Coronavirus crisis

CIOs offer strategies for engaging an entirely mobile workforce

Working from home has been a success operationally, but it has strained people, processes and technology. CIOs discuss the opportunity to make each better in the days to come.

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Coronavirus crisis

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If one thing is clear about the coronavirus crisis that has engulfed us, it is that it has forever changed the nature of work. The business press is filled with stories about CFOs wanting fewer  workers to return to on-premises work.

Meanwhile, CEOs are seeing the opportunity to build world class workforces regardless of where workers live. According to Geoff Colvin of Fortune Magazine, “as businesses respond to this grand-scale reordering of their world, some implications are already clear. Remote work will become mainstream, if only because so many people will have an online meeting app and know how to use it.”

Given this backdrop, HR professionals suggest that the digital work life experience needs to be upgraded for remote strategies to succeed. The question where are CIOs — who are critical to a mobile workforce strategy succeeding —in terms in delivering a remote first, workplace strategy.

How has 100 percent WFH strained systems and people?

Opinion varies. Many CIOs like to talk about IT’s success at operations. Higher education CIO Stephen diFilipo says that he has found “minimal strain around the edges. For example, using Jabber to direct office phones to mobile and home phones was already in place. We needed a few tweaks for a few staff. Also, being in higher education, work from home was inherent in the technology strategy.”

For insurance industry CIO Martin Davis, “there was some initial pain in the transition, but our infrastructure held up well. The greatest strain and adjustment were people and management. And, yes, it has been a surprise to find people who had no connections or very low bandwidth connections.”

[ Related: Zoom fatigue is real and it’s costly ]

 Deputy CIO Angelica Gomez shares a similar experience. “VPN connectivity had to be expanded. Employees are working more. Now management spends more time cheering them up,” she says.

However, former Michigan State University CIO, Joanna Young suggests, “barrier conditions like resource constraints and too many priorities have roared to the forefront.” For this reason, she says, “IT leaders should not waste this [opportunity] to get more focused and people-centric.”  Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe says the state of work from home from the CIOs he has spoken to is as follows:

  • Near 100 percent of the infrastructure was in place
  • Zoom fatigue has set in
  • Copying the physical workplace to the virtual hasn’t proved effective
  • Managers needed to become coaches/psychologists

Analyst Jack Gold says that he has “seen a struggle to get thousands of laptops quickly so client service representatives could work from home. Also, some struggled to make sure employees working from home actually have reasonable home Internet connections. For the many did not, this not only affected productivity but required support calls to help desk.”

At the same time, Wayne Anderson, senior security and compliance architect at Microsoft 365, says that CIOs need to know that “VPNs are not a panacea for remote work. Companies need tiered strategies. Zero trust encrypted connections at the application level are preferred.” Organizations should use VPNs only where they can’t app-secure. “Regardless of device, it is important to not create a compliance liability during the 100 percent work from home period.”

Learning to scale when you’re entire workforce goes remote?

Many CIO say they have not needed to cut corners. However, not everything was ready day one.  “The capabilities were there. We just needed to learn to scale some services including VDI and VPN really quickly,” Gomez says.

However, Gold suggests not all companies were as ready. “A better solution would have been to go with a VDI, Citrix Workspace or VMware Workspace One solution. Unfortunately, most companies lacked the infrastructure or licenses.” 

Analyst and enterprise architect Dion Hinchliffe agrees with Gold and says, “organizations need a comprehensive, healthy work-from-home business capabilities.”

“Most didn't have mature programs and for this reason, there was mostly okay Internet access, VPN, and communications with applications, data, files, and systems of record access. The real gaps occurred in the systems of engagement especially culture and skills gaps,”

 Former CIO Wayne Sadin doesn't disagree. “[I’m] seeing a lot of reactive mobile enablement strategies. This includes by enabling remote work via WhatsApp or Signal. When CIOs do this, it endorses the technology effectively and it is really hard to pull back when the post COVID recovery takes place.”

