In the COVID-19 era, it's easy to think of work as a fluid experience that roams between virtual and physical spaces. But some functionalities aren't well suited for a seamless connection between remote and on-site workers.
Picture a power plant, where safety requirements are life or death for workers and those living in the surrounding areas. Physical supervision is required to detect, for example, if a screw is showing signs of rust as a consequence of fumes from a chemical plan built 10 miles down the road, said GE Digital SVP and CTO Colin Parris.
"For things like that, you need physical people," said Parris.
The rust on the screw is the kind of nuance that won't stand out in the background of a Zoom call with managers. It's the type of issue business leaders refer to when they say there are limitations to a hybrid work setup.
Most businesses detected and addressed the short-term pressures of a remote work setup in 2020, a phase that focused on putting out fires. Now, businesses are dealing with obstacles shaping a long-term hybrid work model. For some companies, hybrid work means splitting time between home and the office, letting staffers choose their location.
For others, it means that fully on-site workers need to seamlessly coordinate with remote managers or operators, an area that proves especially challenging for industries such as healthcare, construction or engineering.
The pressure to ensure workers can stay connected "all the time to the right applications" to uphold operations has increased immensely, said Irvin Bishop Jr., CIO at engineering and construction firm Black & Veatch. "From a technology perspective, we have no control over the home network, the bandwidth."
When thinking about where hybrid work fits, business leaders estimate 57% of their workforces could work entirely remote, while nearly two-thirds can work remotely at least some of the time, according to Gartner. And while hybrid is emerging as a dominant pattern, it's only possible for 50% to 60% of the workforce, Gartner says.
The next phase of hybrid work focuses on the gaps that technology can't bridge. Tech tools can help ease concerns of longer-term operability, but not without challenges — either due to the nature of the work or the added pressure of adding more systems to the tech stack. Despite the strides that traditionally in-person companies have made, there are places where hybrid work simply won't work.
Construction and engineering: On-site demands
The challenge with managing physical locations in the post-pandemic era is to smoothly link together on-site workers with experts who can provide insight remotely.
"I can't have one good, top-class engineer flying around every plant that we start," said Parris. "You're going to have people on the ground … then connections back to that person."
For the construction industry, the disconnect is evident. A building can't get built on Zoom — at least not yet.
"I think it would be foolish of me to say that there's a way we can completely make the construction management operation a remote one entirely," said Matt Daly, CEO and co-founder of StructionSite. Daly's company makes a platform that helps monitor construction sites through user-mounted, 360-degree cameras and AI technology.
"Every company is going to deal with that struggle of half remote, half in person or some combination of the two."
Co-founder and CEO, Beyond20
Though tasks such as visual supervision of a wall before it is fitted with sheet rock might be suited to a hybrid model, other tasks need to take place on-site.
"If you need to physically test a valve to make sure that it's operating correctly before you put that building into commission, that's something that you're just not going to do remotely," said Daly.
The challenges of bridging together the digital and physical worlds look different across industries. While companies in the financial services and insurance space could perform up to 76% of the work remotely while still being effective, in manufacturing that number is 19%, according to a McKinsey study. Construction industry employees could spend about 15% of their time working remotely, while in agriculture that standard falls to just 7%.
In the engineering space, the digital twin is a digital metaphor for the hybrid work disconnect and a means of solving for it. Armed with data, digital copies of real-world physical components can help predict failures and assist with management.
When disruption struck due to COVID-19 concerns, companies wanting to defer maintenance turned to digital twin technology to understand what might happen. Without flying to a plant in the Middle East, GE could predict "the amount of cumulative damage" and determine if it's safe to postpone maintenance, according to Parris.
Adoption came out of necessity. With more pieces of work becoming "tech-enabled workflows," tools helped provide performance metrics as individual workers self manage, self supervise and stay on schedule, said Nathan Ray, director in West Monroe's Healthcare & Life Sciences.
In 2021, solving for these kinds of challenges will put more pressure on the IT backbone that powers companies. After a year of financial constraints, worldwide tech spend will show signs of improvement in 2021.
"The wave of automation is going to allow you to manage an operation with less, and more remote control," said Sam Dawes, managing director in West Monroe's consumer and industrial products practice. More monitoring, managing and exception control can now happen remotely, giving way to less time directly monitoring the execution of a given task.
"I think it would be foolish of me to say that there's a way we can completely make the construction management operation a remote one entirely."
CEO and co-founder of StructionSite
Black & Veatch is trialing wearables as a means for reducing the amount of people who need to go physically to a location.
"One person can go out to the site, look at something through a wearable and others working remotely can see those same, in-real-time activities happening," said Bishop. "People with different expertise on the team can suggest, you know, what should be done and not have to physically be there all the time."
With sensor and IoT devices placed throughout the facilities, the company is hoping to reduce the need for physical presence on site and help the site directly provide information that can guide decisions.
Healthcare sync: Challenges and workarounds
Hybrid work introduced the expectation of flexibility; because workers can perform well from the home office, work processes should accommodate it. More than half of workers say they want to work from home at least three days a week, according to PwC.
A hybrid work model means asynchronicity, which puts pressure on the natural cadence of work in spaces such as healthcare. The shift created a need to manage scheduling so as to uphold operations.
Workers in what McKinsey defines as the healthcare and social assistance space could spend 20% of their time operating remotely.
When the pandemic hit, it immediately pushed a lot of caregiving and administrative staff into a completely virtual workforce, said Tom Kiesau, director and digital health leader at The Chartis Group.
Some organizations were ahead of the tech curve, and offered online scheduling to patients for in-person visits once non-essential care began to ease up again.
But "they didn't have a way to schedule a virtual visit online," said Kiesau. "Paradoxically, you had to call the call center if you wanted to schedule a virtual visit, or in some cases even call the physician's clinic individually."
