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The COVID-19 IT Stress Test

COVID-19 forced enormous adjustments in IT operations in a short period. But in many ways the more significant chapter on COVID-19 and IT has yet to be written.

​Ryan Keehn, head of information security and cybersecurity at employee benefits software-as-a-service technology provider Businessolver, remembers well a critical COVID-19-related meeting held on Feb. 17 at the organization's West Des Moines, Iowa, headquarters. The disease had ravaged the Wuhan province of China, and the first cases were being reported in the U.S. The question was what his company's management, and the IT function in particular, was going to do about it.

At the time, 25 percent of Businessolver's 1,200 employees, spread across seven offices, worked from home. Among the options discussed at the meeting was moving to entirely remote operations. Keehn doubted it would come to that, but he began planning nonetheless.

"I thought there was no way we could shut down all of our offices at the same time," he says. "But I thought we should prepare just in case, so I prepared like I did believe it."

During the next four weeks, the company addressed IT gaps and tested telework capabilities with many workers who had never done it before.

On March 13, Businessolver decided to send most employees home, and on March 16 it instituted full remote work. Keehn says Businessolver's transition to totally remote operations has proceeded smoothly and without incident, even with respect to customer service functions that had previously been performed exclusively at physical locations for security reasons.

"Our ASA [average speed of answer] times are down and our time to handle calls has remained consistent, so I think those employees' performance has not been impaired," Keehn says. "The biggest challenge has been the noise of kids in the background or employees' personal family challenges. We can technically deliver everything they need to do their jobs if they can control those variables."

cios think

Some surveys suggest that organizations' IT departments generally have been able to meet the challenge of providing employees with communication and productivity tools that allow them to work remotely. A mid-March Adobe/Fortune magazine survey of more than 200 chief information officers (CIOs) in the U.S. found that most (84 percent) say their organizations are set up effectively to enable this type of offsite work. The biggest challenge cited was communication between employees (53 percent), followed by serious shortfalls in technology tools (21 percent) and hardware (20 percent).

But in many ways the more significant chapter on COVID-19 and IT has yet to be written. The pandemic is stress-testing IT as never before and, in many cases, elevating IT from a supporting role for operations to a critical determinant as to whether and how effectively organizations can continue to function.

Committing to Remote Work

COVID-19 forced enormous adjustments in IT and employee operations in a short time frame. For many companies, the die was already cast for the ability of IT to respond in the short and medium terms by earlier operational and IT decisions taken at the most senior levels of management. Critical issues included:

How far along was the organization with enabling employees to work remotely? Just as important to Businessolver's success as the decision to prepare for full remote work, Keehn says, was the company's experience enabling a significant percentage of employees—25 percent—to work remotely. The business also was able to fast-track existing plans to implement expanded virtual private network usage and remote-access capabilities, and it had previously issued all employees laptop computers that they could take home.

Had the organization already allocated money and resources to establish and maintain high-quality website experiences for customers? With more people staying home, more transactions were being performed online. Websites with well-organized and up-to-date information made it easier for customers to procure goods, services and answers online.

"Our investment in digital technology to deliver an enhanced customer experience greatly contributed to our ability to conduct business uninterrupted," says Ken Solon, executive vice president, CIO and head of digital for Radnor, Pa.-based financial services provider Lincoln Financial Group, which has approximately 12,000 employees. "This includes digital foundational capabilities we've put in place across our organization, such as online application options, e-signature, digital policy delivery and statements on demand."

Was IT staffing adequate? Businessolver had a robust contingent of 20 IT employees dedicated to supporting the company's internal systems, backstopped by 80 IT professionals focused on developing its software products.

Having enough IT staff is one thing, but ensuring that they can work from home and have the necessary tools to do so is also critical, says Sheri Rhodes, CIO of Pleasanton, Calif.-based human capital software platform Workday, which has more than 12,000 employees.

