How IT must adapt to the emerging hybrid workplace

User support, the relationship with HR, and front-office technologies will require a rethink as distributed digital work becomes the new reality.

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In spring 2020, tens of millions of people worldwide were suddenly thrust into remote work as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns came into force. IT and users alike adapted quickly, and companies were able to keep doing business relatively easily given the scope of the change. What’s more, employee productivity actually went up — and stayed that way even after the initial adrenaline surge wore off — across the globe, from Australia to the US.

“Leaders across the board were shocked and amazed how quickly all their workers made the transition once they had the equipment — and by how productive everyone has been,” says Gartner analyst Suzanne Adnams.

Management consultants had been saying for years that a distributed workforce was going to be the new normal, and suddenly it is. Although the pandemic has not ended, the outlines of the post-pandemic workplace are becoming clear. They have major implications for not only workers but IT, which will need to adapt user-supporting processes and play a greater role partnering with HR on the policies and approaches that underpin work processes and a changed culture. IT will also need to reprioritize its technology investments as a result.

In interviews with Computerworld, analysts from Forrester Research, Gartner, and IDC were practically of one mind on the shape of the emerging hybrid workplace, the notions of flexible work, and where IT needs to adapt to best serve the business in the “new normal,” “next normal,” “new reality,” or whatever you want to call it.

The changed context for workforces

Although management consultants have been saying for years that workforces would become more geographically dispersed due to the use of software- and cloud-powered digital tools, the COVID-19 pandemic made that shift happen all at once, says Gartner’s Adnams. “What COVID has done is forced us to leapfrog five to 10 years, or more in some sectors.”

Forrester analyst Andrew Hewitt agrees: “The extended enterprise is the larger trend, … and that requires a robust change-management program” for users, managers, and IT.

The implications for IT are many: extended support desk hours; remote-support and remote-management tools; work-specific user training; cloud enablement of all software possible; appropriate security for distributed work; enabling multiple forms of collaboration and related activities like scheduling, whiteboarding, and availability tracking; provisioning equipment to home-based workers and/or supporting employee-provided equipment; aiding Facilities in modernizing building technologies to avoid touch-heavy surfaces; and partnering more closely with HR for policy enablement and enforcement and for appropriate monitoring.

The major changes are:

Processes go digital

As much as possible, work processes need to be digital and available via the internet because employees are scattered and will remain that way. This means that workers need access to appropriate bandwidth and work environments, that user experience for employees is now critical for business effectiveness, and that employees need to be partners with IT, not just consumers of IT-provided tools.

Workforces are dispersed

The workforce will not all work in the traditional office or company location, nor will they all be remote. Many people will work from home, but many people still need to work in a corporate facility, such as a production line, data center, retail store, shipping center, lab, or even traditional office. And there are employees whose work is location-agnostic but who can’t work at home due to lack of space or insufficient internet access.

Gartner’s Adnams estimates that — although it varies by industry — about half of the workforce in advanced economies will need to work in a corporate facility, 25% to 30% will work permanently at home, and the rest will come to the office two or three days a week and work at home the rest of the time. For white-collar workers, Adnams says to expect about 60% to work at home full time, 10% to 15% to work full-time in an office, and the rest to work two, sometimes three days a week at an office and the remainder of the week at home. Forrester and IDC see similar breakdowns. This mixture is typically called the hybrid workplace.

“There is a ripple effect from this,” Adnams says. “It creates a whole bunch of management challenges no one has had to deal with before. If only part of your workforce is coming into the office, what does that do about your office space? Do you assign a permanent workplace to someone who will be there only two days a week? What is the role of an office anymore? If it’s not the primary workplace of all the organization, then where does that lead?”

Although these issues are management ones, the decisions have implications for IT, which has historically been centered on providing technology infrastructure and tools in dedicated, centralized spaces but now has to make remote work a normal part of the technology environment.

