As businesses move to the next stage in their COVID-19 pandemic response — by reopening offices — many are adopting a hybrid approach — with some staffers working remotely at least part of the week.
But there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, which was apparaent at last week’s Enterprise Connect industry conference, where a panel of IT leaders discussed their priorities as they support multiple modes of working.
“We’re going to be very flexible and adaptive,” said Todd White, IT manager of collaboration services at Ford Motor Company, where workers will return to their offices onApril 4. “For certain roles, there are huge benefits by being in the office together with their teams, [with] other roles, not so much. We have an approach where we think 25% to 30% will probably be coming back, but we’re going to be flexible enough to accommodate what does happen and we’re going to tack as we see what changes.
“What we’re looking to do is set up the organization so that we can move super fast with the hybrid workforce, hiring talent wherever they are: they don’t have to move to Dearborn, Michigan anymore,” White said.
Biotech firm Amicus Therapeutics, where laboratory staff are required to carry out their jobs on premises, is taking a slightly different approach: the company plans to support remote work where possible.
“We’re going to be hybrid,” said Gary LaSasso, senior director for global IT at Amicus Therapeutics. “Scientists can’t work from home; you have to do research in a lab for the most part…. But for the rest of the workers, we want to provide the opportunity to be wherever it is they need to be on that particular day.”
He pointed to the differing views among workers about a return to the office, and sees a generational divide. “We have an executive who maybe wants to be in the office all of the time, because that’s what their career may have been,” LaSasso said. “You have the younger generation who just wants to come in and come out and has different needs. But we have to accommodate all of them — and all of their experiences and all of their needs.”
At transport and logistics firm Ryder Systems, there’s no official policy covering all the company’s office employees, though some staff will continue to work from home long-term. “The only real policy we have is 100% remote for all our call centers,” said David Bartos, senior manager of telecommunications at Ryder Systems. “We feel confident we can keep our call centers 100% remote and have the efficiency and the uptime that we’re looking to have.”
Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits also favors a flexible approach to meet the demands of different job roles, said Ann Dozier, senior vice president and chief information officer. That includes having service-center staffers to continue to work remotely, though it will be optional.
“We believe that will give us more flexibility to be able to build out more talent across the US,” said Dozier. Customer service jobs are well-suited to remote workers who can be more effectively supported and monitored, she said, and is role “where you can measure productivity very effectively.”
While remote work makes sense in some cases, there is “tremendous value in people getting together for collaboration for certain activities,” Dozier said.
New expectations in a hybrid environment
During the pandemic, IT leaders and their teams were tasked with providing a good user experience to home workers. While that put pressure on IT, it also served to highlight its importance in connecting workers and maintaining business operations.
The emerging hybrid workplace will create new challenges and opportunities, according to the panellists.
Dozier pointed to a change in employee communication habits as workers began to return to the office over the past month.“Some of the behaviors are very similar to ‘work from home,’” she said. For example, when a meeting for 200 staff was held in the office, staff logged in from their desks via Zoom’s videoconferencing software, she said, rather than meeting in conference rooms as was the norm pre-pandemic. This put unexpected demands on network infrastructure.
“We hadn’t planned our office networks to have 200 people on Zoom at the same time, plus run all of our cloud operations, so it’s going to be a bit of an adjustment,” said Dozier. “We’re making sure that we’re fine-tuning our infrastructure.
“The big opportunity is going to be how we create the right user experience when some people are in conference rooms together, some people are remote, and then some people may still be in their office because they’re trying to multitask.”
Meanwhile, Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits has been investing in improvements to the meeting room experience for in-office workers, said Dozier.
“Our conference rooms used to be pretty complicated: there’s a lot of bells and whistles to do different things,” said Dozier. “Now, it’s very simple to have an appliance in the room that anybody can use; it makes it a lot easier for us to service. Having the ability to use virtual assistants in the room, instead of having somebody from my team have to go there to help, is adding value.”
At Ford, the shift to remote work early on — and more recently to a hybrid model — has underscored the importance of IT to underpin employee experience.
“The business is understanding the tech more…, they’re realizing they need to invest more to make this hybrid workforce go,” said White. “That includes cyber and analytics to diagnose challenges around home offices.”
New tools on the horizon
For example, Ford is investing in machine learning-based analytics to address bandwidth restrictions in home offices, he said. “If somebody is having an ISP issue or their kids are streaming Netflix too much, the systems can alert the user to say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on, try this or that to get high quality conferencing going,’” said White.
Ford is also eyeing the use of the AI capabilities software vendors have added to collaboration tools to improve the meeting experience for users. “We think the rise of AI is going to help pre-meeting, post-meeting, help with meeting notes, real-time translations,” said White.
“We have people [for whom] English isn’t their native language; sometimes they have meetings after the meeting just to understand what the meeting was,” he said. “We do 60,000 meetings a day, so we can’t afford that. The digital world of whiteboarding and collaboration is important so that 3D modellers can work remotely.”
Tools that support asynchronous work are another area of interest. “We are looking at the use of video, in a sense like TikTok or Instagram, where you can record updates and you don’t actually have to go to the meeting anymore,” said White.
Expectations around video have changed significantly during the pandemic, said LaSasso. “’Any place, any time, any device’ is now table stakes,” he said. “So how do you take those experiences to the next level, whether it’s on the device side or the application side? It’s captioning and translation for meetings; [that helps] when you’re dealing with colleagues in other parts of the world, people with hearing disabilities can see the words, those kinds of things.”
Despite innovation in a range of areas by collaboration and communication software vendors, there’s still room for improvement, said Dozier. In particular, greater interoperability between competing tools on the market would help.
“That’s a huge challenge because our users are different,” she said. “What our salespeople need, what our delivery drivers need, and what our office workers need are very different, and we use a lot of the [software] brands that are in this audience. Ultimately, we need for [applications] to tie together to be able to create that seamless experience for our users.”