by Stacy Collett

7 key questions facing the future of work

Feb 08, 202111 mins
BPM SystemsDigital TransformationIT Leadership

A global pandemic raised the bar for IT's capabilities. IT leaders say 2021 will be even more challenging.

Tech Spotlight   >   The Future of Work [CIO]   >  Business leaders / question mark overlay
Credit: FangXiaNuo / Melpomenem / Getty Images

NorthMarq CIO Dan Ritch looks back on the tumult of 2020 with a healthy perspective on his IT team’s accomplishments during COVID-19’s workplace upheaval, and with reverence for what lies ahead.

On the bright side, “It gave me more perspective on what we must do to meet our customer demands and it allowed us to accelerate our investments in technology,” Ritch says. But the year ahead poses more questions than answers. “This has set us up for what I believe will be an even more challenging 2021 as the bar has been raised, the desire for data, access and improved experiences has surpassed what we have seen over the past five years.” 

The pandemic fight isn’t over yet, but multiple vaccines are giving hope for a speedy economic recovery. Still, IT leaders can expect the accelerated pace of change to continue much past the end of the pandemic, says Nimesh Mehta, senior vice president and CIO of National Life Group.

“We may have jumped over many hurdles in 2020 like endpoint security for devices, electronic product generation, virtual client meetings (with pets and kids), digital user experiences and perhaps even team connections to create a new normal,” Mehta says. “But 2021 creates different challenges in the next norm ahead of us,” as the fog begins to lift, and the path forward becomes clearer.

IT leaders weigh in on seven key questions facing the future of work, and how they plan to answer the challenge.

1. How do we support a hybrid workforce going forward?

As some workers are starting to return to offices full time, others continue to work remotely, and still others switch between locations.

Some companies are using technology, data and in-house surveys of employee sentiment to help them make reopening decisions. Payroll processor ADP relies on a dashboard that offers a regularly updated view of who’s willing to come into the office and who would prefer to stay home. IBM developed tools that incorporate local health data and other signals to help bosses decide whether they can safely reopen a site.

The decisions on which employees will come back to the office and how will have long-lasting repercussions for IT and its investments.

Todd Renaud, CIO, Conn’s HomePlus

Todd Renaud, CIO, Conn’s HomePlus

At Conn’s HomePlus, the hybrid work environment will continue for the foreseeable future, says CIO Todd Renaud, but he worries about the long-term effect that remote work will have on some employees. “In the next year or two, you’re going to see people who work really well remotely … and others who still struggle and continue to have issues. A lot of people in our workforce today grew up with [in-person collaboration],” Renaud says. “My job is to figure out how to make sure that both of those [work situations] are positive to the employees but also agreeable to the company. I need to provide the technology and help provide process change to make that happen.”  

If remote work becomes more permanent, the next step in the digital journey will be finding creative ways to foster human connections instead of digital interaction, Mehta says. “I believe people are now craving human connections as they have not seen people in social or work environments for close to a year.” He also doesn’t believe workers want to return to long commutes and the pressure of balancing work and home life. “This means IT needs to be ready for flexible workspaces,” Mehta says. “It will be a cultural shift and we can’t stick our heads in the sand and hope it goes away.”

2. Can security keep pace with growing threats?

Nationwide work-from-home mandates led to increases in phishing attacks on remote users and threats to corporate networks and data, which shuffled security priorities.

Nimesh Mehta, senior vice president and CIO, National Life Group

Nimesh Mehta, senior vice president and CIO, National Life Group

In IDG’s annual Security Priorities Report, almost half of security leaders (49%) say their top security priority today is improving the protection of confidential and sensitive data, followed by improving or increasing security awareness training for end-users (45%). About a third of survey respondents say they’ve prioritized upgrading IT and data security to boost corporate resiliency (34%) and enhancing identity and access controls (33%).  

“The cybersecurity landscape is changing rapidly, and securing the workforce that has left the perimeters of a secured campus … is going to be challenging,” Mehta says. “We need to move to biometric-based security models that aren’t prone to collapse within remote workforces.  While layered defenses are still going to be critical, we need to add biometrics as an external layer of defense for our employees and our customers.”

3. How should hiring strategies and skills mixes change?

Companies have reskilled, upskilled and added skills to their IT teams to adapt to rapidly changing needs.

Dan Ritch, CIO, NorthMarq

Dan Ritch, CIO, NorthMarq

NorthMarq brought in new Scrum leaders and product owners to manage its rapidly changing technology. “We hire three new product leaders; two from the outside and one transferred over from the business,” Ritch says. “We hired a change management lead who helped us with communication and training, and we introduced the concept of business champions; key non-technical resources who help us build requirements, give us the business perspective and advocate the message of change into the teams.”

