The problems with the mass work from home movement of the last two years have been well documented. They include the following:

  • Disconnectedness
  • Isolation
  • A workday blurred from beginning and ending
  • Video fatigue

Granted, this was not work from home in ideal circumstances. It was happening in the midst of a global pandemic. But for many, it was the first introduction to what working from home could be. And while there were clear benefits, workers found the need for person-to-person contact overlooked. Zoom clearly did not provide the same feeling as sitting down face to face. The ability to just walk by someone's desk or have lunch with someone was no longer available.

In “Help Your Team Beat WFH Burnout,” Pepperdine University assistant professor Bobbi Thomason wrote, “though critical to surviving the crisis, these measures are taking a toll on employees, particularly women, people of color, and those with caregiving responsibilities. Indeed, burnout — defined as chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed — is at an all-time high.” These issues matter, in part because as Gartner predicts, “in 2022, 31% of all workers worldwide will be remote. The U.S. will lead in terms of remote workers in 2022, accounting for 53% of the U.S. workforce.”

Work From Home Required Cultural and Process Changes 

CIOs were the main enablers of work from home. The movement to mass work from home arrived with a steep learning curve, followed by acceptance that certain things work better with work from home. One business leader recently said her organization cannot give up the productivity gains acquired from mass work at home. The lack of travel and ability to share screens and co-create documents have produced some clear advantages.

At same time, the importance of work—life balance in work from home needs to be stressed. WFH proved difficult for organizations that previously operated under a centralized command and control approach with heavy emphasis on supervision. These organizations had a much harder time managing through the crisis, having to change their management style seemingly overnight. In contrast, organizations that had full trust in their employees' work ethic had a much easier time.

One area where everyone faced a learning curve was how much more intentional companies had to be to replace casual hallway conversations and connections. Leaders had to put in extra effort to maintain relationships through regular check ins. Organizations also learned an asynchronous work model provided much-needed flexibility for employees.

CIOs recommended organizations have leadership in place to manage the hybrid work environment. The importance of this role becomes clear when an employee has their first day at an organization. Virtual onboarding, much like maintaining relationships, requires an extra level of intentionality and planning. New employees need great coaches and partners to get up to speed successfully during those first 90 days. Another area which highlights the need of pro-active hybrid work management is establishing the right measurements for performance, as the older model of time sitting at a desk no longer works. 

Transparency and open participation became critical during this period to digitally foster culture and cohesion in far-flung teams. The need for this will persist, even as people slowly trickle back into the office. As CIO David Seidl has said, “We already knew how to work together remotely, and we got pretty good at how to meet as the pandemic sent us home. So now we're focused on how we build connection and community for new hires and maintain it for everyone.”

Related Article: Hybrid Work Is About Flexibility and Trust, Not Location

Cultural Changes Still Needed

More cultural changes are still needed. First, reward systems need to be developed that support inclusion regardless of location. This is a big change. Leaders will need to be retrained to include all people, even when some are absent from the room.

At the same time, companies must strive to provide in-office and WFH/remote workers a common culture and the tools to collaborate effectively. Again, this comes back to intentionality.

Leaders will also have to work to improve digital bridges and employee skills. Remote is a culture and people problem. Some staff worked very well remotely while others become less productive the longer they were kept remote. For this reason, leaders need to put in place staffing plans, training and hiring programs that aim to make the entire organization work, regardless of the employee’s location.

Related Article: Home Grown Talent: How Partnerships Help Companies Close the Digital Skills Gap

Putting Proximity Bias to Rest

Work is needed to eliminate the historical inequality between on-premises and remote workers for promotion and opportunities. Doing this requires planning to interact and meet with colleagues, regardless of location. The training mentioned above will also help make leaders aware of potential areas where proximity bias may be affecting their judgment. 

In an organizational-building process, this involves explaining when a role or opportunity may exist to all parties. Executives will need to leave behind command and control micromanagement and embrace agile culture and work practices in this process. "It can be very hard to change the culture around on-premises workers versus work from home workers,” said analyst Dan Kirsch. Part of this is making remote work more social. Employees need to meet and bond now that in person gatherings represent less of a business risk. Clearly, it is harder to cement a common culture via only Zoom. But the journey is worth it when meetings allow everyone to be heard and contribute on an equal footing.

Education and technology have helped managers do these things more easily. For CIO Anthony McMahon, “it has involved setting clear expectations, and leading by example. Managers need to acknowledge this and role model the behaviors they want their people to see. In my view, the role you must convince is the one responsible for employee welfare (and this may even be health and safety).”

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Does Your Company Have Proximity Bias?

Tech Stack to Better Support How Workers Work and Collaborate

As mentioned before, CIOs played a critical role in enabling work from home. A remote first or hybrid workplace starts with people having effective computing and telephony. People needed better headsets and external mics, good office chairs for their homes and good peripherals for both in office and home (I've recently noticed that a bigger monitor allows me to better see colleagues in Zoom calls).

In terms of technology architecture, as CIO Brian Baute said, “It is important to move from stand-alone components to mature, unified, integrated platforms. Middleware and data warehouse can go a long way here.” Making it easy for people to do their jobs is the rallying cry for CIOs operating in a hybrid workplace.

Part of this is making it clear who is in the office on a particular day. A virtual layout of an office showing all staff that are in the office and remote could help here. This would allow organizations to act more like a team. It could also drive up more 1-1 meetings between hybrid workers who are in the office on the same day. If you merged that with the ability to find workers or their device, you could know where everybody is and plot them in a virtual office.

The devices and apps we have today can't completely replace face to face interactions. Until this occurs, we must shift to technology that is well-designed for a hybrid workforce. CIOs identified multiple technologies, including the following, that can help:

  • Just in time training and skills building.
  • Low code/no code app development.
  • Work-coordination apps.
  • Personal AI assistants.
  • Data catalogs for accessing enterprise BI.

Some CIOs suggested managers would benefit from the analytics found in wellbeing measurement apps to see how remote workers are performing. Systems are still needed to better support virtual collaboration. And lower down in the technology stack, better end-point protection, security layers and data storage are needed.

“The problem with so much tech is it can also lead to more isolation as we find uses of the technology to tune out from social engagements and build our own bubbles and can avoid even directly interacting with others. Technology options are both good and bad. Being social animals, it’s going to be hard for technology, even metaverse technology, to eliminate the need for social gatherings and face to face meetings. It's much harder to form teams via electrons than through in person meetings,” said analyst Jack Gold.

Management Support for Making Investment

Not all executives have seen the value in investing in technology to improve work from home or remote work. Further complicating this is the multiple departments likely involved in any budgetary contributions for such initiatives. With this said, most people do want to improve WFH/remote work culture, but there isn't a clear answer on how.

In many cases, CIOs will need to be the champion for technology that makes remote work and community more viable for the rest of the organization. Yet CIOs are clear that they don't yet know the right combination of technology, techniques and culture shifts required to make WFH/hybrid work more successful. But the increased CIO focus on employee experience sets them up for potential success. As analyst Dion Hinchcliffe said, “I see that the CIO has been more invested than ever before in employee experience. The first time in my career that it's genuinely cracked the top 10 IT priorities in most organizations. But changes required need long effort to experiment and find best answers for an organization.”

CIOs have been on the forefront of WFH. For this reason, they have the added role of being a culture champion, not only for their organization and people, but for the rest of the organization. In a post-COVID-19 world, CIOs are needed who can pioneer a way forward for themselves and the rest of the business. Clearly, many are ready for the challenge.

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