by Clint Boulton

4 trends fueling hybrid-work strategies in 2021

Dec 22, 2020
IT LeadershipStaff Management

In 2021, IT leaders will equip reconfigured corporate offices with hoteling and contract-tracing tools and automate more business processes while extending their cybersecurity coverage.

video conferencing / remote work
Credit: Filadendron / Getty Images

If 2020 taught tech leaders anything it is to expect the unexpected, as the coronavirus exacted a considerable toll from businesses worldwide. But CIOs still have their jobs to do, driving digital strategy that provides stellar employee and customer experiences.

Trends that bubbled up in the second half of 2020 — including migrations to cloud software, virtual solutions, and automation, complemented by analytics to measure the efficacy of these solutions — will gain momentum and accelerate in 2021. The importance of cultivating a quality hybrid work model to support superior employee experiences can’t be understated as workers enter the second year of the pandemic.

“Work culture and employee experience has changed forever, whether we like it or not, making those CIOs who can seamlessly enable new experiences a beacon for talent,” wrote Forrester Research in its 2021 CIO predictions. “At companies that don’t deliver great experiences, employees will walk or, worse, stay and underperform.”

Here corporate leaders share the top trends that will impact their digital strategies in 2021.

Workplace and recruitment, reimagined

Corporate offices will be reimagined as physical social network hubs, says Jo Deal, chief human resources officer of LogMeIn.

People who have worked remotely since March expect to be less tethered to their office, keep more flexible hours, and spend fewer hours commuting, all of which impacts the amount of physical office spaces companies hold. Rather than commuting five days a week, workers may go in for half days or just one day a week for meetings, collaboration, and connections. Companies will incorporate more satellite offices in multiple geographies, reducing headquarter footprints in high-cost areas.

Progressive organizations will capitalize on the hybrid work opportunity to tap into a diverse talent pool, being open minded about where they hire new roles and retain top talent by accommodating the desire for people to live where it suits them, Deal says. To meet the challenge, enterprises are hiring a “head of remote,” who coordinates compensation, benefits, taxes, remote working laws, and employee experience, says Deal. Or they create a remote work committee comprised of CEOs, CFOS, CHROs, and other leaders, as LogMeIn has done. “It’s really complex to do this well,” Deal adds.

Digital fuels the hybrid work model

The onus is on CIOs to provide technology that can support hybrid work models, which means installing SaaS tools for video conferencing, file sharing, and digital whiteboarding, along with augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) solutions that power employee meetings, customer showcases and other critical collaborations.

CIOs must also invest in office “hoteling” applications that enable remote workers and visitors to reserve desk space, along with COVID-19 contact-tracing tools to keep employees safe, says Nutanix CIO Wendy Pfeiffer, who is evaluating several such solutions. The latter exercise burdens organizations with finding solutions that hew to privacy regulations, says Pfeiffer, who is evaluating such tools.

In 2020, CIOs shoehorned many of these solutions into their tech stacks to as they reshuffled their digital agendas. Expect IT leaders to improve the way such tools are integrated across the enterprise as they reimagine the way work gets done in 2021, creating new operational efficiencies.

A hot market for collaboration technology, evidenced by’s jaw-dropping $27 billion offer for Slack means CIOs will worry about what this means for their IT portfolios, says SurveyMonkey CIO Eric Johnson. For instance, what if M&A stymies innovation for the software they license?

To wit, CIOs must take care not to “put too many eggs in one basket,” Johnson says. “The world of collaboration will shift underneath us pretty quickly.”

Zero-trust cybersecurity

All of the tools and remote connections add up to The Next Great Security Dilemma.

The corporate network was hard enough to protect from talented hackers of nation states or individual affiliations, but with data traffic extending outside the firewall to remote locales, CIOs have embraced “zero-trust” security models, ostensibly treating every connected device — desktop, laptop, tablet, router, and phone — as a potential threat, says Johnson. It’s a difference of scale; where the network once had finite space, it’s now much more dynamic and prone to exploitation from human errors to aggressive attacks.

“The network has become someone else’s internet from their house,” Johnson says. “It’s only getting more challenging.” He adds that CIOs must balance security concerns with ensuring that employees can remain productive. Single sign-on solutions and device posture management technologies, along with a number of machine learning (ML) and AI-fueled cybersecurity tools remain critical weapons in CIOs’ arsenals.

But no protection is perfect: Witness the recent breach at FireEye, whose raison d’être is protecting corporations and hunting down bad guys. It’s enough to chill the blood of most CIOs and CISOs.

Intelligent automation

In 2020, most CIOs bought or built a slew of ML, artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation (RPA), process mining, and low-code technologies to automate business processes.

Aflac Chief Digital and Information Officer Rich Gilbert knows because he was one of them, bringing a hodgepodge of tools to bear on everything from onboarding and enrollment to after-care services the insurance company provides.

But in 2021 and beyond companies will valiantly try to unify these technologies, creating an intelligent fabric that automates governs work processes. “In the past, those have been standalone tools, but now they’ve become mainstream and we’ll see them applied together at scale,” Gilbert says. “It’s the convergence of these technologies that is going to make a difference.”

Research suggests Gilbert is on to something. Seventy-three percent of 320 executives surveyed said their organizations have embarked on a path to intelligent automation, a 58% jump from the number reported in 2019, according to new Deloitte research.

“Considering the widespread remote working and the configuration required to secure worksites, increasing automation among the workforce is almost a given,” the researchers wrote. 

Bottom line

CIOs who thought their job might get easier as C-suite peers and rank-and-file employees grow more accustomed to the pandemic have another thing coming.

“COVID-19 will still be a disruptor in 2021,” Gilbert says. “The CIOs that are doubling down on digital and accelerating value and helping reinvent their companies will maintain their political capital.”