Focus on people not places: A CIO's view on the 'return to the office'

By RingCentral

As people return to high streets and services open their doors again, there’s no getting away from thoughts of going back to the office.  

While some await the green light from managers, and others consider how their work life balance might change again, there’s planning going on behind the scenes. Organisations are getting ready for workers going back in.  

Recent research highlights that 66% of business leaders are redesigning physical spaces to accommodate hybrid working. But this type of responsibility (that is the employee experience) isn’t down to just the CEO, facilities and CHRO anymore. For too long, the chief information officer has been misconceived as “the person that makes the computers work”. The pandemic changed that.  

As CIOs take on a broader role driving strategy and transformation, the skills they and their team need are changing too. Alongside a growing requirement for knowledge of ‘newer’ areas of technology such as AI, CIOs also need softer skills associated with business leadership, from understanding how to influence stakeholders to creating a culture of inclusivity. 

It became clear during the latest CIO Institute event that skills and responsibilities have evolved in this way. Shikha Hornsey, Gareth Johns, Dave Roberts, Danny Attias and moderator Samuel Sonnenfield discussed the future of the office and approaches to supporting a virtual workforce during their session.  

Create equal experiences for all  

“We are going to be working in this hybrid environment where there are going to be people in the office, and there are going to be people working at home. We need to make sure that's an inclusive experience. I've seen it in the past, in other organisations where there's someone on the phone, and they don't feel engaged in the meeting, they're not immersed in that experience.  

We're now going through how to set up our meeting rooms to ensure they are inclusive. We want to make sure that collaboration is equal,” Dave Roberts, global IT director at Stantec commented.  

Gareth Johns, senior director of vertical solutions at RingCentral went on to discuss why parity should be a top priority.  

“Regardless of where people work from, parity of experience is needed. People who are remote shouldn’t have a second-class employee experience. Hopefully, when we go back into the office, we make sure the conversation is inclusive. Yes, there's an element of this that technology can help with. There are things that providers are working on to make that more immersive. But it’s also on us as individuals to make this happen.” 

Avoid transactional interactions  

It’s so easy to become disconnected from each other in a remote or partially remote world. Studies show that despite technology being there for us to chat whenever we want, we need to make efforts to keep that human connection.  

“When life becomes a little more normal, I think we have to remember what it's like to be remote because as human beings we tend to forget. We need to actually keep in the forefront of our mind what it's like to be off site and remote while others are on site during meetings. We've all been there; the person who dialled into the meeting room almost routinely got overwritten or ignored, regardless of rank,” said Shikha Hornsey, chief digital and information officer at Crown Commercial Service.  

On a similar thread, Gareth covered why we just need to be informal sometimes and make the effort with colleagues: 

“When we're in an environment like this, our interactions become too transactional. With this we lose some of the goodwill credit we build up from actually having social time to get to know each other.” 

Be wary of burnout  

Findings from Microsoft show that 73% of staff want flexible remote work in the future. This means they want to choose when they work remotely and when they go into the office, but also the time of day they work.  

Organisations must tread carefully here because many employees are already struggling to switch off from technology. This is why we’ve seen so many reports of burnout and people working longer hours since the pandemic hit - research from Atlassian tells us as much.  

The question is, how will organisations prevent burnout if they continue to have less control over when and where employees are working? 

Introduce relevant policies for your business 

Organisations are creating all different types of hybrid or flexible working policies. For example, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai shared his vision of the search giant’s hybrid return-to-work plans which would call for roughly 60% of Googlers coming together in the office for a few days a week, while another 20% will work in new office locations and 20% are anticipated to work remotely.  

The panellists all agreed that while there isn’t a one size fits all approach, each individual’s work life balance should be taken seriously.  

 Shikha kicked off this discussion, “You should have corporate rules in place where you have what's considered healthy work hours.”  

Danny Attias, chief digital and information officer at Anthony Nolan, described the need for policies to ensure people aren’t overworked in the hybrid future, “We've [introduced] a policy where people will work at 80% efficiency for the next few months. Because they're 100% is really 120%. It's not sustainable. We know it's not sustainable because people are exhausted.” 

Dave explained Santec would “have three days in the office and two days at home, but that will flex. Some people will be completely remote at home all the time, and will only come in as necessary for meetings or events that are happening.” 

That being said, there are people that need to be in the office every day because of their role. But Dave’s view is that ultimately all roles are going to change and CIOs will become the “enablers” of such changes.  

Seek alternatives to physical workspaces  

Traditionally, the office is a place where culture is created and maintained, where knowledge is best shared and creativity most inspired. But will this be the case in the future if some employees can’t be motivated to return to their desks? 

“The Leesman Index found that there has to be a driver for people to go back into the workplace,” Gareth explained, “People will be asking if the physical workspace reaches their requirements and whether they will have the space to do collaborative working. Not every organisation has got the funding for this.” 

Ultimately, businesses will need to find ways for all workers to feel included, regardless of where they are. As Gareth put it, “The future workforce will need to have a common area, a common capability for people to share their experiences and knowledge.”

“What will the office of the future look like?” In reality, there isn’t one clear answer because it’s going to be different for everyone. But we can map how technology is evolving and where it might be used. 

With announcements like Google’s Project Starline and more video innovations on the way, it remains to be seen how businesses with dispersed workforces create “common areas” for workers and the role CIOs will play in developing employee experiences in the future.