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Written by Dan Salcius | Photo by Ricardo Gomez

How Technology Executives Define “The New Normal” and Redefine IT Organizations

Overnight, companies moved to videoconference and Microsoft Teams, among other virtual collaboration tools. Some ordered tens of thousands of laptops for employees. COVID-19 forced companies to make unimaginable changes in a matter of weeks, not years. Many haven’t looked back. However, to understand how technology executives define the new normal and redefine IT organizations, we must look to the past and learn from previous events.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment stabilized (4%-5% unemployment) about four years after 9/11 and the dot com bust. In comparison, it took eight years to recover from the 2008 credit crisis. Unlike these two events, COVID-19 led to an immediate economic shutdown, leaving businesses closed and workers unemployed for months. Based on observation and previous events, it’s plausible that workforce data won’t stabilize for another eight years.

During a recent SIM San Diego webinar featuring IT executives, Kevin Parikh, CEO, Avasant, encouraged company leaders to plan for the long-term before seeing a resemblance of normalcy or “the new normal.” Crises create winners and losers. Those who best return their company to new normal operations will experience the most successful outcomes. In this article, we explain how technology executives adapt to business demands and define the new normal with a remote workforce and people-first mindset.

Defining The New Normal for IT

Kevin Parikh believes today’s most pressing challenge is how technology executives adapt to business demands is in the COVID era. However, in a webinar for IT industry members, he emphasized the importance of managing this crisis’s human element. People come first. “We’re going to figure out the technology aspect of this, but what will be the long-term impact on our organizations,” he stated.

The new normal shows the need for leadership and adaptability. Karen Gibson, SVP Business Transformation at Quidel, explained that their call volume increased 3x during the pandemic. The staff that usually worked side-by-side in an organized office had to manage the call surge from home. She emphasized the importance of risk and fearless leadership in this environment. Remote work isn’t going anywhere, and technology executives must make big decisions with little information and certainty about the future. How should they do this? Lead with the human element when making decisions. Coach employees and staff to be productive but deal with the downfalls or setbacks as they come. Don’t dwell on things outside of your control.

Adapting to the new normal requires action at an unprecedented pace. Karen Gibson explained that mistakes are inevitable, so technology executives must help their teams learn and adjust rather than fixate on the fear of failure.

During the SIM San Diego executive forum, Drew Martin, CIO, Jack in the Box, talked about the re-prioritization of work to ensure business continuity. COVID-19 forced companies to pull back on projects that weren’t the primary concern. Annual goals and growth plans were altered overnight for many companies. However, the Abrupt change to daily operations opened the door for technology executives to deploy tools that reduce friction among employees, clients, and partners. Leaders were justified to launch transformation projects that were held up previously.

Redefining IT Organizations

Karen Gibson shared that her team is re-prioritizing the project portfolio for the year. It’s time to decide if projects from three or four months ago still make sense. IT must primarily evaluate their current focus and determine if a shift is needed to support the business moving forward. Make room for projects that better prepare the business for the new normal.

Drew Martin encouraged technology executives to “lean into new technologies,” such as virtual collaboration. The right tools help dispersed groups get more done in less time, regardless of the business’s environmental pressures. For example, Microsoft Teams enabled his staff to manage the re-prioritization of key projects with partners in a matter of days, not weeks or months. Essentially, the pandemic forced companies to explore technologies they should have adopted previously, creating opportunities from in the chaos. Could this be a lesson for the future? “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” said Drew.

Why Communication Leadership is Important

Communication within the organization is critical during times of disruption. While adapting to change, people must communicate more frequently and focus on the intended message. Think: What are you trying to say to a coworker, manager, or customer? Are you using the correct channel, while providing context? Effective communication in the remote workplace requires planning and strategy.

Technology executives must encourage teams to adopt new communication tools and remain connected. The active use of three or more channels is the new normal; this is the first step to serving as a communication leader during the long-term crisis. Executives who lead with empathy during times of uncertainty will better relate to employees across the organization and, therefore, better meet their needs. Listening and acting on feedback is vital for all companies navigating change.

