CIO learnings from the pandemic

The pandemic has resulted in rapid changes to the way we work, but it’s not only the shift to remote working which CIOs have been hard-pressed to deal with. Covid has presented many different challenges, and businesses have had to be very flexible and adapt at speed to survive and thrive. There have been a multitude of learnings for everyone.

Many of those businesses that have thrived had already started their digital transformation journey and had begun to address the needs of the digital consumer. Some had begun to tackle legacy IT within their estates, in favour of making greater use of cloud services, while others were less prepared. One key learning from the pandemic is that businesses need to be prepared to change their business models and invest in the IT infrastructure – which supports flexibility and agility.

It would be oversimplifying the challenge of remote-working to think that this has been all about adopting Zoom, Teams or any of the many other video-conferencing solutions. The pandemic has presented challenges in very many different areas of IT infrastructure, and it has had a huge impact upon many different aspects of businesses and how they operate. Let’s consider a few examples.

Within the retail sector, some businesses like The White Company, which had already established an online presence, was better prepared for the closure of its stores. It goes without saying that those companies which were ill-prepared, have paid a heavy price. It’s not just a case of bricks and mortar businesses being slow to react; large enterprises who were already well along their journey of modernising their IT estates found new challenges.

In response to government guidelines at the start of the pandemic, Howdens closed, in quick succession, its offices, its manufacturing operations, and over 700 trade depots. The rapid shut down of its physical operations meant that overnight, it needed to support unprecedented levels of remote-working. During the following weeks, once social-distancing measures were in place, Howdens quickly began the process of re-opening its depots. This rapid transition created an ever-changing landscape of requirements for the IT team, with different parts of the business all needing IT resource at the same time. Additional capacity on networks was needed to support staff working from home, large-scale revisions of call routing were put in place in waves, as depots closed then re-opened, greater use of call reporting enabled the IT team to analyse and manage call volumes across the estate and intelligent call routing was used to reduce pressure on depots operating with skeleton staff.

Key to Howdens success in managing these challenges was its ability to call upon additional cloud-based services. Hosted services allowed them to flex network capacity, to add new services to telephony services already hosted in the cloud, all of which gave them the foundation to respond to the pandemic at speed. As Howdens’ Director of IS Infrastructure and Service Delivery explained,

We have defined a blueprint for different types of remote-working scenarios. We have many solutions in the armoury for different situations, which gives us greater flexibility and the ability to react much faster going forward.

It’s now widely acknowledged that the technologies that were put in place during the pandemic have accelerated the digital transformation of many organisations. What is also clear is that those technologies adopted during Covid are largely here to stay. The era of hybrid-working has begun and that has meant a permanent change to the way organisations use technology.

At Hays specialist recruitment teams adopted collaboration tools which allowed them to work remotely during Covid, making and taking business calls from a single application. Those tools are now ‘business as usual’ and give the teams the flexibility to make and take calls using the same business number from any location, on any device. Desk phones are no longer needed and the initial hesitancy that users had in adopting headphones has been overcome. Hays’ Head of Networks said, “Working closely with the Redcentric team, we’ve done three to four voice migrations within the last nine months in the time it would usually take us to do just one.” The integration of different cloud services has allowed Hays to simplify the tools that users need to deliver services to its customers and job applicants. Now it has greater flexibility to deliver services in different ways, the scalability to increase or decrease capacity and the agility to respond to different needs.

Never more so than during the pandemic has security of data, systems and devices posed such a challenge, and this has shone a light on the need for secure cloud services which can be switched on with ease. One example of this has been in the healthcare sector, where thousands of GPs and other medical staff needed to deliver services remotely. Secure remote access services enabled users to access highly sensitive data within healthcare systems normally accessed only from the local area networks within physical GP surgeries. With many GPs continuing to deliver telephone appointments and other services remotely, it looks like these solutions are here to stay.

In other business sectors, IT teams have needed the ability to manage the security of end user devices that have enabled remote-working. Managing devices over the internet has been a concern for many. The NHS North Central London CCG needed to ensure their 4,500 staff could continue to provide support to patients and adopted a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) to provide secure virtualised access to all their internal applications.

The key takeaways from the pandemic are that every business should have in place a clear plan for Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery and the overall technology strategy. CIOs need to address the legacy IT still in place across their estate, wherever that exists and ensure that their organisations can be flexible and agile. A cloud-first approach will allow businesses to transform quickly and to be prepared beyond emergency measures, for new ways of working which improve not only business resilience but improve quality of life for staff and reduce impact on the climate.

To provide this level of flexibility the task facing CIOs is how to make even more use of the cloud. Global spending on public cloud services is forecast to grow 18.4% next year to total $304.9 billion, up from $257.5 billion in 2020, according to Gartner. Regardless of the pandemic, for several years many software vendors have already moved away from providing support for on-premises based systems and are moving to only providing cloud-centric services. With this in mind, adopting a cloud first strategy will soon no longer be an optional consideration for long term support of applications and IT services.

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