Healthcare's overarching problem with remote operations has been one of scheduling, said Ray.
An organization's ability to orchestrate how workers schedule their workflows and coincide in either video conferences or actual physical encounters is helping determine winners and losers in the hybrid work shift, Ray said.
With work taking place online and in person, a simple scheduling calendar just won't cut it, and sturdier rules-based software is needed to ensure that work can carry on during a specific timeframe. "Scheduling, both of their patients and of their workforces and their evaluations, all of these concepts are actually really difficult for these businesses," said Ray.
Tech tools are helping to orchestrate healthcare operations coordination. If syncing the availability of practitioners or other staff for an appointment is difficult, workflow management software can be used to confirm if health workers are available and if they'll be present. Physical access management technology can assist capacity control on site.
Technology, processes, and culture are moving "in the direction of a more hybrid work environment," said Laurent Bataille, EVP of Digital Energy at Schneider Electric. The company makes technology to let healthcare workers pre-book spaces, indicating when they'll be in a specific location at a point in time.
Managing workers through a hybrid model is another challenge facing healthcare leaders, a task that workflow management tools can ease by adding a layer of self supervision, said Ray.
Tech debt: A hurdle toward hybrid
Though it's true that the pandemic caught most businesses technologically underprepared, trouble persists even a year after disruption began.
Four in 10 businesses said they won't be ready to operate without a central work hub for at least another 12 months, according to a survey from Info-Tech Research conducted at the end of 2020. Technical debt on platforms that power work can trap a company's development cycle. A Stripe study found engineers spend close to one-third of their time on technical debt.
Attempting to smoothly link homebound and on-site employees, executives turn to tech tools and policies in response to the challenges of the disconnect.
Across organizations, technical debt can impact companies trying to onboard staffers in a hybrid work setting or managing their workflows, said Erika Flora, CEO and co-founder at IT consulting firm Beyond20. But the bigger obstacle is centered around designing processes and technology specifically for the hybrid setting, and introducing clarity throughout the organization.
"Every company is going to deal with that struggle of half remote, half in person or some combination of the two," said Flora.
It's a task the CIO can help with, by helping the company understand "how work flows from one team to another," said Flora.
Another hurdle is understanding the availability of IT assets — such as hardware and software — and thinking through managing the infrastructure under a hybrid model. While collaboration tools are a necessary layer connecting the two, analysts worry about messaging overload as new features emerge.
Manufacturing execs struggle with technical debt in their facilities, according to Dawes. Under pressure from financial constraints, given the choice between spending on plant equipment or collaboration tools to solve for hybrid work, managers frequently choose the former category.
"Last year has really forced us to reckon with that problem," said Dawes.
CIOs in the manufacturing spaces found it challenging to address digital sales and service, tasked by their organizations to maintain the same sales experience, relationships and customer service that customers are used to now under a hybrid model.
In turn, the increased digitization of work puts further pressure on the IT function. As offices undergo a retool centered on the hybrid workforce, new technology such as audio and video capabilities get added to the IT workload, according to Kaumil Dalal, a director in West Monroe's technology practice.
In-office technology will need to shift to become "a little bit more engaging, inclusive, as you think about that new hybrid workplace," Dalal said.
Companies pushed through cloud migrations to ensure systems could better respond to customer pattern changes. But in their technology to-do list, some organizations still have updates that are critical to a hybrid workforce, such as optimizing legacy applications for access through mobile devices.
Solving the connectivity woes of employees operating from kitchens and living rooms is one hurdle that remains for many organizations. A report from Navisite published in October identified poor at-home bandwidth as the top concern among IT leaders and C-suite execs when thinking about supporting remote workers long term.
At Black & Veatch, a group of IT workers became specialists at managing connectivity issues, triaging home networks and guiding workers to assess why home internet speeds ran low.
"'Tuning professionals' is what we call them," said Bishop. "I had them help me, to be quite frank."
Why hybrid and what's next
Pushing past the hurdles toward hybrid work is an attractive concept to businesses. Operational, financial, competitive and culture advantages lie ahead for companies that can overcome the challenges and strategize around where hybrid fits best.
Businesses that can make hybrid work deployments adaptable and sustainable stand to gain a "huge competitive advantage," Dalal said. Flexible work has become somewhat of an expectation, forcing business leaders to think about employee experience in the context of hybrid work.
Hybrid work packs work/life balance advantages for employees, but there's also a level of technical efficiency and operational cost savings associated with it, said Jeff Frey, VP of Innovation at Talent Path. Companies can lower the costs of having employees commute back and forth to an office and convert that into profit, benefits, better products for customers or other improvements.
"I don't know the scale of it but it's got to be something that a lot of companies are looking at," Frey said.
"From a technology perspective, we have no control over the home network, the bandwidth."
Irvin Bishop Jr.
CIO at Black & Veatch
But a banishment of the office entirely is out of the question for the majority of businesses, who say part of their workforce will be operating on site some of the time, and at least 50% of the workforce has a desire to return to the office, Gartner data shows.
Hybrid work did make leaders rethink their approach to real estate, concerned about "too many square feet that are used improperly," often with rows and rows of cubicles, which "are not necessarily the most engaging work environments," said Bataille.
Long term, business leaders will also need to contend with supporting company culture through the disconnect that hybrid work supposes. It's the top concern amid work model shifts for 60% of executives, according to data from West Monroe.
Executives will need to optimize key processes and the technology supporting it for the long term. But the hybrid work shift will place even more parts of the organization into fresh context, including how companies see specific job titles.
"For example, customer service reps that might be doing things totally remote today," said Dalal. "What would that model look like and the role definition look like for them?"