The world we live in has undergone a work revolution the likes of which has never quite happened before. What’s more, this revolution took place more rapidly than just about anyone thought it could or would. The many changes and innovative array of effective new business contingencies that emerged during the global pandemic in 2020 were only possible because of recent technology trends like Internet connectivity, the cloud and mobile devices.
This sudden work revolution has been led by the two most directly responsible senior executives who shape the work environment in most organizations, the chief information officer (CIO) and chief human resources officer (CHRO). The irony is that it was not the accumulated structural changes of becoming a post-industrial economy or the infusion of technology into every aspect of business that drove this work revolution. Instead, it was the arrival of a tiny but surprisingly unique virus onto the world stage.
It didn’t have to be this way, and the workforce will ultimately need something better than the remote work toolkit and practices that CIOs and CHROs hastily assembled in the wake of the widespread dispersal of much of the workforce to their homes. The digital tools and technologies to augment and improve work in the physical office simply weren’t designed for today’s new work conditions, and the policies and procedures of a mostly office-centered organization aren’t adequate for what will ultimately prove to a be renaissance in the way we intentionally structure our workforce to achieve our shared goals. Most organizations must now adapt to a new hybrid work regime that blends the old and the new into an effective model.
This blending can succeed but only if we set about the process with the right goals in mind. There are many reasons why changes to the way we work were long pent-up in the queues of CIOs and CHROs. The path was uncertain in an age where the transformative possibilities of work were heralded by technology changes that were only a handful of years old in many cases. Real change requires significant investment for an uncertain ROI, and not only is change hard, it takes a real imperative and there were always bigger disruptions and shifts to deal with.
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Return to Work Is a Major Opportunity
Now that the imperative has arrived from an unexpected source, return to work is the next major task in front of the collective C-suite. Make no mistake, doing this well is critical for many reasons including employee morale, workforce effectiveness and moral and legal risk. But it’s also the next major opportunity to begin introducing substantive change in the way we work for the better, incorporating vast recent improvements in the art of the possible.
If we look at the return to work process itself, the protocols of which I’ve both participated in developing or reviewed over the last few months, it will be one of the most complex endeavors either the CIO and CHRO has undertaken. Besides these two roles, the process will involve at the very least outside infectious disease experts, health experts (both physical and mental), risk assessment and management staff, facilities management, union representatives and worker councils, voice of the worker, the CEO and COO, insurance and legal.
However, to ensure we are genuinely thinking about, preparing for and realizing how to work in new and improved ways that are matched to our times, we must also include employee experience leads on both the HR and IT sides, making any needed adjustments to their roles in the process to account for more horizontal collaboration between the groups and a larger operational role for the practice.
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CIO and CHRO Must Drive the Future of Work
The CIO and CHRO must ensure that the resulting return to work process is a springboard to realize a more holistic approach to employee experience that includes:
- The use of a shared and co-created model of employee experience as the overarching organizing enterprise-wide principle of how work gets done.
- The basic unit of design for the future of work are the most important and most common daily moments of the worker.
- An approach to employee experience that merges IT, HR, communications and everyone else associated with its delivery into a single matrixed effort without artificial boundaries.
- The ability to incorporate process change and innovation more rapidly and seamlessly through loosely coupled, distributed and peer-led experiments that are influenced but not directly overseen by the central effort.
- More continuous evaluation and rollout of technology — whether it’s automation, analytics, present and future revolutions in digital experience, consumer-grade user interfaces, new self-service models or breakthrough emerging tech — must more regularly arrive within and improve the employee experience.
Simply put, the employee experience must evolve as fast the world. It must therefore be represented in a cohesive but decentralized transformation designed to keep up with the external operating environment. While the CIO and CHRO will spend the next generation of business getting this approach attuned for their organization, they’ll never finish evolving it. Nor should they.
The new and better ways we can and should work must be a primary focus now as we begin the momentous journey towards a new hybrid work reality. If we fail to do that, we risk the loss of a historic opportunity and will be largely right back to the fragile and piecemeal way we were before. The CIO and CHRO are the two most vital roles that can collaborate to avoid a retrograde outcome and actually achieve an improved future of work.