Back to business, but not back to normal

The pandemic exposed the myth that the "normal" workplace worked. IT leaders have an opportunity to do better for diverse employees as they chart their paths to the future of work.

Hands hold a face mask saying, 'We need a change.'  [diversity / inclusion/ allyship / anti-racism]
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As our lives collectively continue to stabilize after being upended by COVID, business leaders are being confronted with some critical questions on how to move forward. Their decisions during this pivotal time will have long-lasting impacts on their companys' overall health, particularly their ability to engage and retain diverse talent.

CIOs in particular have a unique question to ask themselves in this process: How can we thoughtfully leverage technology to create work environments that foster collaboration, innovation, diversity, and retention? 

Back to normal?

The dominant narrative seems to indicate that the goal is to get back to normal. But the pre-pandemic “normal” was not working for significant portions of the tech workforce, particularly those from demographics underrepresented in tech, like women, non-binary folks, and people of color. It may have been normal, but it was an entirely unjust normal. It was only once profits and the global economy were threatened that long-overdue accommodations were made to ensure that employees could continue to get their work done. 

Practically overnight, it was okay for many employees to do their jobs from their own homes, something many folks with disabilities or other obligations at home have been in need of all along. While there has been progress in this area, most offices and internal processes at work were not built with the needs of disabled folks in mind, and there continues to be significant stigma around people with disabilities. The opportunity to work from home is highly beneficial to individuals with mobility issues, as their homes are much more likely to be equipped for their needs. Remote work also allows for needed breaks for medical or therapy appointments. Just as importantly, a remote work environment allows an employee with a disability the opportunity to be seen and known by their colleagues as an equal member of the workforce, something with which individuals with physical disabilities have always struggled. 

The pandemic also created an enormous challenge for parents and caregivers—one with unfortunate and very real consequences that include what many are deeming the “She-cession.” Millions of women were forced to reduce their hours or leave their jobs in order to be home for their children, a tremendous setback for gender equality in the workforce. This pattern is even more pronounced for women of color

That said, there were some benefits for parents who were able to remain at their jobs and work. It became more acceptable, even encouraged, for working parents to acknowledge that their kids existed and needed their attention. This is something women in particular have historically had to strategically compartmentalize. Because schools and daycares were closed due to COVID, parents and caregivers had to build supervising their children into the workday. This allowed teams to see even more of the humanity of one another (and appreciate the balancing act parents and caregivers have been performing all along!) and created space for empathy and support for families. 

It needs to be stated as well that the opportunity to shift to remote work is laden with privilege and access. It is also critical to acknowledge that while essential workers continued to work in person every day, the majority of tech workers were able to work from home and were given a level of autonomy that was previously unattainable. And it worked!

Next steps for company leaders

So where do we go from here, and how can IT lead by example in applying the lessons we learned about what works—and what doesn’t—in a remote work environment?

Stop framing remote work as a perk and use technology to ensure that objectives continue to be met in a remote environment. 

Something that was a basic expectation of your workforce one year ago cannot now be considered a benefit of the job. Your employees didn’t have a choice in whether they went to the office—they couldn’t. Instead, they kept your business running from their kitchen tables and studio apartments. Remote work was what kept many companies across industries afloat during the pandemic. Rather than advertising a job as remote as an extra perk, try giving employees the opportunity to choose whether they’d like to come into the office. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that all tech jobs have to be remote now. It is perfectly fine to require an employee to come into an office, and it may be necessary for many companies to expect them to. CIOs and other company leaders should take a big-picture look at their workforce and consider why employees would need to be physically at the office versus moving company objectives forward from home. The pandemic proved that with the right technology tools in place, moving to a remote work environment or hybrid model can increase employee efficiency and be a tremendous cost savings for the company. 

Work to see the humanity of your workforce and check in with them regularly 

This is critical. Understand that your employees, like you, just went through a very challenging and transformative time. The best leaders create openings for conversations with their employees that go beyond the day-to-day tasks of the job. The pandemic was an opportunity for everyone to reflect on what’s important, and it’s possible that priorities have shifted for many. Work to understand your team in a deeper way. This can be done through scheduled check-ins and initial surveys with your team to allow them agency in defining the post-pandemic work environment. Most importantly, continue to assess and iterate on systems you are putting in place now, as they will likely need to be adjusted as data from your employees comes in. 

Consider this new chapter in your company a massive beta test and be prepared to let the data be your guide. 

Every company is piloting this new chapter for themselves, and you need to track how it's going. Survey your employees and weave questions into your meetings related to how the team is doing in whatever environment you have decided to create. CIOs can be leaders in leveraging technology to assess employee experience and making adjustments as patterns emerge. The company bottom line should not suffer if you create  a work environment thoughtfully; in fact, the opposite is true: Research shows that the more agency employees have over the work they do and how they do it, the longer they stay and the better work they produce. 

Whatever plan company leaders come up with, they need to prepare to be flexible, make adjustments, or maybe even start all over again. There are still so many unknowns, and it is not realistic to expect everything to go smoothly. CIOs have an incredible opportunity to be leaders in this new chapter, and their willingness to put the time and effort into establishing and iterating upon a model that will work for everyone at the company will be a key determinant of success. 

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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