The role of technology – from cloud to data analytics to Zoom – is expected to play an ever greater role in shaping how workers handle their workload in the post Covid-19 world. Certainly today’s technology is enabling; with cloud computing and SaaS and Zoom (and its competitors), workers can handle a heavy task load from any location. Moreover, technology allows each individual to achieve more by offering a stunning menu of tech gizmos and software-enabled tools.
Yet challenges abound. How can workers stay connected with one another in a remote environment? How can the previous enterprise management structure survive, based as it was on face-to-face interaction?
To explore those topics, I spoke with four top thought leaders:
Myles Suer, Data Principal Product Marketing Manager, Dell Boomi
Sophie Wade, Founder, Flexcel Network
Ian Gertler, Influencer Relations, Citrix
Dion Hinchcliffe, VP and Principal Analyst, Constellation Research
Among the topics we discussed:
- How has COVID-19 acted as an accelerant for changes that were already in process regarding the way we work?
- Where has technology made remote work possible? Where has it let workers down?
- In the past, remote workers were 2nd class citizens. If over 30% of workers remain remote and a majority of workers become hybrid workers, where do HR IT leaders need to invest to drive better worker experiences and streamline internal processes?
- Geoffrey Moore argued a few years ago that the focus should move from systems of record to systems of engagement. How would this cause us to rethink how workers engaged with all corporate systems?
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Edited highlights from the full discussion:
How COVID-19 Has accelerated Changes Already in Process
Suer: Well, those of us who were remote workers, about 8% or so of the population, we got the leftovers for a long period of time, and we were forced to try and interact with others who were there and present.
And I think every conversation I have with CIOs, they’re actually trying to figure out now, and they feel like they now have the charter to figure out: how do we drive better experience? But COVID has accelerated that, and I think also the CIOs who got in trouble weren’t ready in any way. They didn’t have remote technology, they didn’t have laptops for folks, they didn’t have Zoom and those kinds of things, and they had to scramble. In many cases, it didn’t go well for them.
Wade: Well, for me, the acceleration’s been extraordinary, and the way I talk about it is, the future of work, which I’ve been predicting, we’d all been thinking about it, it has arrived.
And some of the ways that it’s been accelerated…to the extreme is forcing so many people to be working from home, or working in much more pressurized environments on the front line. Companies pivoted in extraordinary periods of time and had to automate and digitize in order to be able to do that and had to identify a lot of their workflow.
The companies, as Myles was talking about, many of those who weren’t prepared didn’t know how their work flowed through the organization, and therefore they couldn’t pivot, because they didn’t know what was happening, who was doing what, and if I needed to take something down the office, down the corridor to John, how was that gonna happen when you’re working in a different way?
So and there was also safety. I was interviewing the CEO of a company that makes peanut butter, and they had to do a lot of digitization along the manufacturing chain in order to not have lots of physical hand-offs of pieces of paper, so there were so many different things for safety reasons as well as decentralized workforce reasons that had to be put in place because of COVID.
Gertler: Well, I think we’ve heard a number of things over this past year. What I’ve seen and heard is an interesting stat that what people generally saw as a multi-year digital transformation plan, so three to five years, instantly happened within a few weeks to maybe a month or two.
And I think probably the most interesting thing is digital transformation. And it’s been hyped for most of the past few years, and when you see that, the initial thing that comes to mind is always, “Oh, it’s all about technology.” I think what the pandemic did was show this transformation is both technology and people.
It’s like a DNA strand, and each strand they have to wrap around together and work together, or nothing comes of it. So, I think we’ve seen the evolution of technology and transformation actually happening with people, but you have to be careful because we’re finally seeing well-being addressed.
We’re finally seeing burnout because people don’t know when to cut off. You could say, “I like working remotely because I don’t need to commute, I don’t need to worry about the extra time being away from the family,” but at the same time that commute to the office and from the office is often your stop and starting points. For the better.
How Does Tech Enable People To do Their Best Work?
Wade: Well, for example, the CMO of Workfront, she has been a remote leader for a very long time, and she has used a combination of Slack, and an open calendar, and when she basically shows that she’s online on Slack and she’s blocked out her calendar, and it isn’t a blocked out with something specific, which isn’t necessarily identified, she really means any person in her team can drop in, and she honestly means that.
And she encourages that, so she enables people to try and not duplicate, but have some of the same benefits of being able to drop in and out, to be able to communicate effectively using those different channels and to focus people on, do you really need to chat and have a meeting about it, or can you do it with just like pinging me via chat to communicate something?
So, I think there are different technologies, just as you see, some people love email, some people love text, and different communications channels help people get the work done in ways that are not as intrusive necessarily as having to go all the way to having a meeting.
Technology and Remote Work: Upsides and Downsides
Hinchcliffe: Well, there’s no question that the Internet and the cloud has allowed us to all work from home in a way that we couldn’t have even five years ago. The bandwidth was not good, the meeting tools weren’t there. So that was great.
The problem is, it created a support challenge. I did a survey of CIOs recently and asked them how they think that their workers think they’re doing, and most of them think they have significant challenges even now supporting workers in these highly varied environments.
The good news is: most workers now built out a place to work, but we have cyber security challenges, we’ve got issues with middle management not having been taught, “How do we keep my workers connected and engaged with the mothership?”