And even in the central spaces that remain, IT will likely have to support the notion of hoteling, where employees reserve a workspace for a day or a few hours. Not only do you need a mechanism for the reservations, you have to make sure that the right equipment is available, from multiple monitors for some users to providing both Mac- and PC-compatible peripherals for others. That may require several configurations of the “hotel” workspaces to be available. IT may also be in charge of monitoring high-touch equipment like mice, keyboards, and headsets to be sure it’s sanitized before and after each use.

Work times change and flex

Much of the workforce will not work traditional hours. What Adnams calls time-blocking and others called time-slicing will become common among digital workers, where they divide the full day from when they awake to when they go to bed into scheduled slices of personal, family, and work times to best juggle all their commitments.

“It’s not the fabled work-life balance. What we have is life integration: one life, one set of hours, one day into which we need to integrate our work activities, our family activities, our social activities, and our personal activities,” Adnams says.

That time-slicing is something high performers have long done, she notes, but it’s now a skill everyone needs — and something that both work policies and technology systems need to support.

Work teams will need to set core hours during which everyone is available, and they will need to set standards around when it’s okay to reach out to someone outside a work time-slice. Management will become less top-down and more team-based.

The change in work hours and the reliance on more employee self-management is typically called work flexibility.

Physical controls reduce virus transmission risk

In corporate facilities, much of the office infrastructure needs to be updated to protect employee health until the coronavirus threat is ended. Things like door handles, light switches, and elevator buttons suddenly become potential virus transmitters and need to be replaced by touchless methods where possible, which may require IT support in some buildings.

Beyond IT, conference rooms and huddle rooms can’t be used as long as the COVID risk remains. “People can’t sit together and breathe on each other,” says Gartner’s Adnams. Changes to air conditioning for better filtering may also be required. And office layouts need to change to enable appropriate social distancing — for instance, by adding plexiglass barriers and taking half or more of cubicles out of service.

Often, the cost of reducing COVID risk at an office is too high, which encourages even more remote work, she says — which then becomes an IT issue.

How IT can support the hybrid workplace

For CIOs and other IT leaders, the emerging hybrid workplace introduces several challenges that require changes at both the strategic and tactical levels. Many of these need to involve Human Resources, because they need to be supported by and align to work policies.

Engage employees as partners, not consumers

All the analysts interviewed encourage a reformed relationship between IT and its corporate users that gives users a stake in the process of selecting, deploying, assessing and improving technology tools, and even outright ownership of some technology areas. After all, the technologies IT delivers are supposed to help them work better, and they know their work needs best.

User experience (UX) for workers — think of it as internal customer experience (CX) — is critical in the new hybrid reality, but IT has been very bad at it for decades. “Users are going to expect the highest level of technology. It’s no longer acceptable to have a degradation of technology” for those who work outside the office, says Forrester’s Hewitt.

UX is not just a feel-good exercise. Employees with high-quality UX are at least 1.5 times more likely than others to have high levels of work effectiveness, productivity, intent to stay, and discretionary effort (meaning to go above and beyond their job requirements), says Gartner analyst Jason Wong. And Gartner surveys show that 77% of employees see that good UX for their tools translates to better customer experience; Wong points out that if employees can do their work more easily and flexibly, customers get better service and support, which leads to more revenue.

To get to a better balance between IT and users, IT has to make several shifts, including ceding some technology to business departments and even individual users, engaging users as stakeholders for the entire technology product cycle, and actively listening to users.

Wong sees several technology portfolios at an enterprise, including:

  • central apps and services that IT has historically owned and continues to own, from networking to email
  • core business apps and services that the business specifies but that IT manages and largely owns, such as financial and human resources information systems
  • departmental business apps that the business owns but that IT helps deliver and guide, such as data analytics and sales tools
  • business apps that individuals in the business own in a self-service way, with IT engaged only if policies such as privacy or data validation come into play —for example, robotic process automation tools and low-code or no-code “citizen developer” tools

“Post-pandemic, IT is not agile enough to provide all these applications — not that they were before the pandemic,” Wong says. So IT organizations need to shift to a product model where they enable various technology product lines, some they own, some they co-own, some they support, and some they let be.

