As crises go, COVID-19 may take the biscuit in our generation. This is the largest pandemic suffered by humans since the Spanish Flu and the likelihood is that the level of social and economic change introduced by this pandemic could be of similar dimensions to the Marshall plan led post-war world of 1945.
The urgent requirements introduced by the crisis
Leading a technology team through the first stages of this crisis was not easy. By mid-March, and based on the experience of Spain and Italy, it was becoming clear that there was a strong possibility that the Government would impose a lockdown. Two things were clear to me: we had to act quick, and we had to keep things simple, with four key priorities:
- People, people, people. The key to everything is in our people. It always is.
Firstly, we had to make sure that our people were safe and sound. The world was looking dark, and our staff were feeling vulnerable and anxious. Their families could be going through sickness, death, and problems at work. Reassuring and supporting the teams will go a long way to keep the ship straight.
At the time they could have been falling ill to the virus. We had to plan our resources, well ahead of that happening. Creativeness and lateral thinking were the name of the game. Special focus had to be put on business-critical functions like our helpdesks. Lockdown would mean everybody working from home, including them.
Good communication to our teams was vital. Daily "stand-ups" on Teams with clear and concise instructions, with no room for interpretation, went a long way to reassure people and move the ship forward.
- Refocus on Operations. Yes, boring, I know. But necessary. In such a situation, projects had to be mothballed, unless there was a contractual reason for delivering them. Focus had to be on operations. Especially those systems used by customers or critical to employees.
- Working from home, remote working. Key to everything was enabling the organisation to be able to work from home, or to work remotely. Remote access tools became critical. Office 365 became the heart of the business as a comms tool. Getting hold of laptops was difficult and we had to move desktops to people’s homes at the time. We had to relax the rules on BYOD. And we published a good set of instructions with "dos and don'ts" -
clear and concise "how to work from home" advice to colleagues was key.
- Cyber security. Cyber risks would clearly be on the increase. In times like this, risk agents will find it easier braking into our walls and make money at the expense of our vulnerable organisations. Being extra watchful and using some of the resource removed from project work to strengthen our cyber posture would keep the organisation safe. Tools like multi-factor authentication become critical, especially with large numbers working from home.
The recovery period from the crisis.
We are now starting a COVID-19 recovery period, and it will be critical. This is an incredibly unusual situation and its consequences need to be well understood, so we can create or refine our strategy for the “new-normal”, whatever that might be. We need to understand what we have done well. And we need to understand what we could have done better. A bit like checking the state of the house after the hurricane. We are using April/May to reflect and analyse.
Scenario planning becomes key: will we go back to the office, or will this be a long and protracted period of disruption maybe extending into 2021? Will customer pattern and needs change because of this crisis? How can IT best support the rest of the business in the next few months? How much money will there be available for investment and projects?
The long-term changes in the sector. The “new normal”
Nobody understands what will be the new normal once this crisis recedes. What’s clear through history is that plagues drive change. This virus is not going to bring a "new normal". This virus is going to bring a revolution in human behaviour.
And, in my view, this crisis is likely to accelerate the need for digital transformation. Just like war times have always accelerated the pace of technology and innovation. Technology is very likely to become a basic need crucial enabler and competitive differentiator for Companies. Four key watch-outs for CIOs:
- COVID-19 has already created a basic digital need for remote work. From basic work-from-home for managers and clerks, to physical bank branches replaced by call centre employees working remotely and severe increases in the need for remote workers supporting travel insurance claims. Without an adequate digital setup supporting remote work, the organisation will simply not survive in the medium to long-term.
- For the foreseeable future, companies are going to be focused on cost cutting. Both a severe shortage of cash and capital, as well as reductions in income, will create a vicious circle of biblical dimensions. Investments in new non-core activities, projects with long return on investment, competition positioning ventures with doubtful return, or the ever classic “Chairmans’ pet project” will simply stop due to the lack of cash. The focus will be on cost. Big large ERP projects are likely to be put on the shelf, with small agile productivity improvement projects taking priority. Digital efficiency through Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robot Process Automation (RPA) is likely to move in status from strategic to critical.
- Companies will need to find ways of coping with social distancing and the avoidance of physical contact and introduce digital touch-points instead. Argos has moved from touchscreens in shops to only accept online orders, even if they get placed from shoppers on their mobile phones while physically at the shop. This avoids potential contagion through the touchscreen terminals. Social distancing is here to stay in one way or another. And digital touch-points will become necessary virtual bridges for human relations. A virtual train ticket on a phone will become the norm over virus-threatening paper tickets or touchscreens at stations. Companies need to think carefully how they will adapt their operation to social distancing and how digital solutions can help bridge the gap opened by physical separation.
- Companies will need digital competitiveness. I have tried for a couple of days to open a new business bank account and my bank does not offer this service online. Unfortunately, they do not have a live chat either, just a basic bot with all the wrong answers. And, when ringing the call centre, the IVR states that they are only dealing with Covid-19 related issues, mainly mortgage holidays. Or, in other words, my bank is set up for dealing with me in a high-street branch with physical presence and a face-to-face meeting with a branch employee. Reality is that I have not visited a bank branch in months, and I am not going to do it in the middle of a pandemic, even if the branches were open. Starling Bank, here we come...
The pandemic is going to change the way we live, the way our civilisation works. Physical proximity and touch-points have been changed forever. Intelligent leaders will develop a digital mindset and invest the little money they have left in digital solutions to physical problems. Those that stick to traditional physical presence at the workplace and cost savings as a means of balancing their books, may not make it. In my view, one of the most important changes to be brought by COVID-19 will be a vertiginous digital acceleration in companies and organisations.