The degree of general IT preparedness to respond to the COVID-19 crisis has varied in part upon which industry is involved. Within the banking and financial sector, for example, most transactions have already moved online, making these employers better prepared to go fully remote. That's not the case with restaurants and some retailers where, for the former, perishable commodities are involved and, for the latter, shopper preferences to interact physically with merchandise are often important.

The senior care industry has special challenges, notes Jason Brunt, director of technology at Worcester, Pa.-based Meadowood Senior Living and an IT consultant to other senior care providers through his e3 Technical Solutions company. For one thing, residents face extreme preventive health care challenges given their vulnerabilities, requiring increased IT attention to be focused on efforts related to stepped-up health monitoring for them and community staff. For another, many lack technical skills, increasing the amount of needed remote help from IT to facilitate their access to the Internet and online services, given physical interaction with staff has been reduced due to safety reasons.

"Communication at Meadowood has changed in a few ways. Meadowood's focus is on health care and patient care, which means that when a ticket is opened and our support staff respond [to non-health-related issues], their response time is very slow," Brunt says, causing support to be delayed. "A further communication change has been an increase in requests for training or for remote communication solutions. This has resulted in our IT staff being asked to provide training implementation faster than we were prepared for." 

Situational Awareness, Flexibility and Agility

COVID-19 focused attention on how attuned IT is to prioritizing and procuring staff, equipment and other resources. In the short term, perhaps the most critical IT task has been to prioritize goals and resources.

"You must be willing and able to shut down nonessential services to ensure that essential services function smoothly," says Steve Bates, KPMG's Global Leader of the CIO Centre of Excellence. "Do you really need permanent access to a modeling system that you only use once per quarter? Can you sacrifice data-intensive applications such as videoconferencing or collaborative document sharing to ensure that access to things like enterprise resource planning, e-mail and HR is well-supported? CIOs must go through the [list of software applications] and understand what is business-critical to support the operations and safety of the company, customers and employees. Everything should be up for discussion." 

This includes inquiry into the home bandwidth capabilities of employees. Early on, Businessolver conducted an inventory of all employees who had access to broadband and phone service, Keehn says. For employees with inadequate broadband service, the company ordered cellular hotspots, devices that allow cellular providers to fill in the gap using cellular phone service.

'Anytime there's a major event like this, you see a spike in corporate data theft.'
Steve Bates

For many businesses, the crisis required several key steps, Bates says. These included 1) quickly taking inventory of internal resources and deploying any excess equipment that was available; 2) reaching out to suppliers and hoping they had additional stock, which in many cases was not available; and 3) using virtual desktop integration technology, which allows servers to provide desktop environments remotely.

Many say the crisis demonstrated the importance of cloud-based platforms, which are more flexible, scalable and agile than physical devices. "The crisis underlines the power of cloud-based [communications and collaboration] platforms such as Microsoft Teams," says Robert Renaud, vice president and CIO at Dickinson College. "I'm on Teams 24/7 with my managers. I cannot imagine managing through this crisis without these tools.

"The crisis also stress-tested the agility of the IT organization," he adds. "The pressure on IT platforms and on IT staff is not something that can be replicated in normal times."

Some organizations discovered that they needed support and had to quickly gain an understanding of the offerings and COVID-19 operating status of the vast ecosystem of contractors, consultants, and outsourcers and IT services. KPMG helped some organizations' IT functions to get through the crisis, Bates noted.

Broadband Challenges

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted disparities in access to high-speed Internet service and applications among different areas of the country, social groups and income levels. Not everyone has access to the tools needed to work remotely.

A February 2020 Brookings Institution report called broadband the country's most inequitable infrastructure, with a 2018 American Community Survey finding that 18.1 million—or 15 percent—of households do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband Internet service. (The Census Bureau defines broadband as anything faster than dial-up.) And millions who do have access to broadband may not subscribe because of the high cost in the U.S., notes the Brookings report. In fact, a comparison of average unweighted prices revealed that the U.S. ranks 18 out of 23 countries that offer fixed standalone broadband plans.

