Partner & Associate Director, People Strategy & HR
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. 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, organizations 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.
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 organization’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. (See the next section.)
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 programs that they pursue, which could in turn affect their skill-building and hiring plans if their need for people with specific skills increases.
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.
Leaders should set the standard for virtual teamwork. Depending on circumstances, that may entail the use of videoconference calls, screen sharing, or communication and collaboration platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams. Similarly, employees can keep a video chat going on an informal basis to take the place of face-to-face interactions in the squad or project room. And given that people may be working under very challenging circumstances, it can be helpful to ask them to be mindful of how they communicate—by consolidating questions into a single message, for instance, instead of pinging colleagues repeatedly over multiple channels. Similarly, when teams can’t be together in person, written communications have to be clear and concise. Finally, teams accustomed to using agile tools such as stickies and whiteboards to manage project backlogs can switch to digital collaboration tools such as Jira or Rally to stay aligned and keep work on track.
Remember that employees working from home don’t live in a vacuum. It’s an unprecedented time, and people may be juggling work with parenting, supervising virtual schoolwork, checking in on loved ones, and other obligations. If there was ever a time to encourage people to inform their teammates of any constraints on their time and to accommodate one another’s erratic schedules, it’s now.
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 Decoding Global Trends in Upskilling and Reskilling 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.
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:
The economic fallout from the pandemic is affecting some industries more than others. Organizations 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 jeopardize 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.