When the escalating COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia’s healthcare sector with a perfect storm of operational and technology challenges last year, it quickly became clear that business and IT executives were going to have to make some hard choices to keep staff safe and connected.

A spike in investment in COVID-safe policies and personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, incurred significant costs over a short period of time – even as employees were sent home and operators like private hospital network Healthscope faced the need to digitise patient services from 42 sites around the country.

That need, executive general manager of strategic programs Tanya Graham told a recent Economist panel discussion, pushed the company to quickly roll out Zoom and pushed IT staff into a crash course in remote operations.

“We had to quickly move a lot of our services, like mental health programs, online and stand up a telehealth capability that we didn’t have before,” she explained, “and they’re now things that underpin the way that we do business.”

Yet even as investment in remote-work technologies increased, finite budgets forced the executive to have some hard conversations about what other investments needed to be put on ice to keep ‘tech debt’ to a minimum.

“When profit margins have been squeezed, it tends to come down to a risk-based conversation almost,” Graham explained, that says “If you’ve lived with a certain risk or a certain experience for so long, if you can’t afford to change it at the moment – can you live with it for a bit longer? And what will the impact of that be?”

“We’ve had a lot more of those kinds of conversations, because we don’t have an endless bucket of money.”

Innovation or desperation?

Healthscope’s experience echoes the major changes that nearly every company was pushed into as they fought to remain operational through the unpredictable swings and roundabouts of the past year.

“With the pandemic it’s been about rather than [being] more productive, just productive,” Charles Ross, Singapore-based editorial director for The Economist’s industry and management research business said – recalling queues out the door as businesspeople swamped local Harvey Norman stores to stock up on laptops.

Ultimately, he said, “it’s about making sure you can do what you need to as a baseline, and then building on from that.”

Even simple decisions like which type of computers to buy took on new importance during the pandemic, noted Volt Bank head of IT operations David Mackay, who recounted early discussions about the risks of giving every employee a laptop as opposed to a desktop computer.

“There was a lot of push from the technology and security teams, and from the regulator, to say that as soon as staff can move around, that’s going to create risks and problems and require further operational cost,” he explained.

In Volt’s case, that risk was mitigated by using a virtual desktop environment that buffered the bank’s systems from potential malware infections on remote workers’ systems.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Mackay said, “but we went with that, and I think it stood us in good stead: we stepped up to the additional cost, and luckily it has played out very well for us.”

The NAB faced similar issues at an even bigger scale, noted Bryn Newell, who is currently working as CTO with finance broker Eightcap but spent last year wrestling with the pandemic’s complexities as head of technology within the NAB’s ServiceNow operations.

“To get 35,000 people working from home is a huge, huge piece of work,” he said, “and to be able to do that in such a short amount of time was the most impressive thing to me.”

“Some of the red tape you usually go through when rolling out large programs was expedited in light of the pandemic,” he said, “but when you can harness that energy and effort from everybody and roll that out over 12 months, that would be amazing.”

Despite facing the need to balance investments in sustaining technology, the requirements of long-term strategy and the realities of a profit crunch from the pandemic, some companies even surprised themselves how well they made the transition.

“The whole pandemic really made people understand how differently people work,” said Matt Kixmoeller, vice president of strategy with data-management firm Pure Storage, which found itself scrambling to figure out how to “securely deliver the remote experience” using videoconferencing, collaboration tools and more.

“We were a company that started as a startup and had a lot of value in ‘we all come to one building, one room, and sit there and debate things,” Kixmoeller explained.

“But the reality is that a lot of people actually do their best work when it’s quiet and they can have alone time.

“By and large, people were shocked at how much productivity we were able to achieve.”