The IT jobs market still shrank by 55,900 jobs for the year, but signs of recovery emerged in December with 20,600 new IT jobs added, according to analysis by Janco Associates. The comeback continues.

In a global survey of some 3,000 corporate tech leaders by Robert Half International, more than 90% said they plan to either fill IT vacancies or create new IT positions in the year ahead. The most in-demand skills include cybersecurity, cloud and data or database management expertise.

“As companies now have reskilled or shifted, they’re hiring people back, but not necessarily the same people,” says Jim Johnson, senior vice president at staffing firm Robert Half Technology.

They’re hiring “people that are a fit for the new normal,” with different skills.

In the battle for top talent, work-from-home options may become a key hiring strategy. “If you start requiring people to come on site, they may choose another company that’s more mobile because they’re more comfortable working from home,” Johnson says. “[Remote work] becomes a retention and recruitment strategy as much as a business strategy.”

4. How should IT operating models be altered given acceleration and uncertainty?

Legacy and modern worlds will have to coexist as we have not seen it done before, Mehta says. “We can’t predict what the future might be as the fog lifts” but organizations can lay the foundation today to take small directional steps in the fog and “get comfortable living in ambiguity,” he adds.

Mehta prescribes a nimble business model going forward. As the business models change, the technology behind it needs to be component based to prevent monolithic environments that are difficult to manipulate,” he says. “This means being ready for containerization, API frameworks, low-code applications and CI/CD based development, to name a few. Data will be the ‘new oil.’ As businesses learn to monetize data, we have to be able to create platforms where data can be used to model business and human behaviors for concepts like artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

5. How can we ensure our customer experience meets rapidly evolving demands?

IT organizations for the most part did an impressive job of quickly adapting to changing customer demands and business strategies brought on by the pandemic. A McKinsey survey published in October 2020 found that companies are three times likelier than they were before the crisis to conduct at least 80% of their customer interactions digitally. Now many customers, both internal and external, expect IT to continue making improvements at the same rapid pace.

Bron McCall, senior vice president and CTO, Extra Space Storage

Bron McCall, senior vice president and CTO, Extra Space Storage

At Extra Space Storage, customer experience improvements were already underway pre-COVID, but IT accelerated their efforts, initially out of necessity, to provide contactless transactions, says Bron McCall, senior vice president and CTO.

“Customers have had a good response, adopting what we have done so far,” such as remote lease-signing for its storage units, McCall says. “This gives us a lot of confidence to really press these initiatives, giving customers more options to interact, regardless of channel, with technology solutions. We are addressing this by investing more and defining the key business metrics we want to drive with these technology solutions. With this alignment of goals, the teams can focus in and prioritize the capabilities we should be adding next. Measure results, iterate and move on to the next item.”

Ted Ross, CIO of the information technology agency, City of Los Angeles

Ted Ross, CIO of the information technology agency, City of Los Angeles

For the City of Los Angeles, the pandemic has pushed forward contactless government services for L.A. residents, businesses, and visitors, says Ted Ross, CIO of the city’s information technology agency. Going forward, “our 2021 digital transformation efforts range from expanding our shared identity management for all City services (‘the Angeleno Account’) to maximum usage of case management solutions, e-signature and electronic workflow.”

Internal customers also expect improvements. Engineering and construction management firm TRC Companies plans to shift to a proactive approach to end-user support rather than being traditionally reactive, says Rob Petrone, VP of IT. “Our goal is to be a consultant in delivering what they need.”

6. What impact will automation have on the workplace?

Some of the journeys into automation began years before COVID-19, but the pandemic has created a catalyst to focus and accelerate these models.

Rob Petrone, VP of IT, TRC Companies

Rob Petrone, VP of IT, TRC Companies

Automation isn’t just an option for banking and telecom sectors, according to McKinsey. Major retailers, for instance, are increasing automation in stores for tasks such as checkout. If salesclerks want to keep their jobs, they will need to learn new skills. In 2018, the World Economic Forum estimated that more than half of employees would need significant reskilling or upskilling by 2022.

TRC Companies created an internal digital team last spring to evaluate its entire IT landscape to unearth automation opportunities. The team has identified “a spreadsheet full of opportunities with ROI on them, but also an efficiency tied to them,” such as automated onboarding, Petrone says.

7. What will IT departments look like in the future?

As the future of work becomes clearer, the boundaries between IT and business will become less so, Mehta predicts. “IT as we know it today will probably cease to exist,” he says. “Silo-based IT that is set up as app development, infrastructure, security, etc., will be long gone. We will have to come together as ‘pods’ to solve and create new business models. Business will be IT and IT will be the business — no more boundaries.”