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The reality of uncertainty: Tim Crawford on how CIOs are thinking about the 'next normal'

A few months in to what remains a very strange way of living, we know a little bit about how the virus operates, but far from enough. We have figured out how to work from our kitchen tables, even to do interviews with the BBC while helping our children with their unicorns, but we do not necessarily wish to do so indefinitely. And then we all have so many questions. Is it safe to use that Office Depot laptop for company business, for months on end? Tim Crawford, a Southern California-based CIO, analyst, and strategic advisor at AVOA, is an expert on the intersection between business and technology. He spoke with us about what’s on the minds of CIOs and what we might expect to see in the months to come.

What are the key issues that businesses are facing in the coming months?

The first hurdle is dealing with the pandemic or virus crisis, which is twofold—the fact that the virus is continuing to spread like it is around the globe, and also the fact that we still don't have a clear picture in terms of how the virus operates, how we protect ourselves from it. Does it follow standard immunity rules? That is still murky.

That uncertainty is what drives the second piece: the economic crisis. There are several key factors. One, the impact of trying to protect from the virus crisis, and two, again, the uncertainty that comes from the virus crisis. Markets don't like uncertainty. Economic features, economic directions require certainty. When you start to add uncertainty into the mix, things go haywire. A third piece is the social impact—the work-from-home piece and how you have to think through that, the post-work-from-home components, what's going into that thinking, and then how the economic crisis is changing our thinking and the actions that we take.

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How are companies handling the economic facet of the crisis?

One of the pieces that comes right off the bat—they're looking at opportunities to cut spending. With any economic crisis, whether the dot.com, the 2008 downturn, or this one: cut spending, preserve cash. That's already been happening across the board in IT organizations. The more mature ones—in terms of their thinking, not the age of the company—are thinking, "How do I start to accelerate innovation as a means to put me in a better position to weather the economic storm? Are there opportunities to advance projects or accelerate projects around AI and ML and cloud as a way to automate or give me greater flexibility, so I'm not as constrained by either expensive assets or people?"

Then there’s the impact of work at home. Companies spent a boatload of money getting these additional assets to set up employees for working from home. What they do with those assets and the impact that comes from that is going to be really challenging. And what do you do with office space? You have to look at changes in customer behavior, just like we are changing within the enterprise, right? Employees are changing how a company functions, and that is changing the way a CEO looks at his team and organizes his team and interacts with his team.

Sales rep Zack may not be able to physically go out as a sales rep and meet with his client physically face to face, so what does he do? We have to think about our customers, too. We have to think about how our customer behavior is changing and how they are adapting and how we continue to shift gears to help them out.

We have to think about our customers, too. We have to think about how our customer behavior is changing and how they are adapting and how we continue to shift gears to help them out.

We talked about the V curve which is ‘quick down, quick up’ in terms of economic downturn and economic recovery. We did not see this in 2008-2009 because there were underlying financial problems. The underlying issue with the current economic crisis is uncertainty with the virus. Once you get certainty with the virus, that becomes the foundation to help the economy start to recover. How do you prepare for that? Some have said, "Oh, well, it's the traditional U curve."

I think it's more of a swoosh, like the Nike swoosh—it's going to be a longer return, and the longer we go through the virus crisis, the longer out that swoosh curve is. There's a direct relationship between the longer you go through this, the more pronounced the swoosh is. Then, the last is bringing flexibility to your organization around uncertainty. How do you live in uncertain times? We're used to certainty in our business. We don't have that. What choices do you make in terms of staffing, in terms of operational costs and choices and decisions around capital exposure and decisions around just financial planning on the whole? How do you make changes to be able to accommodate building flexibility around this world of uncertainty?

[Related read: Consumer trends during The Great Reset: How do we want to move forward?]

Are the people who are responsible for cybersecurity having nightmares every night?

From a cybersecurity standpoint, at a very crude level, we have vastly expanded our risk profile by moving everybody to work from home. Now, not only is it your work laptop sitting on your home network that might be VPN'd in, but what else is running on that network that might be insecure or already compromised? IT staff are looking through the dark on their hands and feet to figure out how to support someone's home network—when they don’t even know what network looks like. This is a whole new world for them.

