Laserfiche CIO: IT leaders play crucial role in pandemic crisis management

Laserfiche CIO Thomas Phelps discusses the CIO's current role in business continuity and how his organization has morphed in response to the pandemic - including strategy and taking care of the team
279 readers like this.
crisis leadership

When Laserfiche CIO Thomas Phelps talks to his peers about how they’re adapting during the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a consistent theme: We’re in uncharted territory.

This is one of those rare moments when a generalization is the most accurate description. The vast nature of the pandemic has disrupted virtually all facets of daily life, including how we work. That’s true across industries, from enterprise software (Laserfiche’s business) to financial services to education to the public sector and, well, just about everywhere.

The sudden shift to remote work in many organizations, along with the general disruption of the crisis, means IT leaders can’t just be technology and strategy leaders.

“As CIOs, now more than ever, we are crisis management leaders,” Phelps says.

The CIO's role in the crisis management team

Laserfiche CIO Thomas Phelps

Phelps advocates for the CIO being a key player on any organization’s crisis management team. (Some companies might use a different name, such as an emergency management team or business continuity planning team, but the overarching purpose is similar: Ensuring the health and safety of employees, customers, and partners while also ensuring the organization can continue to operate during a crisis or disaster.)

Technology is fundamental to business continuity.

One reason Phelps supports this idea: Technology is fundamental to business continuity. Not including IT leadership at the table is kind of like forgetting to buy charcoal for a barbecue.

Again, though, this is an unprecedented and fluid situation. Even in organizations where the CIO is already a critical part of a collaborative leadership team, the shift to remote work can pose challenges. That’s especially true in workplaces that were less accustomed to remote work. 

[ Read also: Digital transformation: 4 ways to plan for the post-pandemic normal. ]

That itself is old news, but a recent survey quantifies just how greatly work-from-home enablement now matters to C-suite leaders. When Janco Associates recently interviewed 97 CIOs and CFOs (via phone or videoconference), 87 percent of them listed “work from home” as a priority, up from just 7 percent in a similar poll conducted in January. IT areas such as network access management that were already priorities (69 percent in January) have become even more critical (89 percent in Janco’s most recent survey.) In fact, the top two priorities, according to Janco, are access management and work from home enablement.

At Long Beach, Calif.-based Laserfiche, Phelps and his team had already begun a work-from-home pilot earlier in the year, before remote work became a must for so many organizations. We caught up with Phelps recently to discuss the shift to fully remote, the role of the CIO in a crisis, what projects are accelerating, the need for over-communication, and other topics.

The Enterprisers Project: How is work-from-home going for Laserfiche employees? What has been working well, and what have been some of the challenges?

Phelps: We are fortunate that the transition to work-from-home has been pretty seamless. Laserfiche coincidentally launched a work-from-home pilot program in Q1 2020, which turned out to be good timing since we had already been collecting feedback from employees about working from home. Most of our employees find that they are able to be just as, if not more, productive working from home with the proper setup, equipment, access to a virtual network, and access to the systems and processes they need to do their jobs. We’ve actually been able to put to the test some of the processes that we have automated using our own Laserfiche software – such as AP processes [and] new employee onboarding – which has been a good opportunity as well.

We’re in an environment that's changing by the hour, so we found early on that we needed to over-communicate.

I think one of the key challenges that a lot of organizations are facing is getting information out to all employees and making sure that they have received and understood it. We’re in an environment that’s changing by the hour, so we found early on that we needed to over-communicate. Our employees are under stress related to the pandemic while trying to maintain, as much as possible, business as usual. Our crisis management team uses every communication channel available to us – our company intranet, our internal communications platforms, email, videoconferencing – to make sure that everyone is as informed as possible.

Enterprisers: What were the first steps you took as CIO to help the company transition to a different mode of working?

Phelps: One of our corporate values is to put people first. I look at all decisions – especially ones related to crisis management – through that lens. So my first step was to look at Laserfiche’s crisis management plan – specifically, the business continuity management portion – to determine the best possible scenario for keeping our employees safe and healthy.