Mike Zill, CIO, Acadia Pharmaceuticals, emphasized the importance of security awareness and training for all employees. The COVID response areas of the business are susceptible to increased cyber threats. People across the organization should know what to look for and how to handle suspicious emails, texts, and communications. Acadia is on the frontlines of the cybersecurity battle; they recorded a surge in sophisticated phishing attempts that were well-timed to COVID-19. Once identified, IT initiated training immediately, turning employees into a well-informed defense.

Now more than ever, the CIO and CISO are responsible for monitoring “bright-shiny object syndrome” — new technologies that tempt workers away from their recommended tools. Substituting Zoom for WebEx is one example. Defining the new normal includes directing people to use approved virtual tools and prohibiting other, less secure options, especially in the home environment.

How IT can Support Change

IT has been remote for years, decades. Steve Phillpott, CIO, Western Digital, believes today’s challenges are an opportunity for IT to be a role model for the entire organization. First, IT can show teams how to work from home efficiently, using the right tools, processes, and communication tactics. Multiple technology executives shared employee engagement ideas that didn’t involve sophisticated tools, including the distribution of personal stories and insights from the field, helping people relate and learn from real-world applications. Another idea is to give people tips on how to ensure productivity and keep their sanity when work and life are mixed. Again, the human element deserves your attention.

In his example, Steve Phillpott said he encourages staff to acknowledge the dog barking at the UPS delivery person who just knocked at the door during a video call. Consideration and empathy are essential during these situations; we have to handle the stress that comes our way during the day, from work and life.

Companies that were reluctant to use cloud services and SaaS pre-COVID must experiment with digital technologies to remain productive. Digital services such as video conferencing or online payment services are the only way to operate in response to the current environment (social distancing, stay-at-home-orders, mandatory testing). In partnership with business departments, IT can fast-track critical COVID response projects to keep the organization moving forward.

The accelerated use of digital business tools is inevitable. IT organizations with extensive remote experience serve as a mentor to companies looking to do more virtual collaboration. The same can be said for IT teams, which have been remote longer than other departments. IT can help smoothen the transition to remote work for the business, creating one-pagers and videos on how to troubleshoot common problems. IT can also implement AI chatbots (similar to a customer service tool) to support a workforce learning how to work from home.

According to Amy Benton, VP IT, Retrophin, IT can be an asset to the human resources department in the new normal. Companies that transitioned to remote work have to adjust their hiring practices, forced to adopt virtual interviewing tools. IT can help train the staff and ensure the technology is working correctly, supporting all aspects of the talent acquisition process.

Adapting With a Remote Workforce

Will they ever come back to an office, or is the new normal, defined by a remote-first workforce? Research data collected by Avasant concludes that as time goes on, fewer people will return to onsite working environments; therefore, it’s a permanent trend.

Steve Phillpott believes COVID-19 will change the way we work forever. However, one crucial factor determines how well a company adapts and moves forward — people. Company leaders must put people first and manage the human side of the business.

Leaders need to be conscious of the adjustments employees make to remain engaged and productive at work, a.k.a., home. Karen Gibson wants her people to get comfortable with failure in “the new normal” environment. Everyone is trying new tools and working in unfamiliar ways; there’s little time to plan, and room for error is critical for healthy and happy workers. How technology executives help their people learn from the mistakes determines their long-term success.

Amy Benton, VP of IT at Retrophin, believes companies have an opportunity to impress their workforce during these challenging times. Connect with everyone on a human level, she advised, implement new programs that engage and inform employees, and offer them a break from work from home life, regularly. She also noted that companies could experiment with virtual happy hours, yoga, or other stress-reducing activities. Company leaders should be open to creative solutions, whether they come from the top or bottom of the organization.

Summary

SIM San Diego hosted a webinar with IT executives from the Southern California region. The panel discussed how they are defining the new normal and redefining their IT organizations in the process. The group of technology leaders agreed unanimously that keeping people happy, healthy, and informed is their priority in response to COVID-19.

The group also agreed that company leaders must look forward and use the past to guide decision-making. Navigating the current environment requires IT to redefine itself by modeling communication leadership, enabling change and transformation, and supporting all staff across the business.

Moving forward, think about the problems and solutions discussed in this article. Can you take what you learned and apply it to your current situation? At a minimum, we can serve as stewards for the human-centered approach to defining the new normal in IT and business.

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