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The world’s economy is still in the process of recovering from the global shutdown that was necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. Enterprises of all sizes have had to do an extreme amount of budget cutting to make it through the peak months of the pandemic.

Many organizations started by slashing funding for IT departments that were already short staffed before being tasked with moving significant chunks of business functions online. Despite the outsized need for IT assistance to help with the transition to telework, Gartner released projections in May that found worldwide IT spending was slated to decrease by 8% compared to 2019.

“CIOs have moved into emergency cost optimization, which means that investments will be minimized and prioritized on operations that keep the business running, which will be the top priority for most organizations through 2020,” said John-David Lovelock, research vice president at Gartner.

“IT spending recovery will be slow through 2020, with the hardest hit industries, such as entertainment, air transport and heavy industry, taking over three years to come back to 2019 IT spending levels.”

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With revenue down and budgets strapped, CIOs are rearranging their IT spending to prioritize return to office needs, protect assets against a more sophisticated threat landscape that emerged during the remote surge, and remain competitive as upstarts come onto the field.

As companies begin to recover and prepare for the post-pandemic world, experts spoke to TechRepublic about what organizations are doing to maximize IT spend on a restricted budget.

“Technology has become the foundation and the core capability that enables life to continue across the world and what COVID-19 has done is put technology in the center,” said Meerah Rajavel, chief information officer of Citrix.

“The technology spend today is getting more focused, more concentrated and brought to higher level executives. Integrating IT into the flow of business has been a byproduct of the COVID pandemic.

Rajavel added that businesses have to move from crisis mode into sustaining new business models.

Bryan Martin, chairman and CTO of 8×8, said there are three things that organizations need to prioritize across company goals that IT must play a role in: employee experience, durable technology and leadership.

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“As we move beyond the reaction phase due to the global health crisis, companies are now realizing their splurging on short-lived tech solutions is not sustainable as these will not benefit your teams in the long run. Having a forward and future thinking outlook will be essential to achieving business priorities and maximizing IT budgets,” Martin said.

“We must implement flexible work models and communication solutions that allow for a streamlined and simplified work environment. You must invest in technology that will make lasting impacts on your company. Implementing educational resources for your managers will be key in sustaining a successful workforce.”

Telecommuting versus return to the office

Martin noted that even as companies slowly bring more workers back into the office, the pandemic proved that organizations have to be agile and systems have to be available outside of the office setting.

Being able to enable a mobile workforce means that IT teams need to provide employees with sustainable digital workplaces, no matter where they are, Martin said, adding that this meant enterprises had to invest in personalized and long-lasting technology solutions.

To maximize budget value, Martin suggested that companies will need to move their focus from overarching and broad office-based technologies to comprehensive, digitally native all-in-one solutions.

“Rather than patchworking several tools together and requiring employees to ‘live’ in multiple apps throughout the work day, a unified approach balances budgetary demands with the every-day needs of the end users while also reducing the number of vendors to call for support,” he said.

“Maintaining a remote workforce has pushed IT teams to think more strategically about remote management tools, virtual meeting technologies, open collaboration platforms and AI support/enablement.”

While technology infrastructures were forced to take on extra loads during the onset of COVID-19, these allocations need to remain a lasting trend, experts said. To keep the ball rolling, companies should make essential investments in partnerships and IT infrastructures that can allow for their business to not only prosper now, but in the future.

In the months ahead, Martin explained that every CIO and CTO should be thinking about the potential changing needs of their employees and customers in this new environment and how technology can be extended to help address unique requirements.

Steven Spadaccini, vice president of sales engineering at Absolute Software, said many organizations are in the midst of a fundamental shift from infrastructure-led investments to investments in SaaS-based and cloud-based security models capable of securing remote environments.

Before the pandemic, he said, most IT teams were supporting much smaller populations of employees who regularly and consistently required remote access. Now, that percentage is likely closer to 95% to 100%.

“So, it is no longer justifiable—or effective—to buy and deploy solutions that need to remain on-premises or that rely on a connection to the corporate network,” Spadaccini said. “IT teams will need to shift or optimize their spend to ensure they have the capabilities needed to secure all endpoints, and the data that may be stored on them — no matter where that endpoint is connecting from.”

Security a major concern

Security was a major topic of discussion for many experts, who noted that the pandemic did little to slow down the pace of cyberattacks and if anything led to a more diverse threat landscape than before.

Martin attributed some of this to the slapdash deployment of apps and tools that have left businesses relying on fragmented solutions from a sometimes unmanageable number of vendors.

“Many of the apps don’t talk to each other, leaving gaps that unnecessarily slow workflows, and leave businesses less able to serve their customers. And a siloed approach like this, at a minimum, makes security more complex,” Martin said.

“Vulnerabilities and threats presented by video conferencing are not insurmountable. In fact, there is a growing movement among CIOs and IT executives to further educate themselves on the nature of these platforms and identify the right solutions that fit the unique needs, opportunities and challenges of their business. As a result, there’s been a robust interest in the concept of encryption.”

He went on to say that in the future, work will increasingly rely on digital workplace tools like video conferencing software, so it was imperative for enterprises to invest in security-first instincts and strong encryption.

Spadaccini said that the focus needs to be on the endpoints within an organization.

The potential attack surface has expanded exponentially in parallel, putting both the business and their customers at greater risk of compromise, he said. In his experience, the top priority for IT needs to be ensuring they have the ability to find, manage, and secure every endpoint no matter where it is connecting from.

He explained that IT teams are dealing with what’s essentially one big worldwide network instead of the well-defined, enterprise-built network they were previously accustomed to.

Rajavel echoed his comments, saying the pandemic proved that enterprises have to start thinking about more strategic ways to invest in IT and deploy skills in a cost effective manner.

“It’s time for both IT leaders and business leaders to really look at how to take this investment in technology that we are using to enable the workforce and turn it into innovation and new business models. New breakthroughs in the business are possible,” she said.

“It’s shifting from a crisis situation to innovation. Every CIO is looking forward to seeing how you’re going to be the core of business innovation without compromising security. Every company now realizes, regardless of industry, how crucial technology is at this time.”