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As companies face remote work challenges, the spotlight is on CIOs

(Image credit: Image Credit: llaszlo / Shutterstock)

CIOs have been in the fight of their lives since the coronavirus pandemic broke out in the U.S. in March. From site overloads to denial-of-service attacks, the technical challenges of transitioning entire companies to remote operations were overwhelming.

As one CIO said in a McKinsey report, “All eyes are on me. And I’m trying to deal with exploding online loads, people working remotely, new cyberthreats. Every day it’s something new.” There’s no doubt CIOs around the country — and the world — identified with this person’s words.

The challenges CIOs face haven’t slowed down since March, and they’ve had to grapple with an even wider range of issues as remote work becomes the next normal. Many organizations are continuing to have nonessential personnel work from home, and others are taking a hybrid approach to protect their teams’ health. While remote work is a necessity for the time being, it creates a host of unique problems for CIOs to solve.

Securing communications by bringing things in-house

Infrastructure breakdowns and privacy exposures are key concerns when supporting remote workforces. That’s why there was a scramble in the early days of Covid-19 to ensure that employees had properly secured laptops, monitors, Bluetooth keyboards, and other equipment that had the appropriate firewalls and security measures.

Communication also became a top priority for remote workers and CIOs — and it still remains a leading concern. Collaborative tools such as video conferencing and chat platforms are vital to maintaining business operations remotely, but these must also be vetted for security. Keeping company data secure and confidential is of paramount importance, but it’s a tall order when employees are working from unsecured home Wi-Fi networks that are more susceptible to cyberattacks than enterprise connections.

It’s no wonder, then, that a recent report from Pulse found that 45 per cent of CIOs plan to transition their companies to internal communication tools. Likewise, 39 per cent are investing resources into beefing up mobile security, and many of the executives surveyed are prioritizing increased cybersecurity measures. Implementing VPNs and improved password management were the most popular security protocols among CIOs surveyed, although encrypted communication and multifactor authentication were also being used.

These tools aren’t new, and they’ve been available to enterprises for some time. But they’re now necessary on an unprecedented scale. The average employee is vulnerable to email phishing attacks, to say nothing of more sophisticated hacks. With so many people logging in to work remotely and sharing data across multiple chat and collaboration platforms, CIOs must institute secure systems in a totally unprecedented environment.

Focusing their efforts on communication and on shifting to internal tools makes sense. CIOs can better secure and monitor an internal platform than an external service that many companies use (and which might attract more cyberattacks).

CIOs as work-from-home experts

The job of devising a smart, sustainable work-from-home strategy seems like the domain of the CEO — and it is, to an extent. But the CIO must also be involved because the company’s data security is at risk when employees aren’t using secure tools and communication methods.

When the Covid-19 crisis first hit, executives scrambled to set employees up at home so their businesses would have as little downtime as possible. They might have taken a patchwork reactive approach because they were simply trying to survive the biggest economic shock their companies had ever seen.

Now it’s clear that remote work is here to stay — at least until outbreaks are mitigated or a vaccine becomes available. So CEOs, CIOs, and the rest of the C-suite must contend with how to keep employees engaged and productive while also protecting sensitive company data.

What will that look like? Every business’s leaders will need to determine their teams’ unique needs and priorities. But as a baseline, I expect that CIOs will have to begin by making at least semipermanent changes to their infrastructures.

They’ll have to find secure, accessible ways to conduct all-hands meetings that allow everyone to participate and ask questions. They’ll need to redirect landline numbers to mobile phones, and they’ll have to increase their licensing options on video conferencing and chat programs to ensure that all employees have access to them.

And while they’re making sure that the lines of communication stay open across the organization, they also need to communicate in new ways with their tech staffers. IT tends to be a hands-on, on-site role, so employees in these departments might have a tough time adjusting. CIOs and IT managers will need to proactively touch base with employees to provide the appropriate support and feedback and keep morale up as they navigate these challenges.

CIOs aren’t typically tasked with managing employee well-being. But these aren’t typical times. IT executives are responsible for building work-from-home infrastructures without being able to engage with employees directly about their experiences. This means that CIOs must be more empathetic and thoughtful about employee experiences.

Managing remote workers remotely

Establishing a productive work-from-home infrastructure will depend on CIOs’ abilities and willingness to communicate with their C-suite counterparts and with employees. More communication is always better than less; it helps gather important feedback and adjust course as needed.

I recommend setting up a centralized database for critical information and educating workers on exactly where they can find that data and who they can contact with problems or questions. Better yet, put together a how-to guide on all of the platforms remote employees will be using so they have something they can easily refer to when they’re frustrated or stuck. This can also relieve some of the demand on the IT department, which will have its hands full for some time to come.

My company found that 39 percent of IT leaders aim to improve communication between leadership and employees within the next nine months, and one of the best ways to do so is to create a company intranet. External chat and video platforms are useful in the interim, but an intranet is fully secured and controlled by the internal IT department. It can be designed for a business’s specific needs and culture, and when it’s done right, it’s far more relevant and user friendly than outside tools.

Perhaps most importantly, the intranet, internal chat systems, and forums can become spaces where employees stay connected and provide one another with support. Everyone has their own challenges when working from home, whether that’s having kids who now need to be homeschooled, ailing parents who need to be cared for, or other personal priorities that put a strain on their productivity.

A dedicated company hub reminds team members that they aren’t alone — especially if leadership engages with them through this platform. Rather than using external tools, the intranet serves as a digital representation of the office environment everyone is missing.

CIOs have the opportunity to establish this environment and to make it a place where people can communicate, commiserate, and collaborate as they cope with the changes forced on them by Covid-19. In fact, CIOs have a pivotal role to play in designing their companies’ infrastructures and making them resilient in the face of this unprecedented challenge.

Dhiraj Sharma, founder and CEO, Simpplr