In what feels like a minute, the world has gone massively digital. People are doing everything online because of COVID-19, and the strain is showing. To the extent that the global economy is running, it’s doing so on digital sales and distribution. For instance, in Europe, performance levels of videoconferencing platforms plunge the minute the US wakes up and goes to work. And besides testing the limits of existing infrastructure, the virus has got tech talent working around the clock.
It’s inevitable that companies looking for ways to counteract the effects of the pandemic on their operations will ask their technology function to bear part of the burden. But they must be strategic about any shifts made to the tech workforce.
“To ensure that vital digital services remain up and running, organisations must do everything possible to protect mission-critical talent. By showing their support now, companies can create goodwill that will carry over to when better times return,” says Jan Gildemeister, Managing Director and Partner at Boston Consulting Group Johannesburg.
In the short term, companies can support tech personnel by ensuring that they’re safe, by giving them the tools and support they need to do their jobs, and by providing flexible working arrangements through temporary assignments or opportunities for skill building. At the same time, tech leaders should be planning for the rebound, when it comes. And they can use the massive, sudden explosion of activity on digital platforms as a window into what could become commonplace in another decade or so and start to plan accordingly.
Although the most helpful measures will depend on an organisation’s specific circumstances, the following are some basic things that companies can do now to support their tech talent.
Tech leaders must zero in on the skills that are essential to the way they are conducting business and then give the people who have those skills what they need to do their jobs. That could mean instituting redundant coverage for critical systems in case employees get sick and can’t work. It could also mean supporting those who are unaccustomed to working from home.
As companies in some industry sectors trim staff to deal with the crisis, the pool of available tech talent may temporarily expand. That creates a rare opportunity for tech leaders at companies with cash to spare to increase hiring. Even if workforce planning hasn’t been set for the year, it’s okay to act when hiring could bring in engineers or data scientists who otherwise would not be on the job market.
“Leaders should carefully consider how they can accelerate their current digital strategy to prepare for the rebound. Many may not revert to the way they did things before, choosing instead to retain some of the new ways of working adopted during the crisis. That could increase the portfolio of technology projects and programmes that they pursue, which could in turn affect their skill-building and hiring plans if their need for people with specific skills increases,” says Gildemeister.
Support working from home
Tech staff working remotely for the first time need as much support as they received in the office—just in a different form. Tech leaders should provide guidance on creating productive routines that include heads-down work, virtual meetings, and breaks to replace the time people would normally spend chatting with coworkers. Leaders also need to make sure people have the right tools for a home office and the permissions required to access company systems and data.
Shift talent as needed and make use of downtime
If fallout from the crisis radically alters operations—store branches are closed but e-commerce sales are through the roof, for example—leaders may need to redeploy people temporarily. The most obvious shift is to jobs that may be understaffed because of changing market conditions. Staff can also be diverted to internal efficiency projects that have been on the back burner, or to business development activities that could put the company in a better position once better times return.
Leaders can use downtime for skill building—upskilling so employees have the capabilities they will need to perform their jobs in the future and reskilling so they are prepared to step into entirely new roles. BCG research shows that the vast majority of people around the world are willing to learn new skills in order to qualify for new jobs. Companies have various options for skill building, including job sharing and job shadowing. By encouraging people to share what they know, companies will also be better prepared should large numbers of staff become ill or unavailable for other reasons.
Cultivate a compassionate culture
To keep people feeling connected, leaders can try to replicate the intimacy of the office environment. And just as they set the tone in the office, they can make sure that the company’s culture extends to the new ways of working. Some options:
Channel the spirit of agile to the new environment by giving people as much leeway as possible to choose how and when they work. With so much happening that’s out of our control, it can be an emotional boost for people to know that they have some autonomy over what they do and how they do it.
Hold regular virtual staff meetings. Build in time to talk about life outside of work—to acknowledge what everyone’s going through, offer support, and let people know they’re appreciated. Make a point of engaging weekly with team members one-on-one on nonwork issues and make sure to talk about your own situation.
Take a long-term view when adjusting capacity
The economic fallout from the pandemic is affecting some industries more than others. Organisations facing substantial cost pressures and a long recovery may have no option but to cut their technology budgets. Such companies need to be thoughtful about how that will affect their tech employees and make sure they remain attractive places to work so when good times return, they can continue to attract the needed talent.
‘Peanut butter’ cuts spread across the entire tech team aren’t the way to go. Instead, companies should take short-term measures that don’t jeopardise their overall talent plans. Such measures could include limiting or ending the use of outside contractors, reducing working hours or pay for leadership, reducing the workweek for hourly employees, freezing hiring or backfilling vacant positions, delaying start dates for new hires, and increasing involuntary leaves of absence. To help people juggle other responsibilities, companies can also offer flexible schedules and short-term leaves.
The response to the pandemic is straining the world’s digital infrastructure and taxing the tech talent who run it. It’s also providing an early, unexpected, and wholly unprecedented look at the future, when more and more commerce and daily life will be conducted online.
“Companies must do everything within their means to support their tech talent now, including keeping people safe, providing them with meaningful work, and offering them opportunities to learn. At the same time, it would be a missed opportunity not to use this period to plan for the future. Smart yet empathetic moves today will earn CIOs and other tech leaders the loyalty, engagement, and retention of a critical and competitive workforce and create an unstoppable employee value proposition for the future,” concludes Gildemeister.