COVID-19 Leadership: CIOs Strategize on Responses to COVID-19

COVID-19 Leadership: CIOs Strategize on Responses to COVID-19

Joseph C. Pucciarelli    Timothy Scannell    Martha Rounds

“This is a good time for us to demonstrate that IT is leading the way and show by example how we can change the way we work.” A group of the CIO Executive Council’s IT executives met in a virtual roundtable on Tuesday, March 17, to discuss challenges and brainstorm solutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a wide-ranging discussion, the executives addressed the most critical challenges they are facing today, with the understanding that tomorrow may bring new and unexpected challenges that they must be prepared to address. The discussion centered on three main topics, all affected by the new realities engendered by COVID-19:

  • Maintaining business continuity
  • Assessing and adjusting IT’s priorities
  • Ensuring computer security

A striking aspect of the discussion was that executives’ most significant concern at this time is the potential consequence to their organizations of a large number of employees becoming ill simultaneously. Executives believe that the availability and distribution of necessary technology should keep pace with demand, unexpected global events and “last-mile” challenges like home-based bandwidth notwithstanding. Participants in the discussion are more concerned about the health and safety of employees in the face of unknown circumstances engendered by the pandemic. They also note the cultural impacts facing displaced employees and the need for clear and frequent communications.

Maintaining Business Continuity
Working from Home (WFH)

“Working from home has become a norm,” commented one executive. “But, until now, nobody worked at home all the time with everyone else also working from home, all the time. This is a unique situation and uncharted territory for everyone.” Some key points from the discussion:

  • It’s critical that all employees feel “supported and protected” by their employers. This meansnot only working closely with HR to establish WFH policies, but also taking a clear approach to communications and structures associated with remote working. A clear approach to communications means that all written communications is at high-school-level, “USA Today”complexity in its writing style.
  • One company developed a WFH checklist of ‘”do’s and don’ts” that was distributed to allemployees; this communication clearly defines what is acceptable in remote working and
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    answers basic questions about the new structure. “It gives a little bit more security to have a set of rules,” says an IT leader.
  • It’s critical to understand the daily status of everyone in the organization: how many people are working, ill, or on PTO each day? Build a quick Microsoft Flow App that enables all employees to provide status each morning so that the rest of the team knows how all team members are.
  •  Executives noted the usefulness of conducting a short daily “stand-up” meeting with each team to review critical issues, priorities and goals. This also keeps employees engaged and connecting with one another.
  • Video is considered to be an important driver of effective remote work strategies during this cultural shift since it helps diminish the detached experience for people not familiar with working remotely. However, many people are not yet comfortable with appearing routinely on video. IT and company leaders should lead by example, using video whenever they can as a “top down” influence.

Many companies had already implemented work-from-home policies and plans before COVID-19 and are now building upon those strategies. These will continue to evolve over the days and weeks to come, and we will continue to report on these updates.

Coronavirus Awareness and Tactics

This discussion revolved around dealing with the pandemic in the short term, but also planning initiatives for longer-term impacts of the virus. Ideas that were suggested:

  • Establish internal coronavirus task forces, using collaborative tools to gather information from different departments and geographic regions. These teams provide, if needed, daily reports of who is sick or unavailable and can be used to activate specific groups of workers that can pivot very quickly if a situation arises. These communication networks can be extended by implementing a company-wide alert system to keep people informed, utilizing personal and company-assigned cellphones.
  • Create staggered teams for critical operations. Group key team required for mission-critical operations into separate teams and do not allow them to interact in person. With this approach, if one person tests positive, the team can be isolated without disrupting the other teams.
  •  Implement an emergency notification system for all employees: some leaders are using “Work Media” as a tool for this.
  • Coordinate outsourced activities such as programming support in countries like India to coincide with adapted work schedules and procedures.
  • Consider the financial impact as well as the technology challenges you face. Participants’ advice: Begin to assess the financial impact as best you can, understanding that it is difficult to know what expectations and conditions will emerge. Many companies are re-examining their 2020 budgets and forecasts and making more use of cloud-based collaborative tools such as Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. These tools are highly useful as the workforce goes through a cultural shift — from having some remote workers to everyone who possibly can working remotely.

Addressing IT’s Current Priorities

A critical question that every company and organization faces is that the duration of the WFH requirement is indeterminate at this time. If working from home lasts anywhere from two to six weeks, most can struggle through. But if the fallout from COVID-19 lasts for many months, which is possible, how does IT need to readjust its priorities?

  • Set up a separate team to think through the operational systems, capabilities, and requirements that need to be considered in the case of a longer-term situation.
  • If possible, use this interruption as an opportunity to tackle long-deferred projects, including those focused on reducing technical debt throughout the organization.
  • Take this opportunity to institute best practices that the organization has been slow to adopt. Many organizations have operational friction when digital and paper processes intersect, for example, “we need an original signed document for this.” Now, staffers may be more receptive to implementing applications that enable electrical document signatures; alternatively, some companies are asking staffers to use their cellphones to take photos of signed documents to streamline the document signature process. Similarly, employees are likely more receptive to new ways of working or connecting via video.


  • Work closely with procurement and HR teams as you establish plans for the next several months with respect to staffing levels, prioritizing projects, and “re-baselining” activities. Work with a goal of not going into “‘maintenance mode”; instead, use technology as effectively and efficiently as possible to accomplish as much as possible.
  • Modify existing contracts, wherever possible, since many contracts were developed on the premise that people would be on-site at a secure location. Since most contracts do have a standard “force majeure” clause that allows changes under unusual and unanticipated circumstances, companies are taking advantage of this to allow for remote working activities and conducting business through VPN “jump boxes.”
  • Work closely with internal compliance teams to allow for security and flexibility, and stipulate best practices and processes when contingency solutions are turned off.
  • Do everything you can to provide remote workers with the right equipment — like monitors, scanners, and other tools —.so they can effectively continue working in a home-based environment. While some companies may choose to purchase new equipment (although there may be a wait time for procurement), many companies are suspending rules covering office-based systems and peripherals to allow workers to use them temporarily as they work from home.

Computer Security Concerns

Be wary of the rash of COVID-19-specific phishing attacks that are already occurring. Some companies are sending daily updates to all employees with examples of latest phishing attack emails. There have been multiple reports of “click here” emails promising to identify the latest counts, people affected in a specific geographic area, and so forth. Messages may be something like the following:

  • “You’re invited to a Zoom meeting — click on this link.”
  •  “This is an important message from (fill in the blank) on Covid-19 — click here for more information.”
  •  “Here’s an up-to-date heat map of Covid-19 cases around the US — click here to see where the closest cases to you or a loved one are.” [This has apparently already proved to be a very successful way to get someone to click a link.]

As video is more widely used, companies should be sensitive to personal privacy issues and recognize there are times when video might not be appropriate. “Employee privacy is important, so precautionary measures should be in place,” says one CIO. “Nothing should be done that puts more people at risk.”

In Conclusion

The participants in the meeting concluded that COVID-19 and the accommodations that are being made around the globe will fundamentally change “the way we work,” and that it’s vital to recognize the new ways to work that will be revealed over the weeks and months to come.
There are new business opportunities that will emerge, too, as companies depend on IT more than ever before. To paraphrase one executive: “CIOs, this is our time to lead.”

Interested in participating in virtual sessions like this and others that target strategic IT issues or would like to learn more about the CIO Executive Council? Please contact