by Minda Zetlin

Supporting the future of work: A key CIO challenge

Nov 30, 2020
CIOIT Leadership

COVID-19 has changed workplaces forever. Here’s how work policies are likely to evolve — and how IT leaders can rise to the occasion.

video conferencing / remote work / online meeting
Credit: Aleksandar Nakic / Getty Images

In spring of 2020, as the pandemic took hold in the U.S., most companies switched some or all of their employees to remote work out of necessity. What they may not have known at the time is that doing so will likely change the American workplace forever.

Regardless of whether remote work was part of a pre-pandemic long-term workforce plan, one thing is now clear: The work-from-home genie is out of the bottle, and no one can put it back in.

“As IT, we doled that out cautiously and, in some cases, we leveraged auditors’ concerns that certain positions shouldn’t work from home,” says Ralph Labarta, CIO/CTO at the HR services provider Engage PEO. “Although the intent of those barriers was good, the rules were rewritten overnight. The auditors say this position shouldn’t work from home? Well that’s great, but the office is closed.”

Before COVID-19, most organizations had either considered and rejected the notion of remote work, or never even considered it, says Gartner VP and analyst Suzanne Adnams. “They thought they’d never be able to figure out their processes, or that their culture would be affected.”

Those same executives have now come around, she says. “They went into it somewhat reluctantly, to put it mildly. They were surprised. We heard from these leaders that their people were transitioning very quickly to the new work from home situation and were very happy doing it. They were at least as productive, if not more so.”

The result is that many organizations now tell Gartner they think of remote work as a permanent thing. “What we have done is essentially leapt forward five to ten years in terms of our workplace environment, by jumping into remote work as a norm,” Adnams says. “But our business practices haven’t caught up. And that’s where we are right now.”

This rapidly shifting dynamic is playing out across all industries, calling into question certain assumptions about what the future of work would look like just nine months ago. Here’s a closer examination of how the pandemic has impacted CIOs’ outlooks and responsibilities when it comes to supporting the workforce of the future.

The end of 9-to-5

“A lot of companies are reconsidering all these outdated workplace practices,” says Jacob Morgan, futurist and author of The Future Leader. “Do we need a vacation policy? Annual performance reviews? Do we need people to expense everything, even if it’s only $5?”

But the foundational question most companies now face is, What constitutes a workday?

“We’re going to see a move away from the idea that you have to fit your work hours within nine to five,” Adnams says. Instead, she says, successful organizations are embracing time blocking. “We block off times to do specific tasks to make sure we can accomplish them at our peak performance time, but also so we have time to balance and integrate with personal or social activities.”

And jobs themselves won’t look the same. “Likely as a result of this, you will be able to hire the skills and expertise you need anywhere in the world that they are,” she says. “We’re looking at a likely increase in contingent or gig workers, people hired for a very specific purpose in a defined timeframe. We’re also going to see a separation of roles from skills. The focus will be on what skills, what experience, what expertise you bring to a particular environment, and not so much what your title is.”

That will create major challenges for some members of your organization, she says. Not for top management, most of whom are happy about the productivity gains from remote work. And not for rank-and-file employees, 80 percent of whom are happy working at home, according to Gartner research. The big problem is for the middle managers charged with supervising those employees. “In the past, their role was basically administrative and oversight,” Adnams says. “They judged people’s productivity on whether they showed up at the office or not. The new reality is that they can’t just see whether or not someone is in their seat and tick off a box, ‘Oh, they’re being productive, they’re here.’”

That’s a big problem for a lot of managers. “Most people in those roles have never been trained in how to have those interactive conversations and how to set performance outcomes, nor how to recognize signs of stress or disengagement in team members,” she says. “Forward-thinking organizations see the need to support and equip these middle managers to be able to do this job well. And in some cases, they’re making the tough call that certain individuals simply aren’t ready to take on that role.”

How can IT help? For one thing, managers now need more and better systems for collecting data about employees’ performance, Adnams says. Gartner had been seeing this trend well before the pandemic, but the move to remote work has accelerated it since managers now need this data ASAP. “They have to be able to collect enough data to know if someone is meeting the outcomes they are looking for,” she says.

And there’s another, more surprising way that IT leaders can help — by sharing their own knowledge, since many are experienced at leading remote teams. “IT was remote-work-oriented prior to the pandemic,” Labarta says. “We were able to take the model and apply it to the company pretty easily because we’d been living it ourselves.”

Reimagining the office of the future

If many people will keep working at home, at least part of the time, even after the pandemic is over, what will happen to today’s sprawling offices? There may be fewer of them. “The lasting effect is, I think employees have awakened to the value of their time,” Labarta says. “They’ve become aware of how much the commute and inconvenience of working at an office affected their personal lives and their work lives. I think the idea of spending two hours a day commuting might be dead.”

