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Designing the Workplace of the Future

September 29, 2022 Digital Workplace
myles suer
By Myles Suer

How can CIOs partner with other business leaders to better support hybrid and inclusive work? As Bobbi Thomason and Jennifer Franczak wrote in Harvard Business Review, “As hybrid work transitions from a temporary pandemic-era band-aid to the normal way of working, many leaders are wondering how they build an inclusive hybrid culture. The pandemic laid bare existing inequalities at work — around caregiving, race and even age — and while there is an opportunity to build back better, the path to better is unclear, even for leaders committed to inclusive organizations.”

Clearly there's a role for CIOs in helping build these more inclusive organizations, but where do they start? 

What Changes to the Workplace Do Workers Expect?

What workers want comes down to one word: flexibility, said Michigan State University CIO Melissa Woo. Her predecessor, Joanna Young agrees but adds people also expect “respect and better total compensation. They want funding and time for upskilling and reskilling to keep up with accelerating business change. With this, they want feedback and coaching.”

Office time needs to be rethought as well. As workers have grown used to the lack of commute, organizations asking them to return to a central office must be deliberate in why they're asking them back and what can best be accomplished while in office. CIO Deb Gildersleeve suggests having a “hybrid work environment means one goes into an office for a purpose, has easy access to tools needed to do their job, is provided time for collaboration and heads down work, and participates in better run meetings.” As Young said, “In-office time should be coordinated for optimal collaboration. As well, saying the organization will be in the office at least X days per week is dictatorial and not helpful. Leaders need to consider roles whether at home or from anywhere.” 

This means workers need to be able to co-create their workplace experience. Doing this requires autonomy, flexibility, coaching and individualization. CIO David Seidl agrees, stating, “Employees are looking to work in places where they can be effective and that fit how they feel comfortable. Flexibility helps with that, but leaders may also need to figure out where community or other elements need to be pushed.” CIO Jim Russell added, “There needs to be more personalization. This includes accommodating mobile devices, headsets, standing desks, diverse seating styles, sound proofing, mirrored setups at home and office. Additionally, phone systems need personalization to permit deviceless options. Clearly, this involves searching for a new balance. You can’t support work from anywhere if you can’t do it via a mobile phone.”

Related Article: How CIOs Can Help to Create a Work From Home Friendly Workplace

How Do IT Systems Need to Change for Better Experience?

As CIOs look at how people work today, one thing is clear: tool consolidation is needed. Organizations need to reduce the footprint people have to deal with. CIO Carrie Shumaker said, “CIOs should start with better onboarding and easier access control, so people have the resources they need.” Clearly, organizations need to find a way to engage folks better with the systems they retain.

Young suggested, “Collaboration tools and role-appropriate workflow and data are critical. Just in time information is needed with ability to connect with colleagues in real-time. As well, CIOs need to constantly be identifying and prioritizing the grit in the gears to be eradicated.” One solution suggested by Gildersleeve is to map employee journeys to identify points of friction, just as is done for products. It comes down to this, said former CIO Isaac Sacolick: “Employees need easy to use tools, integrated workflows, access to data, self-service analytics, and updated/accurate knowledge management tools. Simply put they need more productivity with fewer clicks.”

How Should Information Workers Discover Collaborators?

According to research by Heidi Gardner and Ivan Matviak, nearly half of new hires fail within the first six months if they do not engage. “Tooling can help,” said Joanna Young. “Internal collaboration tools should have adequate search/query to help with finding information and people. Sharing and being reasonably available should be incentivized. Flexibility should extend to allowing options for digital and physical spaces. As much individual and team autonomy as is feasible/safe.”

Leaders must be intentional in bringing in and engaging new recruits during meetings and other forums, providing them with a space to share their activities to allow their colleagues to better understand their expertise. CIO Jim Russell said these activities can include “a mini-Ted talks in the middle of a staff meeting. Also, leaders should encourage people to use collaboration tools to have a space to brand themselves.”

Understanding the information searching habits of employees is key here. Seidl suggested digging into how people accomplish four things:

  • Discovery
  • Seek Guidance
  • Learn and Educate
  • Connect

Leaders clearly can’t know all of the people that work for them. So, they need to provide layers, repetition and intention. CIO Paige Francis added, the above “reinforces the need for team members to develop relationships and lean into trusted groups.”

Related Article: I Can't Get No (Search) Satisfaction

Biggest Gaps to Overcome With Workplace Engagement Systems?

So, what are today’s workplace engagement software systems missing? What do they need to add to become more relevant? Russell said, “It's all about immediacy.” Leaders need to create opportunities for connection and involvement. In terms of how software can help here, Young said she wants to see customizable simplification at scale: "Most organizations are using only a limited set of features, yet workers have to wade through and learn a bloated array of stuff to get productive.”

Sacolick said, “While Slack, Teams or Zoom all help real-time collaboration virtually, there is an opportunity to improve them to better support hybrid work. Lots of work is needed to convert today’s dialog to mid/longer term knowledge management.” Another challenge is finding the balance between structure and impeding collaboration said Gildersleeve, “The biggest gap is how these systems are managed internally. You need engaged users to keep channels up to date (or retired). They need a little structure but not too much. It would help to provide guidance as to when each communication channel should be used.” CIO Anthony McMahon agreed, saying, “Many people don't understand what they can do or how can use them properly. Some organizations have end up selecting four tools to deliver multiple use cases that one of them may have been able to handle if implemented right.”

Gaps to Retaining Millennials and Generation Z Workers?

As someone who raised two millennials and one Gen Z worker, I've seen firsthand their different perspectives about work. So it came as no surprise when Young said, “The ones I have talked to say they want flexibility, better leaders and better compensation.” Communication is key here. As Seidl put it, “Leaders need to listen to their staff. They, also, need to be empowered to do things to grow, retain, and improve their team's work experience.”

While many of these factors were in play before the pandemic, the dynamics of the last two and a half years have called into question certain accepted norms when it comes to the workplace. “We always knew that listening and empathy were important. Diverse generations may have more to say and greater expectations. Leaders need to listen more, explore more and extend grace. This includes considering the DEI playbook. Equity may not be perfect where work from anywhere is or is not possible, but engagement may find a fair path. I, also, think we may need to diversify a traditional view of a single business appropriate look, style, or experience. Offices were already splintering and will need to be more localized. Even before COVID I was known to sit on the floor or stand or play with whiteboards to try to break the mindset that can occur when we all conform to sitting at a table behavior,” said Russell.

Related Article: Leaders Want People Back in the Office, Employees Ask 'Why'

Hybrid Work Isn't Going Anywhere

As described at the beginning of this piece, hybrid work is a way of life. CIOs clearly have a big role in making it work better for existing and emerging workers. This means making it easier for people to work and collaborate regardless of whether in a remote or in-office situation. Clearly, offices need to be redesigned to better support hybrid work and gatherings of remote and on-premises workers, and the key to doing this well is technology.

About the Author

Myles Suer is the leading influencer of CIOs, according to Leadtail. He is the director of solutions marketing at Alation and also the facilitator of the #CIOChat.

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