Essentially, countless devices are potentially running on a dirty network, and we don't necessarily have visibility into that. It is a concern. It is a conversation. Many believe we're not going to know the full impact of the cybersecurity risk for months to come. As with most breaches, someone will make the breach—but you won't learn about it for some time in the future when they're ready to let you know that they've done it.

So the real ramifications from a cybersecurity standpoint won't actually be felt for quite some time, a scary prospect. Maybe some employees who traveled a lot were on secure company laptops. Well, that's one thing, but many others do not travel that much. Now, all of a sudden, big groups of employees have computers we bought at an office supply store that don’t have the standard image, are not secured, and who knows what's going to happen? It's one thing when it's sitting on the corporate network, it's a whole other thing when now you’ve extended the cybersecurity footprint out to these networks you don't manage. How does a company do a remote update to a given device? What happens if it fails or the system crashes? The IT crew can't just go make a house call.

Yes—not just CISOs but CIOs, too. It does give them heart palpitations.

[Related read: Strategies for leading others through continual change at work]

Some of us are getting a ton more spam. Are you hearing from other enterprises the level of attacks has gone up?

Absolutely, the number of phishing attempts so not just spam, but, "Hey, your Chase Bank password needs to be changed," or whatever, your Amazon thing. All of those kinds of phishing attempts—phishing specifically—has gone through the roof. It's just because people think, "Oh, I'm at home." Again, they put that home mindset in place. When you're at home, you might be thinking about Amazon, a personal bank account. There used to be more of a separation between work and home for many of us. The physical action of going someplace has a huge impact on choices and decisions we make.

There used to be more of a separation between work and home for many of us. The physical action of going someplace has a huge impact on choices and decisions we make.

When you start to bring those and you merge them together, where home and work are the same thing, it gets a lot more complicated and for the average person really confusing. I don't mean that to say that they're dumb or unintelligent. It's just the nature of what we're doing. That confusion creates a huge opportunity for phishing attacks and we're already seeing that.

What are some of the challenges around resuming office life?

At whatever point offices start to open back up, it’s not going to be as simple as, "OK, everybody come back into the office." Google just pushed back its plan to reopen some offices in July. And no matter what, there will surely still be physical distancing requirements. Well, office space is not built for that currently.

What if you took the checkerboard approach, where every other desk is occupied?

That doesn't work, because that means you've got half the team there at any point in time. Then, you could say, "Well, we'll move teams to different desks," and now you start to run into cultural problems where Tim doesn't want Zack sitting at his desk, or that sort of thing. There are huge challenges. What about the employee with underlying health issues, who is rightfully concerned about going back into a public space? You're going to have folks that need to be able to work remotely in this post-work-from-home world.

[Related read: The future of customer care: built-in flexibility]

You’ll also have all this excess equipment now that is going to come back into the office that you have to contend with that is probably not your standard equipment. What do you do with it? The org functions become another challenge. As you start to think about the team functions and how they interact with other groups, how do you start to bring that together cohesively? It's not as simple as saying, "Hey, I'm going to call a meeting and everybody get in the room. Here's the whiteboard and everybody draw." It's not that simple. We haven't crossed those bounds.

We're still missing pieces like the water cooler talk. We're still missing those outlets for just walking down the hall and I run into Kate and, "Hey, how's it going? Hey, while I've got your ear, can I ask you about this project?"

As you start to think about the team functions and how they interact with other groups, how do you start to bring that together cohesively?

I would say, "Let's talk while we climb six flights of stairs together!” because that's what I do in the office, and so we would have that meeting uphill.

And I'd be winded and won't be able to talk to you. But you see the point. All of these real challenges that we have to work through.

There's also another piece to the post-work-from-home which goes back to attracting and retaining talent. What if you're a company, and some CEOs have already flatly said this, "When we get back to an environment where we can bring people back in the office," they want the people back in the office? What does that mean for those companies when you see other companies that are going in the opposite direction saying, "You know what? We can work from home."