Even before our state and local governments issued stay-at-home mandates, we transitioned to have employees work from home. We looked at all of the different aspects of the business that would need to be addressed in order to successfully transition to this different mode of working. On March 10, we mobilized, rolling out a series of trainings to make sure that employees had everything they needed to work from home. On March 12, we stress-tested our plan by requiring all employees to work from home, even locking our headquarters so that no one would be able to access it. The following day, we assessed the test and rolled out work-from-home for all employees.

Enterprisers: How is the pandemic affecting your IT strategy roadmap? What changes are you making in the short-term and long-term?

We are working to accelerate anything that is related to business process automation. Also, we just launched a Business Transformation Office.

Phelps: We’ve been fortunate enough to not have to put any projects on hold. Rather, we are working to accelerate anything that is related to business process automation, as it helps the workforce continue with day-to-day tasks. Our upcoming projects will continue to be led by automation and content management. We have a responsibility as IT leaders to get projects scaled quickly.

We just launched a Business Transformation Office within Laserfiche, comprising team leaders who will be focused on driving business innovation. We’re taking this opportunity to retool and reimagine how business is done internally so we can continue to offer the best possible products and services to our Laserfiche users, partners, and community.

[ What’s next for the CIO role? Read CIO role: Everything you need to know about today’s Chief Information Officers. ]

Enterprisers: What are your hearing from your IT leadership peers in other organizations? How are they adapting?

Phelps: I’ve been in touch with CIOs across different industries, including in the public sector, and one thing is for certain: No one has seen a crisis quite like COVID-19. One story that stuck out to me was a CIO who told me that they were not a part of the crisis management team. As CIOs, now more than ever, we are crisis management leaders. The elements of a business continuity system need to start with leadership and policy.

Enterprisers: What feedback are you hearing from employees about the shift to remote/distant work?

Phelps: We’ve received a lot of good feedback about the shift to remote work. This is a unique situation since people are dealing with the added stress of roommates or partners working from home simultaneously, caring for family members, not to mention parenting and homeschooling. So there are a lot of different factors we have to take into account. However, overall we’ve gotten good feedback.

Enterprisers: What are you hearing from customers about how they’re shifting their technology strategies to stay aligned with overall business goals?

We’ve been hearing from customers that digital transformation has become a top priority as they have been forced to shift to remote work.

Phelps: IT teams are stretched thin in crisis management mode. We’ve been hearing from customers that digital transformation has become a top priority as they have been forced to shift to remote work. Unfortunately, as economists at UCLA Anderson Forecast announced, we’re now entering a recession and we’ll see a dramatic reduction in the workforce. So businesses will be focused on cutting costs in this time of economic uncertainty.

We’re already seeing organizations prioritize business process automation, RPA, and machine-learning technologies as they aim to engage customers and handle both front- and back-office functions with a reduced workforce.

Enterprisers: Have you or your team made any tweaks to your security strategy as a result of everyone working remotely?

Phelps: We’ve been extra mindful of security concerns, for both our customers and employees. During disaster recovery, we can’t forget about cybersecurity.

[ Related read: How to maintain security when employees work remotely: 4 common challenges. ]

Many companies have seen an uptick in phishing emails. Attackers are taking advantage of people’s desire to stay on top of the COVID-19 pandemic by sending malicious emails that masquerade as helpful information. To combat this, we have aggressive security awareness campaigns to remind everyone to stay vigilant. We also include security reminders in all communications coming from our CEO and created an FAQ on securing a home WiFi network. We remind employees about the risks of using public WiFi and talk about security in our all-hands meetings about the crisis to make sure security stays top of mind.

Enterprisers: How are you and your team taking care of yourselves to avoid burnout and other issues?

Phelps: Our crisis management team meets daily to check in, even if it’s to talk about what we did over the weekend. It’s important to maintain a sense of normalcy, and water-cooler conversations are part of that. As I mentioned, one of our corporate values is to put people first – and we make sure employees know we’re committed to that. We send out communications to employees about the healthcare and mental health resources that are available to them, as well as reminders from our executive leadership that it’s OK to take time off if they need it.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.