The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the enterprise for a loop. As businesses shift to remote work, events get cancelled, and hiring goes virtual, companies are reevaluating how they operate. The role of the CIO, in particular, is fundamentally changing, forcing leaders to reconsider priorities, according to a survey from Adobe and Fortune on Thursday.

SEE: Digital dexterity: What it is, why your organization needs it, and how CIOS can lead the charge (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“Business leaders are needing to shift priorities to first and foremost safeguard the emotional and physical wellbeing of employees, while also ensuring business continuity,” said Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at Adobe.

“It’s essential to be flexible and sensitive to our team members’ specific needs. We can’t assume work will be status quo and that we can operate our teams the same way we did in the office,” she said.

This functionality is easier said than done, however. As with any change, leaders are often met with obstacles, the report found.

Top challenges for CIOs

The majority of enterprises (84%) and SMBs (94%) have transitioned to remote work, but this movement can be difficult for leaders, according to the report found.

The biggest challenges for CIOs included communication (53%) and shortfalls with tech tools (20%). While certain collaboration tools may have been useful in the office, they may not be as effective for telecommunication. Business leaders should keep a close eye on employee experiences and adjust tools accordingly, Stoddard said.

Despite all of these changes, half of CIOs surveyed said their organizations are still hiring, though many (47%) said they expect the coronavirus situation to slow the hiring cycle, the report found. Recruiting and hiring remotely is a new experience for employers and prospective hires alike, forcing leaders to take a closer look at the candidate experience.

“Organizations will face challenges in making sure new employees have a good onboarding experience,” Stoddard said.

“It’s more difficult right now to set new employees up with the right equipment and tools. It’s important to over communicate and work harder to introduce them to the right relationships and incorporate them into a team culture while all employees are remote,” Stoddard said.

Along with overcoming these obstacles, CIOs are also shifting their priorities based on the needs of a remote workforce, the report found.

Refocused CIO priorities

  • Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity was the top priority cited by most CIOs. Some 70% said they anticipate increased financial investments in cybersecurity and 40% said they anticipate additional headcount to be attributed to the effort, according to the report.

“Standardization, optimization, and consolidation of technologies to enable the enterprise to scale is a big priority,” Stoddard said. “It’s also especially important to be data-driven in everything we do as CIOs–it’s even more important now to make decisions with priorities based on data.”

  • Artificial intelligence (AI)

An example of a strategic priority IT teams are shifting towards is automation, Stoddard noted.

“This means we’re leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and robotic process automation (RPA) as a business enabler, enabling self-service, and taking the human element out of repetitive IT tasks and shifting our employees to higher value work,” Stoddard said.

Only 50% of enterprises said they use AI in one or more projects, with use cases going toward IT and customer support the most. More than 90% of companies that implemented AI said they did so in the past year, the report found. However, as companies move remote, this technology becomes even more critical, Stoddard said.

“Looking around the corner and experimenting with AI-powered technologies and strategies will enable future growth, open-up opportunities for innovation, and improve overall efficiencies,” Stoddard said.

“IT leaders should find opportunities to take IT out of the equation with services and processes that can be automated and/or shifted to a self-healing platform, while allowing the virtual workforce to complement the human workforce to shift to focus on higher-level responsibilities,” she added.

Stoddard recommended companies have a data strategy in place before deploying AI. “Start with something manageable (like automating a procurement task or IT help desk tickets), and once you can show others in your organization the value of AI, it will become viral throughout your organization because people will want to embrace it,” she noted.

“It’s early days and AI is a competitive advantage, but we’ll soon get to a point where AI is table stakes,” Stoddard said. “Start small and make sure you have advocates throughout the business to get buy-in.”

  • Public cloud

The public cloud is another area of tech that is predicted to see a financial boost from organizations, however, companies have been slow to adopt the tech, the report found.

“Organizations can be slow to adopt the public cloud due to fear and uncertainty. Many people feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin,” Stoddard said. “Laying out an architecture framework structure and having the proper change management in place is important, and so is breaking the steps down, so people can understand and digest how to get there.”

  • Diversity

The last area CIOs should set their sights on is diversity, the report found. Out of the CIOs surveyed, female team members represented the minority of direct reports, slightly more than 25%, the report found.

However, “Having diversity is key for IT organizations because having diversity of thought is essential for the success of any organization,” Stoddard said.

“As a woman, it’s sometimes harder to build credibility in areas that are stereotypically male. Make time to build relationships with other people to establish your trust and credibility,” Stoddard said. “I’ve talked to a few women engineers who are the only females on their teams, and it’s important to create an inclusive environment so no one feels like they’re alone.”

For more, check out 3 tips to be a better leader during the COVID-19 outbreak on TechRepublic.

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