IT Leaders Discuss Hybrid Work Structures

The Industry Advisory Board (IAB) for Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program recently discussed remote work and key points for companies to consider when deciding if employees should return to the office.

With more than 40 percent of the US population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the question of how and when employees should return to work is more pressing by the day. The answers depend on a host of variables, as was examined in early May by members of the Industry Advisory Board (IAB) for Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program. IAB members are IT leaders in both technology and non-technology companies around the world, and they discussed how their companies are addressing this question, and how those decisions could ultimately impact current and future MSIT students who go on to become IT managers and leaders themselves.  

IAB members touched on a wide range of topics related to the return to "normal" work life, including whether employees will be back in the office or working fully remote. The consensus is that a hybrid option, with part of the company working in-person and part working remotely, is the most likely scenario the majority of companies will choose. The IAB also emphasized four key points that any company should consider as it prepares to bring employees back or continues to offer full-time remote opportunities — or both. 


Recognize the pros that come with remote work

One of the obvious benefits of remote work is it provides employees with flexibility in terms of scheduling and can often reduce the amount of transit. It also allows employees to work from different locations.

"In many industries, as long as you have a good internet connection, it doesn't really matter where you are," said Brett Bernstein (MSIT '01), vice president of data at Brad's Deals. "In the past, employees were put in a position of having to prove that a remote work environment didn't drag down productivity. We now have 18 months of evidence that shows in many cases productivity increased. I think the change to a hybrid environment as a standard option is going to become a trend for many companies over the next 12 months." (Bernstein recently reflected on the role of IT in organizations moving forward during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.)

That flexibility can be great for employees, but depending on the company and industry, it can also prove beneficial for employers.  

"COVID-19 has opened up new opportunities for us to find talent around the world and expand globally," said Yusuf Ozturk, who is the chief technology officer at Rand McNally. In that role, Ozturk manages an engineering and IT team, and has team members or partners he works with in Europe and Asia. (Learn more about how Ozturk is helping drivers navigate safely and efficiently.) 

Remote work also has the potential to make employees more productive. A recent study predicted that remote workers will actually provide a six percent boost in productivity to the post-pandemic economy.

It is important to note that productivity can be seen in different ways. Todd Spight (MSIT '12), who is an established chief information security officer and teaches cybersecurity at Northwestern, talked about how using breakout rooms in virtual meetings can make large gatherings more productive, whether that's teaching a class of students or conducting a company meeting or workshop. If everyone is in the same physical space, it becomes hard to separate the group and have meaningful conversations without being distracted by noise from other groups. In a virtual setting, groups can be separated into breakout rooms and have more meaningful, uninterrupted discussions.

Acknowledge there can be cons of people working from home

There are plenty of people who find remote working arrangements to be far less productive than a more traditional workplace environment, and there can also be a number of drawbacks. Naveed Asem (MSIT '13) spoke about concerns related to human resources. As head of global analytics and insights for Avalara, Asem has heard stories of companies trying to conduct virtual applicant interviews and not knowing whether applicants had pre-written scripts. He also said there is the potential for companies to hire someone without meeting them, only to discover the hire deceived the company by using someone else in their place for the interview. 

As beneficial as remote work can be for employees, it can be a nightmare for managers, said Todd Fitzgerald, vice president of cybersecurity strategy for Cybersecurity Collaborative.

"I spoke with a CEO recently and he talked about his frustrations of leading these teams that were remote," Fitzgerald said. "He said he's just not getting the performance he needs out of them, and when you're not in the same room, you can't have a stand-up meeting in the morning to cover all the issues. You must have individual video sessions with people, and it's very time consuming." 

Wayne Montague understands that challenge, and though he works remotely as founder and CEO of Castletown Innovations, he knows face-to-face interactions are critical for the success of a company and the growth of individuals.

"We're human beings, and we depend upon face-to-face communications," Montague said. "Subtlety, eye contact, and body language are absolutely critical for growth, learning, and understanding intent. It's certainly important in the innovation space to actually be in the same space, at least for some of the time."

Whatever route you decide, commit to cultivating your company culture

COVID-19 forced companies all over the globe to consider digital transformation as they looked to adapt to a new work-from-home reality. Help with digital transformation is what customers receive from ThoughtWorks, where Pramod Sadalage (MSIT '20) is the director of data and DevOps. He said his company adjusted relatively easily to a fully remote work model, but the key was ThoughtWorks putting an emphasis on maintaining the company culture.

"There needs to be a specific focus on making sure you have the time to bond as a team," Sadalage said. "That can go a long way so that we create a social connection and we can behave like humans and connect with each other." (In April 2020, Sadalage predicted these three IT trends would emerge during and after the pandemic.) 

ThoughtWorks accomplishes that by scheduling weekly virtual meetings for team members to talk or play games with one another. The company also makes a point of giving team members across projects the chance to connect online once a month. There is no structure or agenda to the meeting so that employees can talk about whatever it is they want to discuss, from COVID-19 to sports to technology.

ThoughtWorks also offers training for employees on how to facilitate online meetings, how to use online whiteboard programs, and how to create more collaborative meetings. 

Realize that as good as technology is, it's still not perfect

Rapid development and adoption of technologies allowed companies to survive during the early months of the pandemic and will continue to be critical for the success of businesses moving forward. That being said, more technical advancements need to be made, explained Kevin Glynn, managing principal of The Laminar Group and chair of the IAB.

"We still don't have technology tools to conduct hybrid meetings," Glynn said. "Three people in a conference room, four people remotely, that's a terrible experience for everybody. There is a tool solution for that that's not in the market. Whiteboards don't work for everybody, everyone needs better cameras, Zoom is exhausting after a couple of hours. From a tech standpoint, we all collectively own that problem. We've got to get better tools in people's hands."

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