Driving business resilience as a CIO: It's all about people

“An adaptive business model that has employee experience at its core is the key to building business resilience, creating sustainable competitive advantage, and scaling effectively in times of disruption.” 

This is one of the key findings of a new commissioned study by Forrester Consulting, on behalf of Elastic. As VP of Global IT at Elastic, I’ve read the study with great interest – not least because it’s based on a survey of my peers, some 1,000 IT leaders from around the world. 

Many of the study’s findings resonate strongly with me. For everybody, the last year has been a true test of adaptivity and resilience in the face of disruption. But it strikes me that IT leaders have faced a raft of very specific challenges during this global pandemic. 

Collectively, CIOs and IT leaders were responsible for getting millions of employees working from home, many for the first time, with the tools, data, and support they need to stay productive. And many achieved this at short notice, on tight budgets.  

Now that it’s time to look to the future, reset strategy, and rebuild organizational resilience for the post-pandemic age, I feel strongly we should be guided by the lessons of the recent past in reimagining the CIO role for the future. So what does it mean to be an adaptive business with employee experience at its core?

Distributed from day one

Here, I have some insight to offer, since Elastic has operated with a distributed workforce since day one and has always made employee experience a top priority. Even before the pandemic hit, we had nearly 90% of our 2,000-plus employees working fully remote, from shared workspaces, or a hybrid of remote and office-based. But even though we were more prepared than other organizations for this situation, the impact of COVID-19 fueled our adoption of new tools and drove an evolution of business practices that we would keep even if the virus disappeared overnight. 

Every step along the way, I’ve worked closely with Leah Sutton, our company’s senior vice president of global HR, because building a resilient organization that can adapt flexibly and pivot quickly is all about people. As the heads of HR and IT, Leah and I have worked together on a wide range of projects, with one goal in mind: 

How can we give Elastic employees the technology tools, information, and support they need to feel engaged and to do their best work?

Take, for example, our implementation of Elastic’s own technology, Workplace Search. As the Forrester Consulting study shows, many IT leaders are focused on helping employees get answers and help, anytime and anywhere. And like most organizations, Elastic has an abundance of content sources and applications in its IT environment. Workplace Search makes it easy for employees to identify and access what they need by unifying all the content platforms they use. Without this technology, we might be forcing them to embark on regular, unnecessary, and potentially frustrating needle-in-a-haystack hunts. 

IT leaders just like me – and the 1,000 respondents to our survey – have a new role to play: not just as the leader of corporate IT, but also as an active partner in steering cross-departmental vitality, growth, and longevity for employees.

We’ve also leveraged our endpoint security products to ensure we’re effectively managing cyber risk, and we’ve teamed up on cyber threat training for employees — vital during a period that saw a surge in ransomware and phishing attacks designed to ensnare unsuspecting victims by appearing to offer help, advice, and necessary steps regarding COVID-19. 

Another example is our provision of access to Ginger, an on-demand mental healthcare service, and flexibility in working arrangements to cope with homeschooling or caring for family members. And when employees need to go into an office for any reason, we use the desk-booking app Robin to manage the reduced number of seats available and ensure safe distancing. Here at Elastic, in addition to my role as VP of global IT, I’m an executive sponsor of employee well-being programs. For me, supporting employees in this way is just as important as my work in ensuring they have the tools they need to succeed. 

It’s all about empathy

Empathetic leadership is a big theme in the Forrester Consulting study, which urges IT leaders to put people at the heart of technology decisions, whether that’s from a work, personal, or wellness level. I completely agree. 

And if you’re thinking this sounds expensive, especially at a time when many IT leaders are facing reduced IT budgets, then think again. In my experience, what this situation calls for is a more thoughtful approach to ensuring that the investments you do make are laser-focused on key enablers. Your watchwords here are automation and simplification. How can you automate to reduce manual processing? How can you simplify to eliminate unnecessary steps from business workflows? In other words, how can you take low-cost steps to make life better for employees?

Last year, for example, we spent time reinventing our quote-to-cash function at Elastic using this approach. While this work didn’t require huge financial investment, it still brought significant benefits for our go-to-market teams, the customers they serve, and employees in our back-office functions. 

And that, really, is what it’s all about. Having spent the better part of a year reacting to market changes, CIOs will soon resume a more proactive posture as they take a driving seat in reimagining employee experience for the hybrid ways of working that will emerge post-pandemic.

Read the full findings in the report, The Changing Role of the IT Leader.