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Enterprises are beginning to reopen their offices, but the process will not be a sudden event. To accommodate this phased approach, IT professionals will have to find ways to meet the needs of a hybrid team, in which employees could be at home, in the office or a mix of the two.
Recovery from the pandemic, industry observers said, will be protracted, with many employees likely to split their time between the office and home, or remain entirely remote. As such, IT will be asked to ensure their employees have a consistent experience working from any location -- and to provide totally remote workers opportunities to collaborate and communicate with colleagues when they're not in the office.
"Hybrid work is here to stay," said Meerah Rajavel, CIO at Citrix Systems.
Jesse McHargue, technical evangelist at workflow automation firm Nintex USA Inc., said there is still uncertainty surrounding the reopening process and that companies should enable employees to work wherever they feel the most comfortable.
"A lot of people are eager to get back ... into an office, but, at the same time, a lot of them are still taking precautions," he said. "How do we [in IT] cater to that? Is our network security up to par? Are we offering bring-your-own device [policies]?"
Dion Hinchcliffe, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, anticipated difficulties with the shift to a hybrid team model.
"Companies are going to struggle with the much more diverse nature of delivering [a] great employee experience going forward," he said, adding that the moment brings opportunities as well. "While remote work strategies have had to be cobbled together quickly -- in most cases not ensuring consistency and quality between in-office and at-home [work] as much as would be desired -- companies now have plenty of options to turn to, from complete endpoint management solutions to one-stop virtual desktop interfaces that are surprisingly nimble and effective."
How the pandemic changed the landscape
Rajavel said a new in-house survey of 3,700 IT leaders in seven countries conducted in April and May, indicated that 75% believe most workers will be reluctant to immediately return to business as usual. Those who do return, she said, may deal with quite a different experience than the one they left, with mask wearing, social distancing and a hyperawareness on cleanliness as constant reminders of the current situation. New policies like these could make the office "more emotionally draining," she said.
In addition to the reluctance to return to work immediately, employees have changed the way people work. Craig Roth, Gartner research vice president, said the outbreak of COVID-19 led to a large-scale work-from-home experiment, in which businesses had to set up remote work options quickly. One example is how new methods of communication may have altered interpersonal dynamics in meetings.
"In the past, you were all in the office, and you'd have meetings where certain people usually tended to do most of the speaking," he said. "Then, you go to a remote environment, where everything is turned on its head. What it takes to get attention in a conversation may be totally different."
Forrester Research analyst Andrew Hewitt said companies face cultural and technical challenges to ensure that no hybrid team member's voice is minimized when working from home.
"Something we see very frequently in remote work programs is that people can feel left out of a lot of the conversations that are taking place in the office," he said, adding that technology could be helpful in that situation.
Using tech to bridge gaps
IT professionals could help companies weather the transition and ensure parity for hybrid team members.
Many businesses, Citrix's Rajavel said, have expressed interest in cloud-based technology during the pandemic, which would help ensure enterprise applications perform the same regardless of an employee's location. Per an Enterprise Strategy Group survey of 500 senior IT leaders and 1,000 full-time knowledge workers, about 40% of organizations said they would turn more to the public cloud than on-premises infrastructure as a result of the pandemic.
"When you have this hybrid workforce, it pushes you to rethink your office infrastructure," Rajavel said.
Gartner's Roth said there was no doubt that the pandemic has driven adoption of virtual desktops and workspace products. Although such platforms may have been useful at the onset of the pandemic, he said, it is unclear whether they will be the preferred method to sustain a hybrid work environment.
Roth said companies may choose to end their free trials of or experiments with remote work software, and instead try to enable hybrid teams with the tools for which they were already paying.
"When [remote-work technology companies] saw this spike occurring, some of them thought this was a gondola ride to the top of the mountain," he said. "No. It's a roller coaster. It's going up, but it's about to go back down again."
Using tools to their fullest
Indeed, Roth said, the answer could lie within the tools a business already has. It could simply be a matter of ensuring an enterprise is using a product's features to its fullest.
"If you have Office 365, you've got Teams. Maybe it wasn't being used much," he said.
IT pros will have to take an active role in monitoring the use of these tools. Nintex's McHargue noted that governing and ensuring the standard use of software like Teams has been a challenge for IT in the past.
"How does the IT department govern it? Have they put ownership around who can create teams?" he asked. "What could easily happen is an organization could have hundreds or thousands of different teams that have been created, but have no utilization ... maybe five people in the IT department [have] spun up their own team for collaboration, not knowing someone had already done that."
Nintex's IT department, McHargue said, acted when security concerns arose for the popular Zoom video conferencing software. The rest of the company had to know when the software had to be updated and what security measures needed to be in place to prevent bad actors from hijacking meetings.
McHargue said open lines of communication between the IT department and the rest of the company are essential to ensuring workers have the tools they need -- and that those tools are updated and managed to maintain security.
"These have been niche products up until now but are seeing increased adoption as employers seek to find ways to preserve worker cohesion and engagement without a physical office," he said.
There will still be interactions that are hard to replicate, Hewitt said. A whiteboard can be a great way to depict concepts in a physical environment, for example, but it is difficult for remote workers to see and interact with what is drawn out in the office.
Mark Bowker, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said now that things are no longer on emergency footing, IT professionals should consider measures to govern the way collaboration tools are used in the enterprise.
"I think you will see organizations start to have more standardization and more policy around collaboration tools. The usage of those tools will fall into employee training handbooks and corporate policies more often," he said.
These tools, although immensely helpful in enabling collaboration, present potential policy, privacy and compliance issues, Bowker said. It will be up to IT to train employees and monitor the use of these tools to make sure they are used properly.