The COVID-19 crisis has illustrated just how much bandwidth may be needed, given the typical household's simultaneous demands of two teleworking spouses and children receiving education remotely. Organizations' IT teams often have had to reach into employee homes to help users increase access, such as by procuring better routers or Wi-Fi boosters, meshing networks across homes, and allowing employees to purchase high-speed plans by granting reimbursement, says Steve Bates, KPMG's Global Leader of the CIO Centre of Excellence. In many cases, IT staff even had to become employees' personal IT consultants for nonwork-related activities, given that, for example, a lack of ability to access remote education for children would stress employees and negatively affect their job performance.

"The current situation has put the spotlight on the Internet. The fact that it is the lifeline and backbone of any communication is critical today," says Archana Kesavan, director of product marketing at San Francisco-based software developer ThousandEyes, which provides software that analyzes the performance of local and wide area networks. "If you have no Zoom, you have no productivity and no one can order anything. This crisis has forced a cultural shift to this new reality. It's important to understand this complicated ecosystem; to build better relationships with IT vendors; and to avoid finger-pointing during crises, which just prolongs the crisis."

Communications companies have pitched in to help during the pandemic to maintain connectivity and increase access to remote tools. Comcast, AT&T and T-Mobile Sprint extended data caps, offered unlimited data or eased termination policies for non-payment. Big tech companies such as Google, Microsoft and Zoom made their remote-work tools free.

While many IT executives commend the flexibility demonstrated by those tech and cellular giants, some say the better long-term solution is to build out the nation's broadband backbone and better enable sustained, data-intensive and affordable online traffic. Countries such as South Korea, Norway and Sweden have already done this.

The Brookings report called for more action by federal, state and local governments and the private sector to increase the availability and affordability of broadband service. —D.T.

Getting Creative

The crisis has forced IT staff to think outside the box. "There's no question that this crisis has created significant challenges for us," says Fred Tarca, vice president and chief information and technology officer at Hamden, Conn.-based Quinnipiac University. "But, at the same time, it has forced us to become more versatile, creative and focused.

"One of the biggest challenges came with delivering a successful Admitted Students Day on March 28, a day set aside to attract prospective students," Tarca recalls. "Our admissions and marketing departments put enormous amounts of preparation into hosting thousands of students on campus to visit us and interact with our faculty, deans and admissions personnel. They elected to hold a Virtual Admitted Students Day and, without missing a beat, we successfully and interactively held 14 Zoom webinar Quinnipiac info sessions with thousands of attendees. This technology solution worked out extremely well for us. And in the longer term, Quinnipiac is also very confident about being able to deliver a quality education for many years to come."

The crisis also called for IT creativity with regard to corporate culture, a responsibility that typically falls under HR's or top leadership's purview. But as employees stayed home and were influenced less by exposure to executives, managers and colleagues, IT often stepped up. For example, IT staff trained others on the capabilities of Zoom, Skype and Cisco WebEx to offer large-scale chat, instant messaging, video and document sharing.

'There's no question that this crisis has created significant challenges for us. But, at the same time, it has forced us to become more versatile, creative and focused.'
 Fred Tarca

IT support in this area is likely to continue. "At Lincoln, we're known for our strong, collaborative culture—new employees often comment about how friendly people are and how committed our teams are to our mission," Solon says. "Nurturing and influencing our strong corporate culture virtually will be essential."

Rigor and Practice

Most sources interviewed for this article highlighted the critical role that dry runs with full telework played in later performance. Companies that had diligently performed crisis-contingency exercises in order to make sure their systems could handle all the Internet traffic and employees could telework effectively fared better than those that did little more than catalog such practices in manuals that sat on shelves.

"Ongoing testing and drills of your business-continuity plan are critical," Solon says. "You must be relentless about this even during a crisis. Think about what's to come immediately, but also look forward at longer-term disruptions and risk."

The length of the COVID-19 pandemic also affected some companies' ability to adequately respond. Many contingency plans, for example, anticipate a storm or other short-term disruption to a portion of operations. Planning for a response to the extended COVID-19 crisis was akin to planning for a Category 5 hurricane. 

