Many businesses realized the benefits of remote work this year. For some, it's here to stay.
"We've had the ability to have a number of people — even before this pandemic took place — work from their homes," said Ed Hutner, SVP of Human Resources at Deltek, of his company's experience. "The technology that we continued to evolve over the years, what we were already doing, worked quite nicely for us."
Post-pandemic, many companies will continue to embrace remote work as they realize the talent and cost benefits. To overcome the employee engagement hurdles of a virtual office, human resources and IT departments will have to work closely together on worker and logistics management.
"As a significant number of employees continue to work remotely, HR and IT departments are expected to collaborate more than ever before," said Michael Stephan, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and U.S. Human Capital Leader. "Organizations are recognizing the important role technology can play in enabling remote workforce collaboration, knowledge management and the need to deliver information with quality and speed in a more decentralized world."
HR, IT extend collaboration to a remote workspace
But to some members of IT leadership, collaboration with HR seemed out of reach.
"When I first started working with ServiceNow’s CHRO [chief human resources officer], we spoke different languages," said Chris Bedi, CIO at ServiceNow.
While the office of the CIO measured success on speed and productivity, the CHRO "was focused on building beautiful experiences," said Bedi.
"Over time, I realized productivity and experience are two sides of the same coin," Bedi said. "The right experience can accelerate adoption, the behaviors that you’re trying to incent, and the economic outcomes that you’re trying to achieve."
As HR and IT learn to speak each other's language, new roles overlapping both departments are likely to crop up in support of remote work.
In the near future, Hutner predicts the rise of remote work and engagement leadership positions to maintain employee productivity and workplace culture in the new environment. Such a role would likely touch all business units and rely heavily on integration with IT, but ultimately fall into the HR department.
As technology permeates organizations, a human-centered approach will be critical to driving the best results, according to Bedi. IT and HR professionals will need to "collaborate and make this a cornerstone of training and overall culture," Bedi said.
Some business communications tools managed by IT departments already come equipped with data tracking and analytics tools that HR can use. Leaders responded with mixed reactions. To some, the metrics provide a digital touchpoint to stay connected.
"Any company out there that's taking advantage of these engagement tools is ahead of the curve," said Hutner. "And it's a great way to stay connected with your people not being in an office."
Others say the usefulness of such tools relies on a framework of employee trust to be successful.
"In cultures where employees are not trusted, then the assumption is that tracking their Slack behavior acts as a proxy for walking around the office to see who is working and how," Amy Loomis, research director, Future of Work at IDC, told CIO Dive in November.
Behind the scenes, good IT keeps people working
In a remote work environment, employees rely on IT to keep them connected daily — especially because stopping by a colleague's desk is no longer an option.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the employee experience for organizations worldwide and the traditional office and desktop workspace has become a pre-COVID artifact," said Bedi.
Businesses slacking on preparation for remote work after the pandemic could miss out on hiring, retention and efficiency opportunities.
Tech leaders must ensure that "people have the systems working" in a timely manner to manage an effective remote work environment, Hutner said. IT departments need to guarantee that employees can get online whenever and wherever.
"The system has to work, emails have to work, getting on video has to work," Hutner said. "If not, you lose money, it's just inefficient. I think it's going to put pressure on the IT to look at their infrastructures."
"For the IT departments, they've got to have a business continuity plan and check it and make sure it's working" to help HR manage people in the changing work world, Hutner said.
Access to reliable tech also enables employees to do their best work, another tie between the HR and IT departments. "IT has become the premiere partner to redefine how work gets done and enable a new and different workforce experience while positioning the workforce to perform their job on behalf of their customers," Stephan said.
With cross-department collaboration, employees receive a more holistic, comprehensive experience with the company.
Prioritizing digital-first employee experiences and workflows can boost engagement and productivity, according to Bedi. "Employees want a familiar, consumer-like way to get work done from wherever they are," Bedi said.
This collaboration also plays a big role with remote onboarding. When hiring new employees, getting them ready to work quickly adds value to the company and the experience, according to Hutner.
"IT needs to partner with HR, with the business units to make that whole process just fluid and very exciting for new hires," Hutner said.
Some companies hesitated to hire and onboard new employees in the virtual environment because it lacks personal touchpoints. The effort challenged all departments to think in new ways and adapt.
"At first there was some apprehension of hiring someone virtually – it was strange and new," Bedi said. "But using our workflows, we’ve virtually onboarded new employees so they could hit the ground running without stepping foot in the office."