The challenges of being a CTO in a post-COVID era

SOC.OS Chief Technology Officer, Craig Hattersley, shares his thoughts on how the pandemic has changed corporate IT and working practices forever.

There’s finally light at the end of the tunnel. After many months of lockdowns, false hope and then more lockdowns, things are starting to get back to a semblance of normality, in the UK at least. Technology has played a critical role in keeping us connected to our colleagues over this time, and it will continue to do so as the effects of the pandemic on our day-day slowly lessen.

But while the lifting of restrictions and the return to the office will be welcomed by many, it will also surface issues that have been brewing during lockdown, and introduce some new unforeseen challenges. Chief Technology Officers (CTO) must play a key role for their organisation in helping to tackle these.

The story so far

The COVID-19 crisis tested many of those responsible for infrastructure and security, including CTOs, to the limit. Cybersecurity became a critical challenge as threat actors sought to exploit expanded attack surfaces and potentially insecure personal devices and networks. Google alone said it was blocking 18 million malicious COVID-themed emails every day for its customers back in April 2020. The balance between keeping remote workers secure but at the same time productive was a tricky one. Unpatched and misconfigured remote access infrastructure including VPNs and RDP endpoints were, particularly at risk.

At the same time, CTOs had to cope with remote working challenges—of interviewing and hiring without seeing candidates face-to-face and trying to build relationships with customers and suppliers based solely on online meetings. Mentoring and supporting development teams, assessing individuals’ performance and remaining visible and involved at a senior management level were also challenging for many.

A new hybrid workplace

So what happens next? When organisations were forced to pivot to mass remote working in early 2020, many feared the worst. But, as it turned out, most seem to have fared pretty well from an operational standpoint. Employees found they enjoyed the new work-life balance, and managers were pleasantly surprised to find productivity levels remained high.

This has fuelled demands for more of the same as the pandemic recedes. Now, two-thirds (66%) of business leaders say they’re considering redesigning office space, with 67% of employees wanting more in-person collaboration. In comparison, 73% want to stay flexible with working options, according to Microsoft. In many organisations, this will translate into a new hybrid model of working, where most employees are allowed to work some days from home but will be required in the office for the remainder of the week.

Cloud takes centre stage

Technology will continue to play a crucial role in supporting distributed working. However, while up until now, it has been mainly used to enable remote working en masse, we’ve yet to see how centralised office-based teams can be connected to isolated workers. We can only expect more innovation on the way from collaboration technology providers to fill this growing market demand. Ensuring both types of employee are fully engaged in meetings and have an equal say in decision making will be a challenge.

Cloud-based services will once again be key. Adoption accelerated during the pandemic and will continue to do so to support hybrid working. Organisations that try to stick to traditional IT service approaches will struggle to provide a cohesive experience for all their employees. This matters, not just for productivity and staff wellbeing but also for creating a workplace that the brightest talent wants to be a part of. Securing this new environment will also be a challenge. Increasingly popular models like Zero Trust offer an interesting option, although CTOs must beware vendor marketing spin. There are no silver bullet solutions out there.

Combatting workplace friction

When schools were forced to close during the pandemic, flexible working hours suddenly became widely accepted. However, with the advent of hybrid working, such practices may be harder to sustain without breeding resentment. For example, an employee logging on at 9am from the office who doesn’t see their colleagues doing the same until midday may feel aggrieved, especially as the latter didn’t have to commute. Policies will need careful thinking through if organisations are to avoid friction between colleagues.

Transparency, fairness and consultation will be key. Companies need to show they are listening to employee concerns, be clear about what they’re doing and ensure that neither those working mainly from home or those in the office feel they’re getting preferential treatment. This extends to the technology and tools offered to each to support productivity.

Mental health and the battle to retain talent

One of the most positive outcomes of the pandemic has been a new recognition of the importance of mental health and employee wellness. Organisations must continue this laudable progress, ensuring those working remotely for long periods don’t feel isolated or overwhelmed.

It’s important not only to retain talent but also to appeal to the brightest and best going forward. This comes as remote working promises to open up a whole new pool of candidates. We’re likely to see a dramatic shift in the employment market, with those failing to adapt and adopt new practices left behind. Interviewing and selecting candidates remotely will increasingly be the norm, and a skill CTOs must nurture.

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That’s not all. As we exit lockdown, CTOs will increasingly be required to move beyond their traditional scope of work to embrace the softer side of people management. Bridging the gap between service provision, identifying inter-employee weaknesses in communication and providing a sympathetic ear may be difficult for some leaders. But these are essential skills for the successful CTO in 2021 and beyond.

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Luke Conrad

Technology & Marketing Enthusiast

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