That’s the thing I’m hearing about now is, it’s a year later, or almost a year later, people are kind of drifting away. They have this sense that, well, they haven’t been in the office and they haven’t been with their co-workers in so long, and these digital tools are good at engagement, but maybe we’re not using the best ones to keep people connected.
So they actually have a sense of what’s communal belonging, what’s going on in the rest of the organization. And while there are solutions for that, they’re just not used widely.
And so we see the real challenge is: just how do we sustain this long-term? Now the good news is, maybe by the middle of this year, we won’t have to anymore. It’s starting to look very good, but we know the future’s probably gonna be little bit bumpier than the past, so now is the time, I think, to get the skills and the infrastructure in place, and we have a ways to go yet for that.
Work-Life Balance in Remote Work
Gertler: But I think, when I think about all that’s going on, I never liked the phrase, which you always hear, it’s one of the big things that certain people push hard, “work-life balance,” because balance is so subjective.
How can your balance be the same as my balance? So I always said, “It’s more about work-life integration, right?” It’s about connecting each part of your life and work so that you can have them co-exist, and there’s a leveling that happens at certain points of the day, certain business trips versus family trips, but what I think it is, to bring it back to technology, it’s like an API.
So an API is meant to connect different systems together so they can be integrated and there can be a cohesive integration of them working together to help you. But you don’t see all of that data coming in at the same time non-stop with it as you need it, as you request it. That’s where I think the work-life integration now, the remote thing is challenging for many, because they need that kind of physical structure at times to understand, “Well, when am I working and what am I not?”
How Should Management Handle this Tectonic Shift to a Hybrid Environment, Combining Remote and In-Office?
Suer: It’s interesting, I just ran a CIO chat, and a lot of the CIOs were lamenting about really three things: One was, there used to be a transition time between meetings, and we don’t seem to have that, we can have Zoom stack right after each other.
The second was that they would often get early to a meeting, so they could talk to folks around the edge of a meeting, and that’s gone. And then a lot of them really subscribe to Tom Peters’ idea of management by walking around, and they can’t do that.
And so, the thing I learned really from the CIOs in the chat was that people and process always have to come first. And so technology will have to morph to that, but I think we have to figure out those people process elements, how do we stay engaged? How do we get more interaction to happen when we’re in a media like this [Zoom meeting].
Wade: I would say those beginning and endings of meetings are incredibly important. And so whether those are deliberately put in as buffers because they’re always kind of like, “Hey John, I wanted to talk to you just about this before everybody comes on,” and to round out at the end of the meeting.
So it’s about these boundaries and creating space and time; as well as having those mandated non-work calls, videos calls, to shoot the whatever, just to chat about stuff, to find out how it’s going on. Because one of the key elements that we’re hearing about so much, the second pandemic is going to be the mental health issues that are coming through this.
Not just the burnout, but the overwhelmed, the challenging situations that, I can be great today, this week, but next Monday I might have a bit of a shaky moment, and so managers need to be checking in a lot and dealing. Leaning in much more to their team members, seeing how they’re doing, and authentically checking in to see how people are doing.
From Systems of Record to Systems of Engagement
Suer: Yeah, it was interesting. I remember having to learn how apps worked. That was the essence of you took a new job and suddenly they said, “You use this,” and you have to go spend time doing it.
And millennials are saying, “No, no, no, no, this is where the apps live.” And I know how to use them because I’ve used every other app that’s out there. And I just think of things like expense reporting, I remember having to staple things together and hand it to my boss and then it would go from place to place to place.
Well, now I just take a picture and put it in there and push a few buttons and it’s done. I think we have to create great user experience, it needs to be easy, and I think that’s really gonna be the challenge for companies because they’re not gonna keep their workers if it becomes hard in a remote scenario. So I think this is a wake-up call.
Hinchcliffe: Yeah, I’ve actually spent a lot of time on the intersection of those two worlds. The systems of record came first. Now, systems of engagement is something we’ve been working on the last 20 years or so in a major way, and the problem statement is that there are two separate things. And there is this artificial gap between the two and it hasn’t been good for us because most work is unstructured communication and collaboration, and then you have the work product of the decision that comes out or whatever, and that goes in the systems of record.
So most of the interesting stuff is on the engagement side and has all the context, but it’s kept in a different system, it’s separated.
So what we’ve learned is that this artificial distinction we’ve created because of how I grew up in IT, has moved into our organizations and made things complicated, needlessly fragmented and siloed.
And so now there’s this big push like, “How do we unify those together? How do we create a more seamless employee experience?” Especially now, we don’t need all these different touch points that don’t have context, are not connected together and our work spans all of this disjointed landscape. So that’s the frontier right now, and a lot of people, a lot of organizations, a lot of vendors are trying to solve that problem. We’re getting closer and closer.
Wade: Right, we’re going through a huge amount of change. I know the reason behind it, but this extraordinary disruption that we are going through is bringing the future of work, and it’s giving us the opportunity to actually do things differently.
Rather than stay stuck in our entrenched way of doing things, actually integrate the technology that we need. Not have budgets that are just trying to sort of make do, but really kind of strategically plan for what’s ahead, and I think that’s huge.
But I think we’re not quite ready for simplicity, if I may, because…A lot of people have got to work out where we are, and we’re not through it yet, and it’s going to be…COVID is gonna be integrated into our lives in different ways for a long time. So I completely hear and I agree with you but I just don’t think we’re quite there yet.