Co-owning, Wong says, tends to happen with operational applications for automation and process improvement, as well as for enabling new channels, such as to partners or customers. He recommends the use of “fusion teams” composed of IT and business stakeholders to define, manage, and deliver co-owned apps.

In all cases, IT needs to shift from a project mentality to a product mentality, he says. “IT should be organizing around these business-outcome-driven capabilities; aligning toward product lines; creating services than can be plug and play, sharable, and reusable,” Wong says — all aspects of what he calls the composable enterprise.

Users should be active in any technology deployment, including the technology selection. Lisa Rowan, an IDC analyst, recommends that IT use agile software development methodologies such as having formal user stakeholders, user engagement throughout the process, usability testing, a continual feedback loop, and user acceptance testing — all hallmarks of agile development and a product mindset.

“But they rarely do that before they toss it over the wall,” Rowan says. By contrast, “vendors are good at taking suggestions from user panels. Why should IT be any different?” she asks.

And of course IT has to be actively listening, which is why Rowan suggests that there be an equivalent of a suggestion box or periodic survey that IT uses to get feedback from users beyond the specific projects IT is working on with users.

IDC analyst Laura Becker advises that “users have to be vocal on what their needs are” but concedes that “it’s only useful if IT acts on it.”

Forrester’s Hewitt further suggests that IT survey the users on the experience of using various technologies. In companies that make employees active stakeholders in the technology they use, “IT is being forced to understand the needs of the user a lot more in a qualitative, sentiment-analysis sense,” he says.

For the long term, IT should experiment with more work scenarios to identify flexibility-supporting technology before it is urgently needed — to get ahead of the curve, not just react to it. Doing so is a key part of a future-proofing effort for the IT infrastructure, because the journey to the new reality is just beginning.

Provide comprehensive user support and training

In most organizations, IT is not close to the users, instead providing support only when there is a problem or providing technology to users without much prior engagement. Instead, IT needs to embrace user enablement as part of technology enablement.

“IT needs to decide how much more support to give workers,” says Forrester’s Hewitt, because under remote work, users can't easily get support from a colleague in the next cubicle or have an IT support technician come and diagnose an issue.

In addition to extended phone support periods to cover the wider working hours in a hybrid office, IT needs to install tools to better see what is happening on computers, whether company-owned or not, for those employees not in an office with an IT support staffer available. Although pricey, co-browsing (a.k.a. collaborative browsing) technology is now emerging that may help support staff and employees have a shared user experience to make remote support more effective, says Gartner’s Wong.

Co-browsing technology goes further than traditional remote-support tools that let a technician see a user’s screen; co-browsing lets the remote support person work in the user’s browser along with the user, as well as add annotations, such as to highlight fields and buttons a user may have missed or to number user interface elements to make step sequences clearer. Co-browsing is already in use for customer-facing applications at several retailers, including Verizon and Burberry, so staff can help customers research and find products and complete a purchase while maintaining social distance or even being in different locations.

And training has usually been limited, pro forma, or nonexistent. Sorry, providing videos from YouTube, LinkedIn Learning, vendors, and the like or links to vendor support pages is not real training. Such resources rarely help employees best use the technology in their actual work.

As small examples, users often don’t know how to turn off notifications at night, check availability of their teammates, use collaboration tools not provided by their company (such as those used by clients or business partners), or set up no-meeting periods for teams using collaboration software. Users need more mastery of the capabilities of their tech. Letting them figure it out on their own or providing links to generic how-to videos won't cut it.

IT, like HR, rarely understands users’ actual work, which is why it so often relies on cookie-cutter training. Instead, IT could transfer that training budget and ownership to the business departments to do their own training. Better, the business could create training teams composed of power users and IT support staff to jointly develop job-specific training so employees gain more technical knowledge and so IT gains subject matter expertise.

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