One major IT provider, the CIO came out in a discussion and said that because of this, their organization can work remotely. Now, when you think about things like attracting and retaining talent, if you're one of those organizations that requires people to be in the office, but you've got other organizations that don't, guess what? Do you want to live in San Mateo or do you want to live in Tahoe? These are core issues, especially when you think about the cost of rent or the cost of living and just the quality of life.

[Related read: Rising to the challenge of remote leadership]

These are all factors that are now coming front and center that all of these companies have to contend with that they have not had to contend with as much in the past. Unlike just the Bay Area microcosm that you had to compete with the Facebooks and Googles and Zendesks of the world, if you're just a regular corporation, now guess what? It's a level playing field. You're now competing against people that are in Omaha, Nebraska and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. These are things to think about.

How do you attract and retain talent when you can't be in the same room with someone anymore?

One CIO told me that they're actually more connected to their staff than they were before because they can have more regular interactions, and more of them, even if their staff are in different physical locations. Think about it for a minute. In the final week before stay-at-home orders, I made three different trips by plane—out and back, out and back, out and back, all in one week.

That's incredibly disruptive and time consuming. Now? I might participate in conversations in India early in the morning, move on to conversations with folks in New York, then the West Coast, and then Texas. You couldn't physically do that in the past, right? The technology has been there, of course, but culturally, it's acceptable now.

Not only can I move between all those different places and be more productive with my time. But now, with the element of travel removed, I can also actually connect with people at a deeper level than I've been able to do in the past. And that’s a huge plus in recruiting.

[Related read: 7 ways to build your team’s communication strategy—especially when remote]

Is it harder now or is it just as easy to vet someone's character, their congeniality, their collegiality if you're going to want to work with that someone?

I think it's different, not necessarily easier or harder. Right now we all have a natural icebreaker. "How was your stay-at-home weekend?" or “How’s your experience with pandemic life?” Right?

There are downsides, too. Which person are you getting? The one who’s putting on a good facade and can step in and step out? Then again, it’s not hard to vet some of the character issues, as this is an incredibly small world. In technology, everybody knows everybody. I was on a call earlier with a CIO. We were talking about another CIO, whom he had worked with before and whom I've known for years through another path. It's those kinds of personal connections where you can reach out and say, "OK, I may not have known Kate before, but I could probably find someone in my network of people that I connect with on a more regular basis who does know Kate."

How do you perceive the role of tech? Does tech help us? Does it save us? Is it the angel or is it the devil? Has that shifted with the crisis?

Tech is a critical component to all of this. Tech is critical to the virus crisis, right? Certainty comes from data. Certainty comes from knowing. It's more than just the human piece—it's also the data piece. Technology can also give us flexibility that humans can't. It's easy to pull technology into a job to do a function and then remove it. You can't do that with people. But technology gives us the ability to scale up, scale down as needed.

Technology can also give us flexibility that humans can't. It's easy to pull technology into a job to do a function and then remove it. You can't do that with people. But technology gives us the ability to scale up, scale down as needed.

What about specifically the relationship between tech and CX? How specifically is tech going to be helpful in the customer experience?

I can't emphasize this enough. Technology is an absolute critical component for customer engagement. We have long since passed the point where it's just about human connection. We are well beyond those days. Technology has to augment any human interaction. Technology has to be a component. We talk in marketing about the market of one, right? Tim's preferences and Tim's interests are different from Zack’s or different from Kate’s. It's important that we are able to address customers where they are and as their needs change, too.

How are you using technology to understand, one, where the customer is going and, two, how you respond to them? This is another piece as a person changes and also as that person matures. He goes through a journey with any given company, right? You start with the marketing. You start with brand awareness. From marketing, then you start to get into the sales conversation. Then eventually, you get into support conversation, and then, you become an alumni of the organization. How are you ensuring that you understand that customer journey—here's the key part—from the customer's perspective? Forget about the company's perspective. Start with the customer's perspective. This is where I think the only way to do it is with technology. The only way.