As most CIOs see it, the distributed, hybrid enterprise workforce is here to stay.
With the new Omicron variant extending hybrid or fully remote policies into 2022, most C-suite execs, including CIOs, are recognizing the need to develop longer-term hybrid workplace strategies built around new technologies employees can use to improve collaboration and productivity while balancing work and life circumstances, according to several CIOs interviewed recently.
These strategies, CIOs expect, will lean on a combination of lessons learned throughout the pandemic, as well as policies around remote work that pre-dated COVID-19. But instituting hybrid workplace strategies as more than a stopgap introduces new challenges.
“While there is some pre-pandemic experience with hybrid, it is not at the scale we expect it to be post-pandemic. We have to consider the challenges of hybrid meetings where part of the team is on-site and the other part is working remotely,” says Amir Arooni, CIO of Discover Financial Services, headquartered in Riverwoods, Ill.
Like most enterprises, Discover is evaluating new technologies to improve collaboration beyond Microsoft Teams and Zoom and is rethinking the core business processes and culture of the modern enterprise, including location strategy, leadership, and collaboration, as well as HR policies.
Evolving hybrid enterprise strategies such as Discover’s offer benefits for employers and employees alike, Arooni says, including a more flexible approach to hiring, an enhanced work-life balance, increased productivity, elimination of time lost commuting, and the ability to maintain social distancing while the pandemic continues.
But such a big shift in how work gets done does have downsides, Arooni says, noting that a major challenge is assuring inclusion for each employee given the “inherent risk of a disconnect between in-office employees and remote workers. “There is also an increased risk of burnout for fully remote employees who work longer hours, and of colleagues or management missing the signs of burnout that are less visible when remote,” he adds.
Micromanagement is another delicate area, Arooni notes, as some managers who cannot see their teams have not yet mastered outcome measurements.
“It will also take intentional effort to build equitable and inclusive cultures that do not favor in-house employees over remote ones; and, where all employees have access to the right tools and technologies to do their jobs. And last, probably there is a need to redesign office space to accommodate both hybrid and in-office workers,” he notes.
Getting the right mix
The questions and challenges Discover is addressing are being tackled by most enterprises today. In a recent pre-Omicron interview with CIO.com, Honeywell Chief Technology Officer Sheila Jordan spoke of her company’s hybrid workplace policy, which includes three days in the office and two days out of office.
“Going fully remote is probably good for some small part of the population; working full time in the office is also good for some small part of the population. But people [need] to collaborate at some level and you want to define that amount of time,” says Jordan, who sees offices remaining central to the work experience, even if the office becomes the off-site meeting location and the home becomes the daily office. “There’s going to be this constant flux and what that looks like.”
The 140-year-old Honeywell employs 110,000 in support of 3 million products, including myriad sensors and materials for commercial buildings. As a huge government/aerospace contractor, Honeywell must adhere to higher security requirements that many other commercial enterprises need not consider.
Jordan is convinced that workplace changes brought about by the pandemic offer one big silver lining: Collaboration technologies such as Zoom have served as equalizers, instituting more inclusion and diversity in corporate meetings, she says.
“I like how everyone’s square is the same size. When you’re watching 20 or 30 people on the call, you can see who’s not participating and who’s not engaged, and you can start asking them questions so you can see and really bring in the introverts,” she says. “Everyone’s square is the same size, so I hope that if we go back to the office, we don’t forget about the people on the call.”
At Jaguar Land Rover, hybrid work policies are likely here to stay, but for certain classes of employees — not, for example, the technicians inside the factories assembling the Land and Range Rovers, says Harry Powell, director of data and analytics at JLR.
“People like the flexibility it gives and we have the technology to make that happen,” says Powell, cautioning that the hybrid enterprise remains an experiment at JLR and more data and metrics must be gathered to optimize productivity and employee satisfaction.
Powell, himself a remote worker, has a hunch there will be some downside to product development in a hybrid enterprise. “My suspicion is it will [impact] innovation,” says Powell, who, along with JLR’s CIO, reports to the CFO. “We’re not meeting and discussing ideas in the same free-flowing way, right? Hybrid working is transactional — not conversational.”
On the upside, the hybrid enterprise gives JLR and many other companies a better card in the war for talent. JLR is headquartered in Whitley, UK.
The impact of flexibility
Naturally, leadership’s point of view regarding the hybrid enterprise likely differs by industry. Commercial real estate companies, for instance, may be less inclined to promote a hybrid enterprise that translates into empty downtown parking garages.
Still, for most companies the hybrid workforce model is here to stay, says Accenture CIO Penelope Prett. “Companies have realized that with the right resources, employees can be productive no matter where they are based and enabling flexible working options can create a more loyal workforce.”
In a prepared statement to CIO.com on this topic, Prett pointed to Accenture’s own research, which unveiled that 83% of people believe a hybrid working model is optimal. The report, titled “The Future of Work: Productive Anywhere,” was released in April, surveying more than 9,000 workers across 11 countries.
“It’s not surprising that different employees want to work in different ways. For certain industries such as healthcare, there will always be a need to go into an office, but many companies are realizing that office space is not always essential,” says Prett, who notes that the nature of work itself is changing and training employees on new technologies and processes is far more essential than returning to their physical office.
“What this means for companies is that traditional ideas on how to keep employees engaged may no longer hold true,” Prett says. “One area that should be a priority for a hybrid workforce to raise both engagement and flexibility is learning new skills. To stay competitive and prepare for the future, companies must upskill their tech talent quickly and across the enterprise.”
Accenture, for one, has always encouraged remote collaboration and flexible working practices, Prett says. For instance, in any given month, Accenture’s employees share around 589 million chat messages, 1.2 billion audio minutes, and 141 million of video minutes using Microsoft Teams. She says 85% of employees surveyed say they intend to stay with their companies for a long time.
One analyst, however, reminds CIOs and other C-suite executives that the decisions on hybrid enterprise may be out of their hands.
“The pandemic-fueled shift to a decentralized, hybrid working model is here to stay for the long term. And with Omicron and the potential for ongoing COVID-19 variations to emerge, it’s very likely that we’ll be hybrid not just for not just work but for business events for a long time to come,” says Fred McClimans, a tech and equity analyst at Futurum Research.
“While many organizations were looking to revert back to the legacy in-office model as soon as possible,” he says, “the acceleration of digital transformation initiatives and the rapid deployment of collaborative tools have made the remote, work-from-home model much more appealing.”
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