Hybrid work's next phase: 3 lessons for CIOs

Consider these lessons from a CIO and HR leader on how to ensure a safe, smooth hybrid work model, combining office and remote work. Hint: The tools aren't the hard part
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2020 saw the evolution of millions of new "offices" – dining room tables, living room couches, and more – as employees across the board found themselves working remotely in unfamiliar settings. In time, with the help of both technology and resilience, we’ve not only adapted but in many cases, thrived. A recent remote work study found that 97 percent of employees hope to work remotely at least part of the time for the rest of their careers, and many companies are incorporating that number into their long-term plans.

But as we think about return-to-office and hybrid work plans, there isn’t a clearly written manual or one-size-fits-all solution – and we’ll continue to have our work cut out for us we navigate another potentially significant shift in the way we operate.

Here are a few guiding principles that HR and IT leaders should keep in mind to ensure a smooth and secure transition for all employees, wherever they choose to work.

1. Plan for the work-from-anywhere era

Executive leadership teams have spent months not only reconfiguring physical workspaces to meet social distancing mandates but also looking at how best to accommodate the employees that will work within them. What’s ahead for businesses and their leaders is a slew of new questions and unknowns, a mix of coming together physically and continuing to work apart.

[ Want a primer on hybrid work? Read What is a hybrid work model? Read also: Hybrid work: 4 best practices for fairness. ]

Certain questions are critical before anyone steps foot back into an office – for example, how can the workforce be as effective when some are at home, and some are in the office? How will we facilitate teams through the learning curve of hybrid? We can help answer these questions by building off the successful routines that we’ve all developed during this work-from-home era.

We’ve gotten good at working remotely, and it would be a waste to throw away everything we’ve learned about our work functions during that time. Take this intel and evolve it into a hybrid format. Flexibility will be centered around keeping what worked well, even if you don’t have all the answers or know exactly what lies ahead.

For CIOs and positions with the most employee interactions, flexibility isn’t just about how we work with employees, but about the plans you put in place to recognize the various technologies and infrastructures that will ebb and flow with that hybrid work future.

2. Navigate the intersection of people and technology

Implementing the tools is the easy part; the more important part is how we change people's behavior to use them effectively.

It has been interesting, and promising, to see how collaboration tools help retain and extend productivity in remote work environments. In a recent McKinsey survey, 85 percent of respondents said their businesses have somewhat or greatly accelerated the implementation of technologies that digitally enable employee interaction and collaboration. But we can likely all agree that it’s not enough just to buy and deploy collaboration and video conferencing tools. Implementing the tools is the easy part; the more important part is how we change people’s behavior to use them effectively.

[ Want more advice on leading hybrid teams? Read our related story: Remote work: 10 tips to be a better virtual collaborator. ]

It is no longer enough to simply have conference rooms with speaker phones; there must be a seamless and secure experience for everyone, whether or not they are physically in the room. Be it choosing a six-month office schedule or trying new tools to support hybrid work, this is all a grand experiment to find the most supportive and productive business model, which goes back to the earlier point about flexibility – we can’t expect everything to be carved in stone. However, ensuring your employees feel supported, both online and in the office, is something that should be a given.

For CIOs, this takes the form of operational and capital expenditures, building a flexible employee experience through interactions with service providers, infrastructure vendors, etc. Ramping up certain features and minimizing others based on employee needs and hybrid work preference will help you play a critical role in this support.

3. Acknowledge and build for risks 

As a global workforce, we’re undergoing one of the most massive shifts in how employees are productive while ensuring their digital safety and that of the organization for which they work. Organizations have always had contingency and risk mitigation plans in place for the possibility of business continuity challenges. The onset of COVID turned out to be a realized external risk that we may have planned for but didn’t expect. Now that contingency has evolved to be part of the way we work.

As employees and devices continue to connect remotely and come and go from the office building, a host of both new and existing security risks are introduced. For CIOs, this realized risk took the form of new committees to address the questions that COVID and remote work raised. Has anything infected an employee's device while it has been off-network, and could it infect the corporate network when they re-connect? Are they connecting from a secure Wi-Fi network when they are not in the office? Is VPN installed and working effectively? It is important not to fall prey to a false sense of security that the traditional office setting has previously been known to induce, and that’s where HR leaders come in.

Education is a critical element of risk mitigation, and HR leaders must work with CIOs to create messaging and educational assets that teach employees how to deal with these questions. As leaders look for ways to reduce risk introduced by the 2020 rush to remote work, they will also have to come up with effective communication for describing the risk in ways their organization can understand.

The "work-from-anywhere" era is here, and it’s not going away. And while getting back to some degree of workplace normalcy is an exciting concept, especially for those employees who started a new job remotely, there are many factors to consider during this period of change. The most important of all will be to provide employees with the security and flexibility they expect and deserve.

A strong base of leadership and processes will be critical for success, and these are not mutually exclusive. Taking the time to implement employee-first solutions across HR, IT, and other functions will be key to creating a more connected, secure approach that represents the modern workplace.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Dianne Lapierre is Chief Information Officer at Absolute, responsible for driving IT solutions that enhance Absolute’s overall business strategy, translating business objectives into innovative technology advancements, and transforming the Absolute employee experience through technology and techniques aligned with today’s digital workplace.
Robert Booker serves as EVP of Human Resources for Absolute Software.