After recent rounds of high-profile layoffs, a lot of technologists are looking for work in a market that’s different from any they’ve experienced. More companies are now set up to support remote work, which offers candidates a wider range of potential employers. The new working models benefit companies, too, since they can now hire people with rare and highly desirable skills, regardless of location.
Yet some organizations still insist everybody come into the office. Ed Toner, for example, CIO of the State of Nebraska, has a policy of 100% in-office work. “When you decrease face-to-face interaction, you decrease growth and professional development,” he says.
At the other end of the spectrum, and half a world away, other organizations accept fully remote arrangements—at least for some positions. “When you need highly skilled workers in a sparsely populated country, you benefit from a policy that allows remote work in suitable roles,” says Jarkko Levasma, Government CIO for Finland.
Overall, however, most IT leaders now favor hybrid work, which usually means at least three days a week in the office. According to Gartner’s Human Resources Research Team, employee expectations for a flexible work environment have grown—and hybrid work is clearly here to stay.
Forward-thinking IT leaders have already thought a lot about how to best implement hybrid work, and this extends well beyond technology. It also means providing emotional support to a dispersed workforce. Job seekers should target companies that address all the needs of people who work at least part-time from home.
Getting the technology right
The most obvious thing CIOs need to do to support a remote or hybrid work environment is provide the right technology. But there’s more to it than that. “As soon as you start heavily supporting remote work, your footprint increases significantly,” says Irvin Bishop, Jr., CIO of Kansas City-based engineering firm Black & Veatch. “This significantly raises your security concerns.”
Black & Veatch supported remote work before Covid-19, but during lockdown, they deployed more collaboration tools including virtual whiteboards, polls, and voting so people could still brainstorm and share perspectives. “It’s not always easy for people who are not in the same room to be recognized and given equal airtime and attention,” he says.
The company, which already supported over 100 different office sites, implemented additional virtual system monitoring tools to support a larger population of home workers. These monitoring tools make sure systems are up and functioning—a much easier task when everybody’s in the office connected on WiFi or Ethernet. Also, keeping infrastructure working flawlessly takes an even higher priority when people are remote, because they can’t do anything if they can’t connect.
During the pandemic, Bishop found that managers had to adapt to radically different schedules as employees got accustomed to having more control over tasks. They started earlier, finished later, or worked whatever schedule best suited their lifestyles and family. “Now they expect that level of autonomy,” says Bishop. “Managers have to be attentive to these new expectations.”
French multinational tire manufacturer Michelin also supported home working before Covid-19, but only as an exception. About 10% of employees worked from home from time to time—and even for those people, it was only for about one day a week. The company had already undergone a complete upgrade of their Microsoft stack to a modern cloud solution in 2018, so they were well prepared when the pandemic struck.
“One of the mistakes we made during the lockdown was having people turn their camera off during Teams meetings to save bandwidth,” says Yves Caseau, group digital & information officer at Michelin. “We quickly found out that if the goal of a meeting is to have people collaborate and be creative, it’s best to have them work face to face. But if they cannot be in the office, they absolutely need cameras on. So we increased our bandwidth to support more video traffic.”
Like Michelin, German rail logistics company DB Schenker supported remote work on a very limited basis before the pandemic. “About five percent of the staff worked from home,” says Fredrik Nordin, CIO of DB Schenker for Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland. “And those people only worked remotely for one day every two weeks. Even with a limited number of employees working from home before Covid, when the lockdowns came, we were well prepared in terms of technological tools.”
Understanding the emotional impact
But technological tools aren’t enough for companies who’ve decided to support a hybrid work arrangement from now on. What’s needed is more emotional support and more team building. According to a Gartner report from May last year, only 24% of remote and hybrid knowledge workers feel connected to their organization’s culture. And who better to turn to for questions of employee well-being than an HR expert? “Remote work has decreased the sense of belonging, and increased the feeling of loneliness and isolation,” says Kirsi Nuotto, SVP and head of HR for VTT, an institute for applied research in Finland. “During the pandemic, we trained all of our managers on emotional agency.”
Managers need to tune into how employees cope when separated from their teams. For example, Michelin found that attention management is even more challenging when some workers are remote, and people tend to multi-task even more than they do in the office. Moreover, working from home amplifies some of the stress. “The paradox of digitalization is that some of the good collective practices that help minimize overload are absent when you work alone,” says Caseau. “For example, taking short breaks to talk about something else with a colleague is not only essential to your health, but it also contributes to making teamwork more efficient.”
DB Schenker noticed during the pandemic that even though efficiency went up in the sense of fitting more meetings into a single workday, the lack of corridor talks and spontaneous alignments that act as the glue in a collaborative organization had to be overcome by scheduling even more meetings.
“We learned that working from home, whether forced or voluntary, is perceived very differently from one person to another,” says Nordin. “One person’s joy and happiness over not having to commute to the office is another person’s worst nightmare. Remote work is very tough on the people whose personalities crave interaction with others.”
Despite these challenges, both Michelin and DB Schenker say the flexible work environment provides a net benefit. Both companies now have a hybrid policy, where employees are allowed to work from a home office two days a week.
What’s best for a new generation of employees
With hybrid being normal now for so many companies, top management is looking to fine tune the flexible work environment. “A year after training all managers on emotional agency, we saw an improvement in 12 out of 14 different psychological markers,” says Nuotto. “Encouraged by this tangible difference, we have now extended training to include all of VTT’s 2,200 employees.”
She points out that many people assume this kind of training can be carried out in a matter of hours. But getting it right requires not only classes over an extended period, but also a way of practicing the ideas. Trainees at VTT have “sparring” partners to bounce their ideas off one another outside of class hours, for instance.
Meanwhile, back in Kansas, Bishop says managers need to be more intentional in a hybrid environment. “If you’re facilitating a hybrid meeting, you have to be intentional and ask specifically if there are comments or questions from people who aren’t in the room,” he says. “You can use techniques, such as Round Robin, to go around the table and the screen or phone to get comments from everyone. Another option is to appoint a virtual meeting facilitator to ensure people who are remote can hear the dialog, see the presentation, and contribute equally to the meeting.”
These techniques help build trust, keep collaboration high, and make people feel a lot more included. Employees want empathy from management—and when they find an organization that makes them feel that, even from their home office, they return the favor through loyalty and productivity.
“We want to be the best place to work on the planet,” says Bishop. “We’re trying to create the best environment, so people love working here.” Bottom line is the new generation of employees expects a hybrid work environment, and they want to be fully supported in their workplace, wherever that may be.