How CIOs lead in times of crisis

I never thought I’d have to tell the ServiceNow leadership team, “Don’t worry if you see employees carrying out equipment. They need their monitors to work from home.”  

But about a month ago, my team and I were discussing that topic and others like it as we planned for the impacts of the coronavirus.   

That was then. Now, we have asked our 10,000+ employees around the world to work from home. We’ve encouraged them to take the equipment they might need to make their home office as functional as the regular office. We’ve even told our employees in India to expense their ride-share because it’s hard to carry monitors home on public transportation.    

I’m obviously not the only CIO in this position. I talked to a lot of peers last week and it’s clear that as companies make tough decisions on how to keep their people safe and productive—while also keeping their businesses running—CIOs are leading through this crisis.   

That’s because CIOs and IT leaders have been preparing for this. The move to cloud platforms, collaboration and virtual meeting software, employee self-service, and scalable network capacity—just to name a few—has enabled us to go on offense to help our people, our companies, and our peers not miss a beat.  


So, with the permission of the CIOs I’ve talked to, I wanted to share the key takeaways we have discussed:

1.     Employee safety and comfort. Every CIO I talked to started the conversation with the impact to their employees. Business continuity/disaster recovery—obviously critical. But the people part of their operations was top of mind, including employees’ mental health. One CIO, whose business is 100% people-driven, told me the first directive they always issue is that their employees should do what’s right for them. That’s powerful.

2.     Human resiliency. A great reminder from one CIO was checking in on one’s human resiliency.   How many layers deep is your human resiliency? For example, do you have a plan if the three people with root passwords on critical systems are unavailable? What about the two IT personnel who are critical to the financial close? In other words, plan technology and personnel backup.

3.     Local ISP bandwidth. Many CIO’s cited concerns around saturating the local network bandwidth as many employees are working from home and kids are engaged in virtual learning. While there is no quick solution, one CIO said he was tiering employees based on estimated network consumption (operations staff vs. engineers, etc.) and implementing policies to enforce these tiers. In addition to saturating ISPs, some employees don’t have high-speed internet to begin with. In India, for example, I told employees a few weeks ago to purchase and expense MiFi devices.

4.     IT equipment supply chain: One of the bigger concerns for CIOs is the supply chain and whether suppliers can meet the demand for new laptops and data center equipment. Multiple CIOs cited concerns around the supply of equipment and potential disruption to the physical transport (shipping and logistics). One CIO said they were lengthening the normal four-year life of their equipment to extend its use and reduce the strain on the supply chain.

5.     Cyber. Many CIOs are seeing an increase in volume of attacks (phishing, social engineering, etc.). However, no new attack vectors were identified. One CIO I talked to learned that his fingerprint scanners—part of physical multi-factor authentication—could only be cleaned with a soft cloth. Since that won’t effectively eliminate coronavirus, he was relying more on facial recognition, which is hands-free. Another proof point that the devil is in the details!

6.     Regulated markets customer operations. For companies that serve regulated markets or have compliance requirements (federal, PCI, etc.), special care has to be taken when call center and support employees manage customer transactions (e.g. credit card transactions) from home. For example, no cameras on computers that handle customer data, or no family members in the same room to overhear customer calls. To make sure its employees understood the significance of maintaining those standards while working remotely, one company I talked to had their call center employees read and sign documents to reinforce the point. At ServiceNow, we did live testing at employees’ homes two weeks ago to make sure our customer support employees were ready; we fixed any gaps before they happened.

Shot of a young woman using a laptop while working from home

7.     Collaboration and design will take work when everyone is working from home. It’s much harder to collaborate virtually than in real life. This is especially important in deep design, form thinking, and other techniques that require behavioral collaboration. A lot of companies don’t think through what that means in a remote setting. One CIO suggested coaching employees through their first remote design session so they could learn the different principles and then coach others. Virtual whiteboards can help, too, and several CIOs—including me—are looking at how to implement them quickly.

8.     Hiring doesn’t have to stop. Hiring of new employees doesn’t have to stop—interviews can take place through video. However, hiring managers may need to be trained so they are comfortable making decisions without meeting candidates in person. Virtual onboarding is a new process many companies are standing up.

9.     For essential employees, consider a rotating schedule. I admire my peers whose companies do life-saving work. Pharmaceutical companies. Hospitals. Cities and emergency services. For essential personnel with no option to work from home, many have implemented team-based rotating schedules. Half of essential personnel go to their physical locations one day; the other half another day. And so on. They can then follow social-distancing recommendations and still serve their patients and communities.

10.     We’re all in this together. As one CIO mentioned, “The world is pulling together. People are actually entering into open conversations about what to do. When everybody’s in that state of mind, any problem can get solved and you can work through it.” I couldn’t agree more.

For example, in partnership with Washington State’s Department of Health, ServiceNow is launching a no-charge community app, Emergency Response Operations to help companies and governments implement critical workflows for emergency response and crisis management as they manage through COVID-19. 

In the midst of crisis, we’re all working through it together.

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