Does moving more of the workforce permanently remote require remediation in the months to come?

The crisis has “appropriately proven to many executives they can run their companies from home,” Davis says. Former Gartner analyst and global growth evangelist for Salesforce, Tiffani Bova agrees: “The technology is there but it continues to be a people and process and a new mindset problem. In other words, it will not be the way we educate, teach, provide healthcare, sell, market, or collaborate until it's forced to be.”

However, McBreen says, “process reviews will be important in the months to come. This includes making sure that collaboration tools are robust enough.” Gold agrees and suggests “with work for home you better have robust remote support system in place, including full remote management and security.”

At the same time, CIO Michael Archuleta says, “CFO's have must be sensing an opportunity to realize the cost benefits from a more remote workforce. We need to make sure security measures are a top any priority change.”  

McBreen sees this too but believes, “it will be interesting to see what happens to productivity. Working remotely during a pandemic with kids at home is not as easy. Companies need to make sure the governance in place to insure a productive workforce.”

CIO Keith McIntosh adds, “this crisis has battle-tested processes and where they have been found lacking, they should be updated and fixed.” Clearly many organizations transformed quickly. “It was painful and for many, inadequate. Now is the time to mature work-from-home initiatives,” says Hinchcliffe.

Former CIO Joanna Young agrees and suggests, “process, talent, technology are inextricably intertwined. The effectiveness of the organization will be at the lowest of the three. Remediation will be needed in all three.”

Has work-from-home exposed weaknesses in your business processes?

CIOs were candid. “Absolutely! For this reason, IT here has assisted HR in providing workflow, portal access, electronic signatures, etc. to smooth over the issues that have appeared. This is not easy. It requires significant culture change.”

Meanwhile, Davis says, “we just on-boarded a new person who is relocating but cannot travel, and we successfully got them on board and fully functional with no issues from their current location.”

Interestingly, Hinchcliffe says that “the biggest weaknesses exposed during the crisis were in employee onboarding and offboarding. These are often weak in most organizations and remote work exposed them to the light of day. Data shows these are these are the two most important phases to get right in the employee experience.”

Gold says he believes that the “vast majority of organizations will still require new workers to be on site for onboarding. Not just for technology but for all the other formalities.” Nevertheless, he says  that “companies that had already transformed and were primarily cloud-based had an easier time of moving to work from home than those that were heavily dependent on legacy applications. While cloud is not a panacea, it made a big difference in remotely accessing from non-trusted devices.”

Hinchcliffe agrees and suggests, “those with legacy datacenters had a lot of work to do whereas those that have shifted to cloud/SaaS moved more quickly and seamlessly. And haven't looked back.” For this reason, Gold suggests, “there is a fundamentally new question. What is the definition of security at work from home? Few companies have a broad enough definition nor strategy in place for it or adequate tools in place.” Given this, CIO Paige Francis says that “work from home has actually reinforced known business weaknesses.”

Do you need to develop new ways to engage so many remote workers?

 “Organizations should embrace and utilize existing collaboration tools more fully. We need to think first about how we use the tools already available. I think this is more about creativity and process, then it is about new construction.”

Meanwhile, diFilipo says “we need to re-imagine learning. Start with a new lexicon. Learning equals education and learners equal students. Learning takes place better in bite-sized chunks. Just enough just-in-time learning will mitigate the need for monolithic platforms like Blackboard.”

“This is a great opportunity for CIOs to introduce low code apps and replace collaborations and workflows performed via emails and meetings,” Sacolick says. Jack Gold disagrees: “The key thing going forward is user experience (UX). We have models that show many dollars lost in user productivity due to bad UX. Companies must look at UX and improve it with modern workspace capabilities.”

Parting remarks

It seems clear that work from home has worked operationally. But it has strained people, processes and technology. There is an opportunity to make each better in the days to come. It is a time for CIO leadership as work from home becomes mainstreamed. We can do better, and CIOs armed with low code, among other things, will be ready to take us all to the future.