Communication and IT Support

Not surprisingly, IT help desks faced surges in demand during the pandemic, "which can be massively disruptive if the response to such help requests is not thought through," Bates says.

"With all of these sudden changes, the pressures put on our technology services help desk operations was enormous," Tarca says. "We were able to mobilize our staff, reinforce the use of our ticketing system, provide loaner laptops where needed and respond to anyone who needed help. The ticket system was overwhelmed at times, especially in the beginning of the crisis, but our team was right on top of it and they continue to do a great job."

Early on, sustained communications was important, many say. "I can't stress the criticality of timely communications enough," Solon says. "We quickly communicated our goals from an enterprise and IT perspective to provide clarity and confidence to our employees, customers and partners. And we're continuing to overcommunicate to build further trust in our leadership team and promote transparency of our decision-making and priorities. We're continuing to focus on helping our employees transition to this new reality. We're leaning in on overcommunicating to keep our employees fully informed about our three priorities: the well-being of our customers, employees and partners."

Such communications include listening to employees about how remote work is going, Solon adds. "Feedback from employees has been positive as well," he says. "We conducted a pulse survey with our employees two weeks after transitioning to an enterprisewide work-from-home arrangement. Eighty-two percent of respondents are feeling as or more productive working from home."

Meadowood's IT department devised a mass communication solution so that staff, residents and family members could stay connected during the crisis, Brunt says.


A silver lining of the crisis is that it has elevated IT issues in employees' minds, providing an opportunity to increase their overall tech capabilities and agility. "We found that by opening up our weekly operations meeting to our entire staff through the use of Zoom, we could keep the entire university up-to-date with daily events," Tarca says. "Ironically, attendance at these meetings is greater than when we hold them in person."

The university's IT department also added another three-times-a-week COVID Hot Technology Topics meeting, and attendance at those meeting is high as well.

Open to Attack

In the long run, cybersecurity may be the greatest challenge of COVID-19. Nearly every IT leader interviewed for this article said cyberattacks have increased at their organizations since the crisis began.

"Attacks have increased, and perpetrators have realized that employees are stressed, confused and looking for direction from business leaders and others," says KPMG's Bates. "Employees are looking for updates about COVID-19 and are vulnerable to bad information steering them to malicious websites. Employees are also concerned about losing their jobs and are more susceptible to espionage requests. Anytime there's a major event like this, you see a spike in corporate data theft. It's important to check in with employees and make sure they're OK; educate them on the threats, including communicating bad behavior so employees know the threat is real; and be proactive in protecting your crown jewels."

Given that employees will likely be using many remote tools more extensively, IT needs to focus on ensuring that core technologies are simple to use and that employees are using them as safely as possible, Bates says. "Such tools likely should be from major vendors," he adds, "as they will be more secure and better supported, with online videos, tricks and tips offered by vendors."

At the heart of the challenge are important decisions about the availability of information, says Anil Markose, executive vice president at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton and leader of the firm's Commercial business. "The availability of information has become a prime target because that availability is central to an organization's ability to be resilient in the face of today's challenges. If not given the proper tools and guidelines, remote employees could pose a significant cyber threat to the availability of an organization's information and therefore the organization itself." 

Keehn says companies must resist the tendency "to want to provide instant access and compromise important parts of security such as strong passwords and dual-factor authentication." He notes Businessolver's software for processing customer information, including sensitive information, was very hardened and secure prior to the crisis, which allowed it to be used safely by teleworking customer service employees.

A Mandate for Change

The crisis has provided CIOs a window of time to advocate for bigger-picture IT solutions that often receive pushback in normal times due to time, cost, disruption and inertia. "As a CIO, this is the perfect time for you to advocate embedding many things that you may have talked about over the last two years to digitize operations and the workforce, support agile ways of working, use collaborative technology, and automate workflow" through things like machine learning and artificial intelligence, Bates says. "This experience will prove that things can be done remotely and securely, so it will be a good time to embed that model."

