Tech won the lockdown battles, but humans will win the war for the ‘new normal’
Having been covering stories about the unified communications and collaboration software space for several years now, there’s finally a sense of things easing up slightly, 18 months or more into the global coronavirus pandemic.
While no-one would dream of understating the heroism of the health services and frontline workers worldwide who stepped up to the plate in March 2020, behind the scenes there were some impressive moves on the tech front too. Expanding capacity, rolling out updates, onboarding new users at a rapid rate, collaboration platforms large and small exploded their reach to meet the surge in demand, and kept the world working – overnight becoming household names instead of niche business tools. In some cases platforms hastily upped their security game as well, to protect a new wave of less experienced users working far away from their usual corporate environments.
Even on the hardware front, there was relatively little interruption to meeting a surge of demand for peripherals like webcams and mics, despite the disruption to global manufacturing and distribution during lockdown. So, kudos where it’s due.
Towards a sustainable collaborative future
Now that we’re moving into the ‘new normality’, whatever that is, and everyone’s talking about hybrid working, IT decision-makers are facing new challenges: creating sustainable communication and collaboration plans for a future which is hard to pin down. Most consider, sensibly enough, that they need to be remote-ready at the very least – supporting collaboration with colleagues remaining home-based for the foreseeable future, while making it safe for people to collaborate face-to-face once more, and remaining flexible and resilient in the face of possible future restrictions.
In many cases this means reviewing the tools in use and consolidating them – auditing exactly what is being used how, and whether that’s still the best option – because the reality of what happened in 2020 was a load of muddling through.
Rather than officially approved and centrally deployed software solutions, what kept a lot of teams working last year was more of a mishmash of apps, each chosen to meet a specific and immediate need within a particular team. An app that someone took the initiative to google and download and spin up, often without any corporate backing or guidance.
It all pretty much worked, because so many independent apps work well together – whether through native integrations, API hooks, or more DIY hookups using tools like Zapier. People found solutions and got them up and running and business kept working. This could never have worked in any other era, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve wondered out loud, what if this pandemic had hit us 10 years ago, or 5, or even 2?
The shift to cloud-based, software-as-a-service, combined with no-code ways of making them play nicely together, quietly ensured that there were a diverse range of options out there to solve all sorts of problems, and enable people to co-operate remotely in ways they could never have dreamed of before.
Unpicking shadow IT
But shadow IT, as this is called, is a huge headache for enterprises – because it creates security risks, overspend, duplication, and compliance issues. There are lots of good reasons for the way things are done ‘normally’, that is, to scope out needs then research the best solution centrally, then subscribe through a managed service provider, who supports and updates and patches and guarantees uptime, etc.
Instead of a lash-up mixture of consumer and business apps and devices, over which no-one has any overview or control…
Even something as basic as communication by phone and email can create chaos, confusion, and risk, which we witness in the political scandals about personal email and mobile phone use for statutory communications. But email is just the very beginning, when it comes to securing access to business assets and data, and the way people interact with it.
So, it makes sense that IT departments are taking a good long look at what’s been going on, and attempting to regularize and consolidate services and the way they’re used, as we move out of emergency disaster response mode and into sustainable secure work-from-anywhere practices.
But it’s turning out to be quite messy, and it’s essential that those charged with fixing it take account of another trend: Those people who have been working with lashed-up lego-block solutions on the tech front in the face of personal anxiety, global uncertainty, and frequently quite unsuitable environment and management for working from home, have had enough.
The human integration factor
Lots of them are burned out, fed up, and ready in many cases to vote with their feet.
And if they do, does anyone know exactly how all these workflows and apps fit together to deliver a working system?
All too often, the workarounds and solution they found when they had to were instrumental in keeping the plane in the air – but in a complicated and reactive way, which created plenty of stress as it was rapidly evolved, and for which the operating manual is mostly lodged in peoples’ heads.
People like David* – a coaching client who is a project manager at a London-based research firm. David is holding their whole workflow together with the soutions he worked out – and getting nothing but grief in return right now.
“To replace our office project whiteboard I set up a Trello board, and made some integrations off the back of it – so when a job is updated via email it forwards in and updates the card, and you can tag someone to make a to-do for them, which also pops up in our Slack. It’s kind of a mess, but it works, and we had to put something in place of that big old board straight away when we couldn’t see it.
“I did this a few days we got sent home, because I needed to reconstruct it while it was fresh in my memory, and I didn’t think we’d be using it for long. Obviously the integrations and workflows I added on later as we needed them, and some of that goes through my personal Zapier account, if I couldn’t find a Trello power-up to do it. I am the guy that other people on the team said, ‘can we make it do this/ I wish we had a way of doing that’, and I tried to make it so each time – sometimes it worked out better than at other times or took a few goes to find a way.
“A lot of our clients in the Agile software space would ironically call this a win, because each bit solved a problem, and it all kind-of works. But the thing is none of it is documented, and we’ve got accounts with apps all over the place. Also I know there are things with API hooks into our customer database now which aren’t in our data protection policy – things we tried out in a hurry, and I’m not sure got properly cancelled, or who’s even got the log-ins. I’m a researcher, not an IT guy, and I was trying to keep my projects on track at the same time as figuring all this out.”
The team have all got used to working from home using the Trello board with its various integrations, and they “haven’t really got an IT department” (yet). Their CEO has brought someone in now to try and straighten things out – but both that consultant and the boss are giving David a hard time for the workarounds which kept their projects afloat, and he’s on the verge of quitting.
What’s going to happen then? Who knows…
David doesn’t want to leave his colleagues in the lurch, and will hand things off as best he can – but he’s finding out that the very skills he used to save their workflows have made him an attractive proposition to other employers adjusting to long-term work-from-anywhere practices. So he’ll be off as soon as the right offer comes in, and no one will have a clue how to keep things going.
The unseen operational tech heroes everywhere
So when you look at the tech miracles which kept each team, business, and global enterprise going throughout the Covid pandemic, remember David.
There are a lot of Davids about, and their managers should be praising and thanking them, working with them to design sustainable and properly-resourced solutions – instead of blaming them for breaching policies and taking unacceptable risks.
If they hadn’t gone above and beyond their pay grade and job description to figure out ways of getting things done, a lot of centralized operations would have ground to a halt overnight in Spring 2020, and as a result of their creative use of initiative during a crisis they learned a tremendous amount. Some have been recognized for that with new opportunities and rewards, being able to develop their career and progress at a rate they’d never have achieved in ‘peacetime’. Their organisations benefited too from their learning curve, and input into the consolidation of the tech stack and designing operational workflows for the future, in a win-win.
Others, like David, are using Successfully Securing Your Remote Job to springboard their way to better opportunities and the future they deserve.