Organizations have been talking about the pivot to hybrid work for so long now that the successful shift to a work-from-anywhere environment may seem like a foregone conclusion.
“From an IT perspective, the pandemic has already provided a trial run for many companies to accommodate hybrid workers,” says Robin Hamerlinck, senior vice president of IT and CIO at Shure.
But the solutions and processes quickly assembled during the early days of lockdowns alone will not be sufficient to enable the hybrid workplace long term. Even as employees expect flexibility and the ability to work remotely at will, many organizations will struggle to support a mixed work environment in the months ahead.
“One-third of companies will fail at anywhere work, and it won’t be the virus’s fault,” pronounced recent Forrester report “Predictions 2022: The Future Of Work.” It will be a result of failing to adequately support hybrid work, the report says, as leaders give lip service to a work-from-anywhere ethos but revert to traditional systems and processes as more employees return to the office at least some of the time.
Moreover, enabling hybrid work is more complicated than supporting fully remote environments. “When employees are all remote, the dynamics are clear — and hence the expectations: We will all use digital methods to collaborate,” says J. P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst on Forrester’s Future of Work Team. “Returning to the office opens up scope for new challenges. Those who return to the office may be frustrated by calendars filled with Zoom calls. Those working at home may be irritated when in-office employees revert to 2019 behaviors like scribbling on a white board.”
Insisting everyone return to headquarters is no longer an option. Those 30% of organizations that plan to physically corral their troops, according to Forrester’s numbers, are likely to see attrition rates outpace already elevated averages.
Work-from-anywhere is the future, and 2022 is the year to make hybrid work work. CIOs will play a critical role in these efforts. Navigating issues of accountability and authority, among other challenges, however, is likely to lead to a number of missteps. Following are some of the ways IT leaders may fail to smooth the transition to the hybrid work future — and what they can do instead.
Resting on pandemic laurels without revisiting and revising
What was good enough in the spring of 2020 is no longer enough. Hybrid work is a different beast than remote work. What’s more, many of the solutions put in place over the past two years may not be flexible or scalable enough for the enterprise longer term.
“When the pandemic started, organizations had to react quickly. Services were implemented with speed and agility not necessarily prioritizing scalability and reliability,” says Bob Lamendola, senior vice president of technology and head of digital services center at Ricoh USA. “Already stretched IT organizations will now need to support hybrid and remote worker infrastructure with the same priority that is given business critical systems infrastructures.”
In 2022, IT leaders will need to reassess their workplace investments, resources, and priorities to ensure they can meet current and future hybrid work needs. “Is there redundancy? Are there multiple access points? Are security procedures in place? These are all critical questions to ask,” Lamendola says. “The challenge now is to ensure that the services deployed to enable hybrid work are permanent, scalable, and most importantly secure to keep pace with our new remote and hybrid reality.”
Failing to secure adequate investment
“Whether it be running operations, projects, collaborating, or virtual events, hybrid is a fact of life,” says Ron White, CIO at Avanade. “Failure, as they say, is simply not an option and convincing senior business leaders of this fact might very well be the biggest challenge. Once you accept this ‘fact,’ then you can begin to assess your workplace tools and determine if the experience matches your employee’s expectations.”
IT leaders will need to make the business case for additional investment to support hybrid work to senior leaders who will assume that their (often large) investments in remote work should suffice.
Overlooking technology imbalances
Remote connectivity is one of the biggest employee experience imbalances in the hybrid workplace. It’s also one most difficult experience gaps for IT organizations to close.
“With so many options for workers to remotely connect, it is a challenge to ensure quality of service and redundancy that are out of the control of the IT organization,” says Lamendola. “Bandwidth is easily controlled within an office environment; however, within residential, multitenant and far-reaching remote areas, ensuring a consistent level of service is a challenge.”
Forgetting to address cultural norms
There is no doubt that investing in new technologies can help to improve hybrid work processes. More cameras and microphones in conference rooms, digital whiteboards, hoteling software for office space management are just some examples of the kinds of investments organizations will likely make to support mixed work environments.
“But it’s not primarily a technology issue,” says Gownder of Forrester. “It’s a culture and leadership issue. You must build a new set of expectations and behaviors to make sure that remote employees aren’t second-class citizens.”
To do so, IT leaders must address cultural and behavioral inconsistencies as well as technology ones, Ricoh USA’s Lamendola says. “Organizations need to consider how they can quickly understand the experience gaps that exist and put together a plan to address,” he says. “Defining meeting norms, leading by example, constant training/retraining, and experimentation are all critical to success and continuous improvement.”
