The Pandemic Phase I Stress Test is Over. Is Your IT Team Ready for Phase II?
The Phase I stress test is over. Twelve weeks ago the majority of American knowledge workers were forcibly relocated from their corporate offices to home desks, kitchen tables and basement workbenches. IT teams scrambled to respond to the work-from-home lockdown by developing new procedures for provisioning home equipment, deploying new collaboration tools, beefing up their VPN networks and redesigning their service desk support procedures.
Other team members made urgent changes to customer-facing websites and back office systems to accommodate new pricing, billing, cancellation and product return policies. Some IT teams passed this stress test with flying colors, some failed and still others simply managed to get by.
The COVID-19 crisis will only be resolved when an effective vaccine has been deployed, both nationally and globally. No one can predict when that will occur. Despite the claims of many IT vendors that we are about to embark on a “New Normal” set of working practices, Phase II of the crisis is likely to be more chaotic and confusing than Phase I.
Plans are being developed to reopen offices, resume classroom instruction and restart retail commerce across the U.S., but these plans are being developed on a piecemeal basis by individual cities, counties and states. There will be nothing normal about the next few quarters as our notions of what people will be asked to do, what they will be required to do and what they are actually willing to do continue to evolve.
An earlier article discussed the business issues that many companies encountered in responding to Phase I. This post challenges IT leaders to reflect upon the performance of their teams during the past few months and ask themselves if their teams are truly prepared for Phase II. If Phase I was a sprint, Phase II will be a marathon.
The adrenaline rush that enabled IT teams to power through Phase I cannot be relied upon to sustain their performance during Phase II. To prepare for the coming marathon, leaders should be asking themselves the following questions:
Do we have the right skills?
Did the demands placed on our team during Phase I reveal critical gaps in the skills that will be required during the next 12-18 months? Are there critical bandwidth constraints that forced us to rely on a handful of critical people to get certain things done? These questions need to be asked in the broadest possible context. They apply not just to technical skills but to the specialized skills required to manage IT finances, projects, vendors and business partners as well.
Are we working on the right things?
Is your team instinctively retreating into the comfort zone of business as usual activities when there’s nothing usual about the challenges and opportunities currently confronting your company? Are the traditional procedures used to prioritize business projects, respond to application enhancement requests and resolve production support issues still appropriate during Phase II?
IT teams invariably try to please many different constituencies within their companies. They routinely overcommit and underperform. Do new procedures need to be established to ensure that your team is focused on the most important strategic issues facing your company during Phase II?
Are we focused on business outcomes and not just operational metrics?
Team productivity is not a function of the number of Zoom minutes, Slack messages, Jira tasks and Box folders that are consumed, exchanged, completed or created during a given day or week. There are countless other metrics within IT such as closed service desk tickets, resolved production support issues, excess server capacity, network latency and infosec attack suppression that are also poor surrogates for measuring IT effectiveness.
As job security concerns rise during the coming months, team members may try to justify their existence by undue reliance on activity metrics when their true survival depends upon delivering tangible business outcomes.
Do we have the right leadership?
During Phase II, IT leaders will face the dual dilemma of sustaining maximum levels of staff productivity and maintaining the quality of their teams’ work products. Most leaders relied on constant communication to manage their teams through Phase I.
Although constant interaction via Slack, Zoom, Teams or Gmail may have been useful in maintaining the focus of individual team members and providing some degree of emotional reassurance regarding their job security, at some point such interactions cross the line and become a blatant form of micromanagement.
Micromanagement is a cancer that saps productivity and undermines innovation. It’s not a sustainable means of assuring team performance during the coming marathon. It needs to be eradicated aggressively and immediately wherever it appears.
Leaders also need to proactively guard against IT tribalism during Phase II. Most IT organizations are a collection of tribes possessing unique technical skills. During Phase I these tribes had a tendency to focus on daily communication with one another at the expense of casual interactions with peers in other technical tribes. Very few major business initiatives can succeed without the support of multiple IT teams, and it will be important to reinforce intertribal communication as IT teams take on more strategic business initiatives during Phase II.
Finally, leaders need to aggressively manage the performance of team members who failed to meet expectations during Phase I. Under current financial circumstances, every headcount is important and there should be very little tolerance for individuals who are failing to meet their obligations or are undermining the productivity of others.
Many leaders are fearful that terminations will trigger job security concerns within their teams, but in many cases quite the opposite is true. Individuals who are juggling work obligations, parenting challenges and financial concerns may not be openly critical of the performance of their peers. However, their motivation and productivity is likely to increase when they no longer have to compensate for the failings of others.
It’s time to look in the mirror
In reality, IT leaders should be asking the questions listed above all of the time. What’s unique about the current situation is that the stresses experienced by IT teams during Phase I of the crisis have likely highlighted shortcomings in one or more of the areas listed above in a stark, inescapable manner.
What makes this assessment even more urgent is that failure to address organizational performance issues that were clearly on display during Phase I is a likely prescription for team failure or irrelevancy during Phase II.
There is no “new normal.” For the foreseeable future there will be a sequence of “next normals” that are likely to be more unpredictable and more stressful than our collective experience during the past few months. The time to act on the questions listed above is now, while there’s still an opportunity to win the coming marathon.
Editor’s Note: This was originally published on Forbes.com CIO Network.
It was acceptable to ad-lib a remote strategy at the beginning of the pandemic, but companies that want to transform that initial emergency response into a sustainable model need to put in the effort to make it so.
Eight months in, we’re feeling much more comfortable with remote work, but we sure do miss being at the office together.