At Quinnipiac, Tarca says, "there has been one particularly favorable byproduct of having a vacated campus, and that is that we have been able to continue with our implementation planning for a new phone system. Quinnipiac has made a commitment to Zoom telephony, and we're undergoing the adoption of this cloud-based system. Being able to make changes to the system without fear of disrupting on-campus operations is a plus."

COVID-19 will likely also spur development and deployment of technologies such as artificial intelligence and automated functions. That's because machines, phone systems and well-designed website functions do not catch infectious diseases. But they can field simple requests and questions if IT, customer service or other departments are short-staffed. 

"Dedicated menus and FAQs online can enable employees to do whatever they can do to self-serve whenever possible, such as password resets and software updates," says Matt Campbell, managing director of human capital advisory at KPMG US.

Existing functions on some widely deployed financial and human capital management software can help. "Workday is a multi-tenant [software-as-a-service] application, and it was intentionally designed to support remote working long before the COVID-19 pandemic, as we anticipated a shift toward a global, dispersed and mobile workforce," says Barbry McGann, executive director of solution marketing at Workday. "Due to the configurable nature of Workday, we've seen customers quickly make important adjustments to sick/time-off policies and benefits and initiate new capabilities such as new Web and mobile time entry for remote workers."

Still, determining what will be the new normal for IT is a challenge for many organizations. "The top issue we're seeing is difficultly determining what the normal base line of a company's network activity is with the shift to remote working," says Booz Allen's Markose. "It can be challenging to answer questions like what normal looks like in terms of traffic from external sources when a majority of your workforce is working outside of the traditional office space."

While many question the extent of continued high levels of remote work, others predict a long-term shift. "The genie is out of the bottle on flexible work arrangements," says Willis Towers Watson managing director Ravin Jesuthasan. "Small and medium-sized companies that had previously never allowed remote work moved to such arrangements overnight. It's hard to contemplate even 30 percent of these organizations going back to the 'old normal.' Many are, in fact, evaluating their options for shrinking their real estate footprint going forward."

If it turns out remote work is here to stay, organizations will have to be careful about trial software licenses they acquired for short-term purposes, Bates says.

"Many enterprise platform providers are offering collaboration suites for free," he notes. "That is helpful right now for cash-strapped businesses. But they will not stay free. CIOs need to ask whether such solutions are the architectures they want to implement for the long term. There are dangers when you scale up that you will fall out of compliance with software end-user license agreements, which can lead to large fines."

And in some cases, IT may need to scale back, given it may be competing with numerous other departments for funds. "Multiyear digital transformation projects may be in jeopardy if budgets shrink in response to economic realities," Markose says. "Firms that have partially moved to the cloud but have not fully built out their cyber protections are at risk and should consider shutting down such projects responsibly."

Cybersecurity Considerations for Employees

1. Use only trusted Wi-Fi networks, and be mindful of the risk involved.

2. Use precautions when working in public, where there is increased risk of device and data theft. All connections should be encrypted.

3. Use only sanctioned company devices and services for handling company data:

  • Use only approved work-from-home technologies.
  • Use a company virtual private network (VPN).
  • Use only approved systems and services to communicate and transfer information. Do not use external file-hosting services to transfer a document to a client because you can't access your standard security system or service.
4. If you require company devices to work from home:
  • Obtain formal approval from technology staff to borrow devices.
  • Get assurance that required security software is properly installed.
5. Use personal devices to perform work tasks only if you have received approval to do so. Ensure that:
  • Systems are completely updated.
  • – Systems and software have current and up-to-date antivirus software.
  • You are not storing any unnecessary data (even Office documents).
  • You delete necessary company data from the devices as soon as it becomes unnecessary.
6. Watch for phishing attacks and treat coronavirus-themed e-mails with great caution. In particular:
  • Be wary of communications that seek to create a sense of urgency for a response, particularly those with attachments or links that have "added information."
  •  Be wary of attacks that involve information related to COVID-19 and be aware perpetrators may seek to falsely present such information as coming from legitimate sources.
  • Be wary of communications purporting to come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization.
Source: KPMG.

David Tobenkin is a freelance writer in the greater Washington, D.C., area.

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