Not being nimble
The hybrid workplace demands nimble technology support, which can be a challenge for many IT groups. “However, the very nature of hybrid work requires agility and the ability to react quickly to changing business requirement,” says Lamendola.
Being able to quickly grant or remove network access, which always has been an important security and operational requirement, is now business critical in the hybrid era to not only protect data but promote productivity.
Failing to partner with HR
“IT can only go so far in setting norms and leading by example,” says White of Avanade. The employee experience is ultimately owned by the HR function.
“As a result, many CIOs will find that they need to work closely with other C-level executives and HR to change the culture and gain budget for innovations to support that new culture,” says Forrester’s Gownder.
Take the example of a company deciding that digital whiteboarding will be the centerpiece of all collaborative meetings. “Building this business case requires CIOs to align with business and HR leaders’ expectations and to build consensus,” Gownder says. “Most of all, CIOs must emphasize that technology is a tool to help this broader transformation of the company in service of hybrid work. But technology, by itself, isn’t a panacea.”
Falling behind the pace of change
“There are a few key things that seem to be causing the biggest challenges and most of them center around the evergreen nature of the tools and processes that are used to support hybrid work,” says White of Avanade. “The amount of change the vendors are driving into their toolsets is immense, and it is so challenging to really understand how to adapt to this constant change.”
IT must ensure that its infrastructure is capable of accommodating this level of change. To do so, IT leaders will need to understand vendor roadmaps and get ahead of key features. IT must also help employees keep up; even the savviest business users may struggle to incorporate the number of new tools and functionalities coming at them.
“Perhaps you train new hires on your collaboration tools, but the day they walk out of that training, there probably are new features with which they should be aware,” White says. “This is the challenge. Teams should be trained on a periodic basis on all the new features. It’s not just how to use them, but how to use them in a hybrid world to make interaction more impactful to employees.”
Losing the pulse of employee engagement
Remote work has taken a toll on morale and engagement. Taking the temperature of the workforce will be crucial to properly enabling the hybrid workplace.
“Nudged along by ‘the Great Resignation,’ the conversation now is about how to keep the talent you have from walking out the door to share their skills and expertise with a competitor,” says Jay Upchurch, executive vice president and CIO of SAS. “It’s a discussion about what matters to your employees and how the organization can employ technology to meet those needs.”
Working with other C-suite leaders, CIOs must survey employees routinely. “Now is not the time to go on cruise control,” Upchurch says. “Without regular pulse checks, you may be blindsided by crippling mistakes, low productivity, and key employees being recruited away for seemingly greener pastures with a competitor.”
Are employees still engaged and passionate about working for your organization? Are they performing at a high level to delight your customers? Do they have the tools they need to be productive? “If you can’t answer yes to those questions, maybe your hybrid arrangement isn’t as finely tuned as it should be,” says Upchurch. “Listen to what employees are saying. Listen harder to what they’re not saying. IT must be able to anticipate and meet workplace needs.”
Shure’s Hamerlinck agrees. “They need to listen to their front-line staff to understand what additional resources might be needed as conditions evolve,” she says.
Not prioritizing IT retention
Speaking of the turnover tsunami, hiring and retaining technology talent is essential to support hybrid work.
“In our new, always shifting work environment, it’s critical to cultivate, grow and reward your talent base to keep teams motivated,” says Nicola Morini Bianzino, global CTO of EY. “Retention and ensuring IT teams feel supported, valued, and understood is crucial. I anticipate the tech talent war to continue into the new year and it will remain the No. 1 priority for organizations globally.”
CIOs should focus on incentivizing their leadership teams in 2022. “Help unlock your team’s innovative potential by encouraging calibrated risk-taking and rewarding disruptive innovation initiatives,” Bianzino says. “Additionally, make sure your senior tech leadership knows you understand the major challenges ahead, like retaining tech talent. Show them you support their efforts to prioritize speed and hiring and reward their efforts to hire diversely.”
Establishing or fortifying lines of communication so everyone in IT can voice their needs will also be important. “If your team doesn’t have a foundation of trust and transparency, funneled through open lines of communication,” he says, “that feeling of support will be lost.”
While technology will play an essential role in the effective functioning of the hybrid workplace, IT leaders must recognize that this transition — like any other significant technology-enabled change — will demand more from the IT organization.
“You won’t really drive a differentiated experience for your people unless you deal with this the old-fashioned way,” says Avanade’s White. “People, process, and then technology.”