Roughly one year ago, the pandemic caught software firm Deltek partway through a migration to Zoom. Removing its existing on-premise solution became urgent, requiring a fast shift to a cloud-based platform.
"As the pandemic hit, we realized there were definitely areas we needed to optimize around our tool set to better collaborate as an organization," said Ronda Cilsick, group VP and CIO at Deltek. But simply investing in different tools didn't suffice: the company also encouraged adoption of videoconferencing tools as its 3,000 employees relearned how to operate.
Most of the business world followed a similar cadence last year: Sudden remote work shifts. Short-term reliance on new tools. A trial-and-error approach to solving the crisis.
Nearly three-quarters of IT decision-makers were technologically underprepared to handle full pivots to remote work, according to data from IBM. Systems migrations were hurried and IT strategies shifted as the pandemic helped identify what was critical and what could wait. In response, executives prepared to invest in cloud-based software, remote IT support and collaboration software.
But now, leaders contend with how to sustain those processes in the long run, and how IT strategies will shift. Armed with lessons from 2020 leaders must decide what stays and what goes in the tools and processes that power their companies.
No matter how the pandemic aftermath unfolds, a full return to the old ways seems unlikely.
On the way out: ownership, health checks and fixed line phones
Flexibility was the name of the game in the early response days. Business leaders found it advantageous to make their processes more adaptable, and that strategy stretched into the technology space.
"Ownership won't come back, for the most part," said John-David Lovelock, distinguished research VP at Gartner. Operating workloads in company data centers, on their own location will give way for the more flexible framework of getting things as a service.
"Even PCs are going to desktop as a service, data centers are starting to be outsourced into the cloud or into colocation and other sites," said Lovelock.
With millions of workers spending a whole year away from their desk phones, fixed voice lines are another example of technologies on their way out.
"One of the biggest declines continues to be voice," said Lovelock. Spending on fixed voice lines from telecommunication carriers will go from $200 billion in 2019 down to a projected $149 billion in 2025.
"That's $50 billion in spending being freed up to go elsewhere," Lovelock said. Unified communication systems stand to attract some of that spend. Spending on cloud-based telephony alone is expected to grow 17.8% in 2021, according to Gartner estimates.
Another downshift accelerated by the pandemic was the office printer, with homebound workers unable to access the equipment and many processes necessarily going paperless in order to reduce contact risk.
"It's basically how things were going in the industry in general," Paul Barresi, IT manager at accounting firm Drucker and Scaccetti, told CIO Dive in August. "Everyone's been focusing on the paperless office for years, and it's going there."
In an eventual return to the office, the large central printers that serve entire units will give way to smaller, more ubiquitous units. But some of the contraction in the office printer market is irreversible, experts say.
As the office of the post-pandemic scenario begins to take shape, so does the technology that underpins it. When the pandemic first hit, Cilsick recalls an uptick of emails from vendors offering new technologies around health checks, and check-in applications for the office, whether they be integrated into existing platforms or adding new features into existing software.
"I don't believe that those will have necessarily as much sustaining power post pandemic," said Cilsick. "I think that the office world has changed. I think that there's just fewer people going into the office."
The familiar tech that stays
Collaboration tools will remain the lifeblood of operations, backed by a year's worth of experimentation. Its permanence shows that one of the ways companies are determining what stays is employee preference.
Typically, IT organizations grapple with resistance when rolling out new technology, said Cilsick. But the pandemic reduced the friction on collaboration platform adoption, because workers were naturally seeking ways to stay connected and productive.
"Having that buy-in, almost immediately, by your workforce as a whole for a change is unique," said Cilsick.
In the next three years, in-person meetings will account for just one-quarter of all enterprise meetings, down from 60% prior to the pandemic according to Gartner estimates. The new operating model puts collaboration systems front and center as connective tissue to keep businesses running.
"After we get back to our new normal, we believe that it is something that will sustain post pandemic," said Cilsick. "Because people are seeing the value they're able to get from it, they're able to collaborate more effectively. They are more productive, they're rethinking how they do their jobs and doing their jobs differently as a result of the platform."
The way businesses understood remote operations changed fundamentally in the era of COVID-19. Deltek used to have just one-third of its workforce of 3,000 employees fully remote before March of 2020.
"The new normal is always going to be heavily remote," said Cilsick. "Our new normal is that there are always going to be virtual employees." And as business adapted last year, employees that were normally in the office now "have a greater empathy and appreciation for that remote employee."
Technology's role as a means of supporting a company is on the way out, Lovelock said. Leaders are called to make technology become the business.
"Companies that have completed a digital business transformation are seen as more successful through the pandemic, and likely to be the ones that are successful going into the future," said Lovelock.