Post-coronavirus planning calls for more (not less) investment in tech

I wrote in my previous two columns about the urgent, highest-priority steps you and your organization needed to take before the crisis hit full force.

Now that entire states like California and New York are issuing shelter-in-place orders, millions are working from home, layoffs have begun and everybody’s fearing a recession, it’s time to start planning for the post pandemic world.

No, really!

[ Related: What your business can do about the coronavirus … right now ]

The coronavirus, or Covid-19, feels like the end of the world. But the world won’t end. The self-quarantine movement, the business closure mandates, the social distancing, the medical equipment shortages, the daily rise in mortality from the virus — all these factors will start getting better in a few weeks or months. The economic downturn may last months or years.

There are many unknowns about how this crisis will unfold. The highest priority is survival. And the purpose of survival is future success. But in order to succeed in the future, your organization must plan for it.

[ Related: How the coronavirus is changing tech and 5 things to do about it ]

Here are the steps you and your organization must take now to prepare for the post pandemic world.

1. Increase IT spending now

This is the most counter-intuitive step for the current retraction and for post-pandemic planning. But consider the impact of all current trends.

The biggest and most immediate trend is a move toward cost containment. A PwC survey found that some 62 percent of organizations are taking coronavirus-related cost-containment measures.

Huge numbers of employees who used to work in offices will now work from home. This change is semi-permanent. It’s unlikely that after the crisis is over that office work will return to pre-pandemic office-to-home work ratios. The shift from in-office to remote work involves spending less on facilities and more on remote-work IT.

More retail is going online. More customer service interactions are going virtual. “Social distancing” means face-to-face interactions between your employees and customers and partners are way down, and electronic interactions are way up. As with the work-from-home trend, even when the crisis is over new habits will have been formed and the post-pandemic world will look very different from the pre-pandemic world. The higher cost of face-to-face interactions will go way down, but the relatively lower cost of electronic interactions will go up, and that will force a shift in spending toward IT.

And, of course, multiple trends in security threats all point to a need for increased spending on security tools. A global recession incentivizes cybercrime. Coronavirus fears will be exploited for social engineering and phishing attacks. Widespread layoffs and company closures focus the attacks on the employees and companies still working. It’s less expensive to pay for the right security infrastructure than to pay the costs of the coming breaches. 

Many in your organization will want to cut everything across the board. But this mentality is a recipe for disaster. In order to cut costs, it’s vital to invest in the lower-cost alternatives. To blindly cut everything, including IT, is likely to result in catastrophic failures, meltdowns and cyberattacks.

2. Focus on retaining and even hiring IT and security staff

Enterprise IT and security departments suffered from a skills gap before the pandemic. They’ll suffer a gap during the pandemic. And it will continue after the pandemic. Building strong teams is hard, takes time and pays for itself in spades in the long term. Now is not the time to slow the effort to close the skills gap.

3. Plan for permanent increases in work-from-home staff, including and especially in IT

Everyone is talking about the work-from-home phenomenon, mostly in the context of the psychological adjustments required for the remote workers. Less appreciated is that organizations are facing unprecedented strains on communications infrastructure.

Even the US Air Force has reportedly blown past its VPN maximum capacity of 72,000 users, according to a CNN report.

Related to this is VoIP capacity, especially when call center activity is happening over VoIP and when VoIP is happening via remote agents over VPN. Depending on your business circumstances, call center activity may go up, just as other uses of communications infrastructure are being overtaxed.

Microsoft’s Teams conferencing app gained more than 12 million daily users in a single week. Slack is seeing similar rises in usage. And while Zoom is the break-away star during the coronavirus work-from-home movement, Cisco’s Webex is surging as well.

The work-from-home shift means your employees are now relying on consumer broadband services, which are suddenly experiencing record usage. Europe, which may serve as a leading indicator, forced Netflix, Amazon and YouTube to decrease video quality in Europe because consumer broadband is being over-taxed.

It’s very possible that your employees may lose connectivity, or suffer from painfully slow connectivity, because the consumer broadband services they’re using may not be able to keep up with demand. Start planning for the distribution of mobile hotspots and other alternative ways to get home workers online.

The pandemic has radically increased remote access and videoconferencing overnight. But these systems are not yet adequately provisioned or secured.

It’s also true that a great many organizations have been caught flat-footed on remote work in the policy department. This has to be addressed immediately. Make sure your policy is updated for the current situation, and covers eligibility, responsiveness and productivity expectations, work hours, equipment, tech support process, security, physical environment, confidentiality and termination. Continue to build and evolve your remote-work policy during and after the crisis.

Many remote workers in your organization won’t have the skills, inclinations, personality or habits necessary to successfully work from home, so you’ll likely need ongoing online training to help them cope.

And finally, and very importantly, IT people are going to be working from home, and this shift is probably permanent for many IT personnel, which requires special adjustments in infrastructure, hardware, software and training.

4. Build the capability to communicate centrally

In a crisis, and in a post-crisis future where people are more decentralized, the need for central communication is greater than ever. Set up a cross-silo team to run the communication, which for now should be daily. This team should meet regularly, streamline a process for management involvement and buy-in around the messaging, and send out information to everyone clearly, transparently and in as timely a manner as possible. Announce decisions, and detail how these decisions were arrived at and why.

Parallel to and compatible with this effort, you also need to communicate clearly and frequently with customers, shareholders, partners and others involved in your business.

Communication is the most important element of leadership. During and after the crisis, a return to successful operations will require leadership. Everyone will be looking to organizational leaders to reassure than there’s a steady hand at the wheel, to contextualize events for a big picture, not the fear of the moment, and to get everyone rowing in the same direction.

With skill and luck your organization will get through this crisis. Success and growth after the pandemic will depend in large part on what you do now, during the pandemic. So stay calm, think long-term and lead your organization through the crisis and into a successful future.