Martha Heller

CIO Fletcher Previn on designing the future of work

Apr 19, 20238 mins
IT LeadershipStaff Management

How can CIOs make their hybrid work culture a competitive advantage? At Cisco, Fletcher Previn leads with user experience and design.

fletcher Previn stylized
Credit: Cisco

It has been three years since COVID sent us into remote work, and we now find ourselves with a new challenge: employees who have never met in person. 

The hybrid work paradigm has exposed the importance of getting in front of evolving changes in the way employees will work together in the future, accelerating IT leaders’ need not only to address the impact of hybrid work and sharpen their tech strategies to support it, but also to help shape the future workplace culture, in large part through employee experience initiatives.

As CIO of Cisco, Fletcher Previn plays a central role in defining the company’s new corporate culture. I spoke with him about the CIO’s new mandate to help create a best-in-class hybrid work culture and to define the future of work within their organizations, a problem that IT leaders must work to solve in real-time today.

Martha Heller: What is the problem with our current approach to hybrid work?

Fletcher Previn: Over the last few years, we have experienced the evolution of work in three phases: technology, cybersecurity, and culture. Phase one was getting the technology in place to support our employees in an environment of 100% remote work.

Then, we quickly shifted our attention to the next phase, which was solving the security challenge of employees working in homes with smart thermostats, online classes, and video games all potentially on the same network.

We are now in a third, more complex phase, which is establishing cultural norms about the way we work. During the first two phases, culture was less of a challenge, because employees knew one another from their time in the office. But over time, as people left their organizations and new people joined, we found ourselves with a challenge we had never had before: employees who have never met in person. We now have a new problem statement: What is a best-in-class hybrid work culture?

We are solving that problem in real-time, and the organizations that get it right will have a competitive advantage. The decisions we make as technology leaders will define what it feels like to work in our organizations. As CIOs, we are the designers of the future of work in a very real way.

How do you define ‘best-in-class’ from a social perspective?

I think about this in the context of a ‘relationship bank.’ When we are in the office and having impromptu discussions about our personal lives, or getting a meal together, or having non-work-related discussions, we are making deposits into the relationship bank. When we are asking things of each other in a meeting, we are making withdrawals.

In a remote environment, you tend to make more withdrawals than deposits, which can result in a relationship deficit, where work becomes a transactional activity. We spend more time working than doing anything else, so work needs to have a deeper meaning. It can’t be transactional. Best-in-class is a hybrid environment that allows for some of the magic and serendipity that happens when people are together physically.

As CIO of Cisco, how are you creating this type of environment?

My goal is to deliver a meaningful hybrid work experience that enables people to do the best work of their lives — whether in a remote or hybrid environment. My approach has always been to lead with user experience and design in everything we do, which means engineering solutions from the ‘user experience in’ instead of the ‘IT department out.’

User research and experience design was important before, but it’s an existential requirement in a hybrid world. Are there distractions in the home? Is someone working in a shared environment? Is it noisy? Is the internet unreliable? It would be very difficult to build an effective hybrid work strategy without user research and design capabilities at the front, coupled with continuous feedback loops. Today’s best user experience is tomorrow’s minimum expectation.

Our goal is to avoid the tale of two Cisco work environments, one where some people are in the office in a conference room together or joining remotely with high-quality reliable connectivity and collaboration tools, and others are on unreliable connections, struggling to hear and see what’s going on, and cannot read body language and non-verbal queues. We want an equal footing across all environments, so that people have the same meeting experience and career opportunities no matter where they are.

What technology changes should CIOs consider in designing the future of work?

The network that can properly support hybrid work needs to be more distributed, porous and has a very different attack surface than when we were all in the office. Technologies like Zero Trust become even more important, along with split tunnel VPNs and having the right endpoint security strategy so you don’t have to backhaul all the traffic in order to inspect it. You need carrier and path diversity at your carrier neutral facilities and network points of presence, and you want to have a good peering strategy so you can bring applications closer to the end users and take traffic off the public internet.

Full-stack observability becomes more urgent in a hybrid world. How do we really understand our employee experience our employees are having when they are connecting from across all sorts of networks that we don’t manage? We need to understand the performance of the public internet and various SaaS tools in order to really know what our hybrid work experience is going to be for our people. We also need tools that provide valuable observability that lets us detect and fix problems before our employees even know there is an issue brewing.

Also important is DNS filtering, multifactor authentication, network automation, and generally making sure that you and your team understand your network better than the apex predators who are trying to break into it.

How have you changed your management practices to deliver a positive employee experience?

Hybrid work has brought some informality to management practices in general, which I believe is a net positive, and I hope persists. But with this informality, rituals are still very important. With my own team, I have a check-in every morning and check-out at the end of every week. We have an end of week happy hour that is virtual, and monthly in-person operating reviews and quarterly in-person strategy and OKR alignment meetings. This is how we are operationalizing our culture; I am trying to create an operational cadence where we talk to each other regularly as a close-knit leadership team, even though we may not be in the office together every day.

Looking back five years from now, what will be the benefits of hybrid work?

The pandemic compressed what would have organically happened over 15 years into three or four years. We know now that work is an activity, not a location. If you have enabled your digital estate properly for hybrid work, supported by the right culture and rituals, then location is much less of an issue — and that means we now have the benefit of access to a global labor market. The past few years also triggered a lot of exciting innovation in the collaboration and end-user productivity space. Employees will have more agency over their destiny because they will not be limited to their physical location; they will make decisions about what mission they feel passionate about and what organization and culture they want to be a part of. This is a good thing because everyone benefits when people make those decisions thoughtfully.

Another significant benefit will be broader recognition that IT departments around the world are, to a large degree, designers of the future of work. All the decision points around remote access, security, collaboration, employee productivity, and so on — while they may feel tactical in the moment — collectively form the answer to the question, ‘What does it feel like to work in this organization?’ When you add up all the decision points that go into enabling your environment properly for hybrid work, you are defining the future of your culture.

Martha Heller

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT executive recruiting firm specializing in CIO, CTO, CISO and senior technology roles in all industries. She is the author The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT. To join the IT career conversation, subscribe to The Heller Report.