No one disagrees that 2020 was a dreadful year. But with vaccinations now being administered, people are becoming somewhat more hopeful and optimistic about this new year. And as IT leaders look back on 2020, many are saying that although the pandemic was incredibly challenging and difficult, it also resulted in some benefits for their organizations.
In its report on how the pandemic affected business operations, McKinsey wrote, "In just a few months’ time, the COVID-19 crisis has brought about years of change in the way companies in all sectors and regions do business." It added, "According to a new McKinsey Global Survey of executives, their companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and of their internal operations by three to four years. And the share of digital or digitally enabled products in their portfolios has accelerated by a shocking seven years."
Cisco's report A New Perspective on the Modern Workplace based on a survey conducted by Freeform Dynamics expressed a similar idea: "While you could regard this activity as representing a form of ‘crisis management,’ the reality is, it’s hard to remember a time when so many organizations have made so much progress with digital and business transformation so quickly." It also found that 75% of business leaders surveyed believed, "Despite the challenges, their organizations will emerge stronger, at least in some areas, as a result of the crisis."
The pandemic brought many issues that IT leaders are most concerned about to the attention of senior business leaders. CEOs are now more likely than ever to rely on their CIOs for advice. And a lot of that advice is likely to center around lessons learned during the crisis.
The following slides highlight 10 lessons IT leaders and teams learned during the pandemic that are likely to shape business operations as the crisis (hopefully) begins to abate.
1. Business Continuity Planning Is Essential.
Organizations that did not have a sufficient disaster recovery/business continuity (DR/BC) plans in place became aware of their shortcomings very quickly in the early days of the pandemic. Companies were forced to shift to remote work very quickly -- in some cases, literally overnight -- and those that were not prepared saw sharp drops in productivity, morale, customer satisfaction, and/or revenue.
One upside to the crisis is that DR/BC experts should now find it much easier to convince executives to budget for and test their plans. As one of the participants in the Cisco survey said, "One lesson I’ve taken from this crisis is the importance of preparing for low-probability events proactively."
2. Decentralization Aids Resilience.
DR/BC experts have long highlighted the need to keep some backups in a remote location, but decentralization has benefits far beyond just backups. If all your servers or all of your employees are located in one spot, a disaster is much more likely to have a major impact on operations. But if your organization uses multiple clouds and allows employees to work from anywhere, you have a much better chance that at least part of your organization will continue to be able to work, even if one area experiences a natural disaster, an outage, or a sudden spike in coronavirus cases.
3. Digital Transformation Is Not Optional.
Before the pandemic, digital transformation seemed to some like a "nice-to-have." They saw the need to keep up with the competition, but they often didn't see a need to make the change quickly.
2020 changed that.
As already noted, McKinsey found the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the digitization of customer interactions by an average of three years globally and four years in the Asia-Pacific region.
And in an email interview, Edith Harbaugh, CEO of feature management platform LaunchDarkly, emphasized the need for digital transformation, noting, "Resilient digital transformation technology is more important than ever in a suddenly remote-first world. Some of our customers have had to shift very quickly from digital being an add-on to it being their primary business -- whether they are a bank, an insurance company, or a restaurant."
4. Agile Is More Than a Buzzword.
For years, business advisors and consultants have encouraged enterprises to become more agile. So much so, that agile became something of a buzzword. But 2020 taught organizations that, like digital transformation, agility is essential to business success.
The Cisco report noted, "The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a very sharp lesson that [agility] isn’t just an abstract idea or a lofty management aspiration. It translates to a range of attributes, capabilities and behaviors that have a direct and material impact on how quickly and easily you can change direction, jump over hurdles and shift the center of gravity of your business."
Organizations that were able to pivot quickly during the pandemic have been much more successful than those that found the shift more difficult to navigate.
5. Cybercriminals Adapt Quickly.
One group that didn't struggle to adapt to the changing conditions brought on by the pandemic: cybercriminals. Within weeks after the pandemic began, cyberattacks skyrocketed as hackers sought to take advantage of the massive number of people working from home and nation-state attackers tried to break into healthcare and government systems to obtain data related to the pandemic and vaccines.
Out of necessity, many organizations increased their cybersecurity budgets, increased their employee security training, and tightened up their overall security posture. And in the McKinsey report, 53% of executives surveyed expected the increased spending on data security as a result of the pandemic to continue after the crisis.
6. Automation Creates Consistency.
With IT teams working out of their homes, collaboration became more difficult. Organizations with a lot of manual IT processes often struggled to maintain consistent levels of service and meet their service-level agreements (SLAs). But those with widespread use of automation generally fared better.
Analyst firm Forrester expects many companies to learn and apply this lesson in the coming year. In its Predictions 2021, it wrote, "We forecast that by the end of 2021, one out of every four remote workers will be supported by new forms of automation, either directly or indirectly."
7. Remote Work Works.
In the McKinsey survey, 93% of executives reported that their organizations increased remote work and/or collaboration during the pandemic, but the jury is still out on whether that was a good thing.
Cisco survey respondents had mixed views about the relative productivity of working from home versus the office. One said, "Now, actually, we see that we can be very productive when people are working from home." But another reported, "Productivity has definitely dropped. We’ve got a set of KPIs that we need to hit, and we found that everything was down 30%." And another believed it depends on the individuals involved, saying, "For the people that are self-starters and self-motivators, working from home is not a challenge. With other folks, you do still have to micromanage."
Overall, however, experience with remote work appears to be positive enough that it is likely to continue. In the McKinsey survey, 54% expected their organizations to continue remote work at least partially after the pandemic.
8. Employee Experience Is Important.
When the Cisco survey asked about changes organizations made that improved productivity, 77% cited "trusting and empowering our employees" as a key change, and 53% expect that change to continue over the long term.
The McKinsey report also found that the biggest difference between organizations that reported being successful during the crisis and those that did not was that 75% of successful organizations were able to fill tech talent gaps.
9. You Cannot Plan for Everything.
Last January, almost no one would have predicted that a global pandemic would alter modern workplaces so completely. If we have learned anything from the past year (and the beginning of 2021), it is to expect the unexpected. One of the Cisco survey participants noted, "We’ve learned that sometimes, there are no set rules or theories. You just have to look, learn and adapt."
But that doesn't mean you should abandon planning completely. Instead, try to build flexibility into your technology environment, your team, and your processes. You might not be completely prepared for anything that happens, but you can be ready to adapt.
10. We're Only Human.
2020 was also the year that many offices realized just how critical it is to take care of their employees' mental health and general well-being. Working from home left many people feeling lonely and a little depressed.
"While in the office, I could just say ‘Hi’, see how people were doing, and motivate them," said one of the Cisco survey respondents. "That personal touch is now missing."
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Cynthia Harvey is a freelance writer and editor based in the Detroit area. She has been covering the technology industry for more than fifteen years. View Full Bio