That means companies will take a look at what they’re spending on office space, he says. “They’ll want to extract as much efficiency as possible.” Engage PEO, he adds, was on the brink of adding office space when the pandemic struck. Those plans are now on hold.

Existing offices may soon serve a new purpose as the place where employees come to interact, rather than where they work alone in a cubicle — which they could do just as easily somewhere else. “What does that hybrid model look like, when people are partially in the office and partially at home?” asks Deb Gildersleeve, CIO at low-code platform Quick Base. “Maybe employees are going to gear all their time in the office around meetings. Does that mean you have to restructure your technology or your office to be able to handle that type of work? Do you need a more visitor-type environment for those who only come in in that scenario?”

Sarah Pope, VP of digital workplace and future of technology at Capgemini Invent, says she’s hearing diverging opinions on whether tomorrow’s offices will be smaller and/or fewer. In the meantime, she notes, some high-profile companies have made big bets by closing some large offices and opening smaller satellite offices that are closer to where employees live. “To me, those are indicators that they are seeing a permanent change to remote work, or maybe what you might call a hub-and-spoke working model, with offices outside of the large metro districts we’re used to.”

These changes will be helped along by a trend several experts see coming: a growing need to include climate change and environmental concerns in corporate planning. For example, Pope notes, San Francisco’s Bay Area Metropolitan Transport Commission recently voted in a measure mandating large employers to have 60 percent of employees working remotely on any given day.

Even if your local government isn’t concerned about your company’s environmental impact, customers might be. “As consumers become more and more aware of the carbon footprint in their lives, if you’re a company focused on the consumer, a sustainability strategy is no longer optional,” says Karthic Bala, chief data officer at media giant Condé Nast. “If you look at business travel, and people commuting, that has a certain carbon footprint. Then the infrastructure itself, and the electricity required to keep servers and machines up and running to be able to support a business of our size — I think these are all critical components.”

The CIO’s new key metric: Remote work success

In the near term, many CIOs are now accountable for user experience in a way they never were before. “Work from home success has been added to the CIO’s KPIs,” Labarta notes. Meanwhile, the honeymoon period — when employees were grateful to IT just for making remote work possible — is now ended.

“Many employees early on had kind of a fly-below-the-radar attitude,” Labarta says. “It had to do with the uncertainty of the times, and people being grateful for being able to work from home. As time passed, they became more secure in their roles in the new COVID economy and they wanted to move to the next level. Now there’s an expectation for people to be able to do pretty much everything they were able to do in the office.”

“Looking ahead, there are going to be new standards, sort of like when consumers first got an Apple iPhone and it changed their expectations for what they needed from a smartphone for good,” says Pope. “Employees are going to want the tools and technologies they use to make it easy for them to be as productive, and to feel as plugged in to their work culture and community, sitting at home as they would be walking down the hall at the office.”

Meeting these expectations can be a challenge. “It’s a little tougher for IT to support employees working from home. There are so many variables to how equipment and software and services are performing. You’ve got your home network, printers that need to be set up, other people in the house using the bandwidth. Those things make troubleshooting a little more difficult,” says Gildersleeve.

“I think one of the biggest things, from a CIO perspective, is to lead with empathy, because it’s not easy for anybody,” she says. “You know, that IT-business relationship is really more than enabling your business teams with technology. It’s making sure we’re seeing what is and isn’t working so we can proactively deliver a better experience for end users.”

As employers ponder how best to support remote workers, software companies are working hard to create new and better offerings. “There’s a lot of collaboration software that’s not there yet,” Bala says. In the future, he envisions better tools to help team members work together across geographies and time zones, and that’s just the start. “I think there’s going to be some amount of augmented reality or virtual reality that will come into play replicating in-office interactions,” he says, although for now none of the solutions he’s tried work quite well enough. He also foresees increased use of AI for employees working at home. “AI can be used for privacy, compliance, and cybersecurity,” he says. And in the future, he says it will do more, improving workflow, for example.

The bottom line

Does all of this sound costly? It is. Companies that sent many or most employees home may benefit from lower on-site costs, or even, eventually, a smaller physical footprint. But those savings, if they happen, may not show up in IT’s budget. Meantime, CIOs are seeing costs go up from supporting remote work, not only because of buying new equipment, but also from day-to-day operations.

“Our cloud costs have gone up, and so have expenses for storage and security,” Labarta says. He hopes to make up for some of this with savings on printing costs and on bandwidth usage at the office. “But that will be a trailing savings,” he says.

But if suddenly supporting huge numbers of remote employees put a strain on IT departments and their budgets, it also created a unique opportunity for IT leaders, experts say.

“With more non-IT business units now working remotely, there is greater interest in and greater appreciation for what the IT organization can bring to the enterprise,” Adnams says. “CIOs right now can leverage that high profile to make significant advances in the technology they have in place — because now the rest of the organization has a clearer view that their jobs are dependent on it.”