workplace. Ernst & Young go into the correct tone of leadership communication strategy in depth. The takeaways are consistency, honesty, looking at things from the employees’ points of view, and streamlining the communications pipeline. IT crisis leadership should also include making mental health resources available to all employees and publicising their availability regularly through those same communications pipelines.
Finally, leading in a crisis sometimes involves radical restructuring… even redefining what a ‘week’ really is. For months, think tanks like Autonomy have been stressing the benefits of a four day work week in these critical times. Recently, EU leaders in both government and industry have urged world leaders to consider a shortened work week during the Covid vaccination and recovery period. With the ILO reporting a loss of 12% of total working hours worldwide because of the pandemic, the idea is being forced into reality in many places. Even the bastions of long work weeks like China are cutting down to four and a half day work weeks. Having these discussions internally and clearly communicating intent company wide will be vital over the next few months.
IT Crisis Management
IT crisis management in the mid and post Covid-19 era has been hit and miss, to be kind. Some digital companies, particularly in western Europe, were slow to react to the crisis. ISG reported on the woes of the EU insurance industry, who failed to adopt automation and AI for years and took a hit during 2020 for precisely those reasons.
However, the news has not been all bad. A surge in ‘IT for good’ initiatives has washed over the industry, with the approval of major IT leaders all over the world. Corporate contributions to open source projects has kept code commit levels steady in the open source world, while most other code projects have seen a dip.
This is, perhaps, the result of many of the lessons learned from leading during a crisis like Covid-19. People want to stay busy and productive, and if that means contributing to group oriented projects, then so be it. IT leaders worldwide have recognized that part of leading through uncertainty is investing resources in the common good rather than letting them sit idle.
As vaccines are rolled out worldwide, the hopes of a return to normality in late 2021 or early 2022 blossom. The increase in remote working and the newfound flexibility in the workforce has appealed to a significant percentage of professionals. The next big leadership challenge will be establishing the nature of corporate culture in an increasingly decentralized workplace.
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