It is too soon to say for sure, but anecdotal evidence and some sample data suggest that a return to something resembling the old school-working routine may be afoot. If so, CIOs need to prepare for this but, also, in this time of peak uncertainty, they also need to ready themselves for a gamut of other plausible alternatives. Squaring that circle will require careful consideration, alignment with company leaders and technical architectures and infrastructure optimised for optimal flexibility.
Over half of employers (54%) are actively encouraging workers to return to base and are offering ways to sweeten the deal such as food, gym membership, discounted travel and wellbeing days*. Data from hospitality and transportation sources also point to a modest bounce-back in office working.
Some bellwethers are testing the hypothesis that a more conservative approach won’t lead to discontent and quitting. In January this year, Disney CEO Bob Iger sent staff an email telling them they needed to work four days a week on premises rather than three, as was previously the case.
“Creativity is the heart and soul of who we are and what we do at Disney,” Iger wrote. “And in a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors.”
He’s not alone in his view. Surveys consistently show that company leaders are keener on in-person working than their staff. Starbucks and KPMG have made similar demands and surveys back up the notion that there is an ongoing change of heart. Jobs board Monster found that only half of employers believe that flexible working plans had worked well. In sectors and roles where co-creation is prized or where onboarding inexperienced staff is common, there appears to be a firming up of the sense that we need to be physically a collective. And with announcements of major job cuts among so many behemoths recently, the idea that organisations must offer the attractive perk of high levels of flexibility may fade. If the Great Resignation is truly in the rear-view mirror and there is a return to pre-pandemic thinking, then employers may be able to take a less conciliatory stance.
For now at least, we can fairly confidently assert that outside Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, the Elon Musk empire and a few other outliers, the dominance of some form of hybrid working among knowledge workers will persist. But what we don’t know is what form that concept will take. Is it Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday in the office? Could it be four days in, one day off? Or are you happy to let people work permanently or near-permanently remotely? Does the workplace become a destination for meetings, ideation and fostering culture? Do some types of activity, say DevOps, demand a shared-space culture? Or will there be a consensus towards a return to traditional working models, softened a little to hire and retain better? Will, as some suspect, CEOs impose tougher demands in order to right-size their organisations rather than make layoffs?
The honest answer is that nobody knows. Whatever happens, the challenge for IT remains the same, however. Any hybrid work pattern, no matter if it’s mostly office or mostly remote, means the need for an IT infrastructure that can flex to accommodate multiple types of working experience with no performance or availability degradation. That means providing the same tools for people whether they are working on the other side of the world, side by side in cubicles or dialling in from some third place such as a co-working space. Only by focusing on infrastructure and paying close attention to working patterns can CIOs hope to have high-performance, secure support for their people and operations.
CIOs need to front up and lead on the employee experience, providing the tools for users to be motivated and productive regardless of from where they elect (or are told) to work. That means provisioning for outstanding digital experiences whether the user is in an office, at home, on the road or in a third space. IT needs to deliver the same look and feel, the same security profile, the same access to applications and services, and the same quality of service.
It also means protecting against a morphing threatscape and providing secure remote access with analytics and zero-trust security models to detect threats targeting users not protected by traditional corporate perimeters.
We may be seeing a recalibration where companies are calling the shots rather than assuaging users or we may be seeing a blip that sees organisations struggling to hire and retain go back again to their liberal positions. For certain though, smart IT leaders need to cover themselves for whichever way the new world of work turns next.
*according to Safety & Health Practitioner