As U.S. companies continue to shift workers back gradually and safely to an office environment there are still some major concerns beyond the uncertainties surrounding the COVID pandemic and recent surges in positive cases across the country.
A chief worry among most IT leaders involves talent retention and recruitment as people look for positions with companies that may offer more flexibility in terms of work/life integration and time spent in the office. Companies are also worried about measuring performance and productivity in a hybrid work environment, as well as the long-term impact a split workforce might have on the culture of an IT organization and company structure in general.
While there is no universal playbook in terms of how to proceed, the goal of most efforts is the development of more employee-centric and agile modes of measuring productivity for workers, notes IDC in a spotlight report based on a July 2021 Future Enterprise Resiliency & Spending Survey. “New metrics based in agile practices and those based on measuring teaming and skills development are gaining traction as more employers must calibrate for an increasingly distributed hybrid global workforce,” said Amy Loomis, Ph.D., Research Director, Future of Work at IDC.
The CIO Executive Council hosted a number of virtual roundtable discussions for its Executive Network members over the past 18 months to provide an opportunity to exchange ideas and strategies in a closed and trusted forum. The most recent gathering, held in June 2021, generated the following key points from the IT leaders who took part in the discussion:
Companies Are Challenged by Communication with Hybrid Workforces
A significant challenge at this point is keeping everyone informed, organized and safe as a small percentage of workers go back into an office, or as one CIO noted, “telling everyone the rules of the game.” The situation is different for manufacturing companies, where jobs cannot be shifted to an at-home or remote environment.
One company, for example, claims to have had 50-60% of people in the workplace since September 2020, as their production is heavily focused in Asia and safety protocols and procedures were already in place throughout manufacturing. This company is looking to eventually expand the number of people in the office to 80%, and then have 100% capacity by the end of 2021.
Perception Doesn’t Always Reflect Reality with Remote Productivity
While there are no concrete statistics to back it up, several IT leaders noted a drop in productivity for remote workers, especially in comparison to 2020 and the height of the pandemic. One executive noted that employees were between 26 and 31% more productive during the height of the pandemic, although those levels slipped back to ‘normal’ in the second quarter 2021.
Workers Want Flexibility from Their Employers
Flexibility in work schedules is a huge concern among employees and a potential headache for employers, since studies have forecast that a significant number of workers may leave organizations that are not sensitive to work/life integration demands. The rules of flexibility will pretty much be determined by desire to maintain or develop new team structures, notes the CIO of a large chain of retail stores.
“We’ve certainly realized that we have to be flexible to retain our talent because we’ve got a lot of senior talent,” he noted. Flexibility is also a two-way street, points out another executive participant in the virtual discussion, since the definition and terms may differ between employer and employee. “Are employees willing to be flexible as well, because nothing’s going to work the first time we try it,” he added.
Employers Are Concerned about Their Managers
Several IT leaders are concerned that team managers – seen as critical to the success of a hybrid work environment – may not be skilled at managing an in-office and a large primarily remote workforce or adequately and fairly measuring productivity in these different work environments. “We really have to focus on training these people if we’re heading into this new brave new world,” noted one individual.
Understanding the psychology of a remote worker is also a challenge, notes another executive. Instructing someone how to manage remote employees from a performance basis is one thing but teaching a manager how to be empathetic is almost impossible if it’s not in their DNA, he points out.
One possible solution, detailed by another executive in the roundtable, is to establish a series of leadership training programs and meetings that specifically focus on the challenges of communicating with remote workers, as well as issues of conflict management and operational logistics. Her organization did just that and provides access to these programs to everyone in the organization.
“Instead of just tackling it from the top down, everybody is getting the same message on communication styles and how to really approach the problems and benefits that relate to a completely changed way of doing work,” she points out.
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