As companies take the next step in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic – reopening offices – many are taking a hybrid approach – with some staff working remotely for at least part of the week.
But there is no single answer, which was evident in the last week Business Login industry conference, where a panel of IT leaders discussed their priorities for supporting multiple working modes.
“We’re going to be very flexible and adaptable,” said Todd White, IT manager for collaboration services at Ford Motor Company, where workers will return to their offices on April 4. “For some roles, there are huge benefits to being in the office with their teams, [with] other roles, not so much. We have an approach where we think 25% to 30% will probably come back, but we’re going to be flexible enough to adapt to what’s happening and we’re going to change course as we see what changes.
“What we’re looking to do is set up the organization so that we can scale very quickly with the hybrid workforce, hiring talent wherever they are: they no longer have need to move to Dearborn, Michigan,” White said.
Biotech company Amicus Therapeutics, where lab staff must do their work on-site, is taking a slightly different approach: The company plans to support remote work wherever possible.
“We’re going to be hybrid,” said Gary LaSasso, senior director of global IT at Amicus Therapeutics. “Scientists cannot 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 where they need to be that day. »
He pointed to the differing views among workers on a return to the office and sees a generational divide. “We have an executive who maybe wants to be in the office all the time, because that’s what his career may have been,” LaSasso said. “You have the younger generation who just want in and out and have different needs. But we must welcome them all – and all their experiences and all their needs.
At transportation and logistics company Ryder Systems, there is no formal policy covering all office workers in the company, although some staff will continue to work from home long-term. “The only real policy we have is 100% remote for all of our call centers,” said David Bartos, senior director of telecommunications at Ryder Systems. “We are confident that we can keep our call centers 100% remote and have the efficiency and availability we are looking for.”
Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits also favors a flexible approach to meet the demands of different positions, said Ann Dozier, senior vice president and chief information officer. This includes having service desk employees to continue working remotely, although this is optional.
“We believe this will give us more flexibility to be able to develop more talent across the United States,” Dozier said. Customer service jobs are well suited to remote workers who can be supported and monitored more effectively, she said, and it’s a role “where you can measure productivity very effectively.”
While remote work makes sense in some cases, there’s “tremendous value in people coming together to collaborate on certain activities,” Dozier said.
New expectations in a hybrid environment
During the pandemic, IT managers and their teams have been tasked with providing a good user experience for remote workers. While this places a strain on IT, it has also served to underscore its importance in connecting workers and sustaining business operations.
The emerging hybrid workplace will create new challenges and opportunities, panelists say.
Dozier pointed to a shift in employee communication habits as workers began returning to the office over the past month. “Some of the behaviors are very similar to ‘working from home,'” she said. For example, when a meeting of 200 staff members took place in the office, staff connected from their desks via Zoom’s video conferencing software, she said, rather than meeting in conference rooms as was the norm before the pandemic. This placed unexpected demands on the network infrastructure.
“We didn’t plan for our office networks to have 200 people on Zoom at the same time, in addition to running all of our cloud operations, so it’s going to be a bit of an adjustment,” Dozier said. “We are making sure to fine-tune our infrastructure.
“The big opportunity is going to be how do we create the right user experience when some people are together in conference rooms, some people are remote, and then some people may still be in their office because they’re trying to perform multiple tasks at a time.”
Meanwhile, Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits has invested in improving the meeting room experience for office workers, Dozier said.
“Our conference rooms were quite complicated: there were a lot of bells and whistles to do different things,” Dozier said. “Now it’s really easy to have a device in the room that anyone can use; it makes our service much easier. Having the ability to use virtual assistants in the room, instead of having someone from my team come there to help, adds value. »
At Ford, the move to remote working early on — and more recently to a hybrid model — underscored the importance of IT in underpinning the employee experience.
“The business understands the technology better…they realize they need to invest more to make this hybrid workforce work,” White said. “This 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 someone has an ISP problem or their kids are streaming too much Netflix, systems can alert the user to say, ‘Hey that’s what’s happening, try this or that to get a conference call from high quality,” White said.
Ford is also considering the use of artificial intelligence capabilities that software vendors have added to collaboration tools to improve users’ meeting experience. “We think the rise of AI is going to help before and after the meeting, help with meeting notes, real-time translations,” White said.
“We have people [for whom] English is not their mother tongue; sometimes they have meetings after meeting just to figure out what the meeting was about,” he said. “We hold 60,000 meetings a day, so we can’t afford it. The digital world of whiteboarding and collaboration is important for 3D modelers to work remotely. »
Tools that support asynchronous work are another area of interest. “We’re looking at using video, in a sense like TikTok or Instagram, where you can save updates and you don’t have to go to the meeting anymore,” White said.
Expectations for video have changed significantly during the pandemic, LaSasso said. “‘Anywhere, anytime, any device’ is table stakes now,” he said. “So how do you take these experiences to the next level, whether it’s on the device side or the app side? This is subtitling and translation for meetings; [that helps] When dealing with colleagues in other parts of the world, people with hearing loss can see the words, that sort of thing.
Despite innovation in a range of areas by collaboration and communication software vendors, there is still room for improvement, Dozier said. In particular, greater interoperability between competing tools on the market would be helpful.
“It’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 [software] brands that are part of this audience. Ultimately, we need to [applications] to tie together to be able to create this seamless experience for our users. »