Facilitating the future of work and securing a hybrid working environment top the list of tough, pandemic-inflected issues IT leaders must navigate this year.
Thanks to the tumultuous events of the past year, in 2021 IT professionals will face challenges in the workplace they’ve never seen before. There was no roadmap for taking much of the American workforce remote overnight, and none exists for a large-scale, staggered return to the hybrid environment of in-person and remote work that most organizations expect to make work in the months to come.
Besides laying the technical groundwork for a new workplace environment, IT leaders will be faced with a number of other pandemic-inflected challenges this coming year, some unique to this era of collaborating at a distance and others ongoing, such as balancing budgets and stocking up on talent.
Following is a look at how tech leaders’ priorities have shifted since last year: around new technology adoption, digital transformation, hiring needs, and workplace culture. Here, IT leaders explain how their organizations will adapt and take on their most daunting challenges in the new year.
Facilitating the future of work
Companies are considering what the return to the workplace will look like, and post-pandemic logistics will need to incorporate employee safety, both physical and mental. Jeff McCarter, CIO of corporate and institutional services at Northern Trust, says his firm has learned to be fluid in its planning for the future of work at the firm.
“We started moving into a new open plan workspace in the first quarter of 2020 and when the pandemic hit it seemed like pretty much a disaster,” McCarter says. “But now we see it’s going to work for us because with remote work we only need a subset of people in the office on any given day and the space is designed for that flexibility. We’ll bring teams together when they need to be together, on some of the days of the week, and we will use our office space differently.”
Joe Lennon, CTO of workplace communications platform Workvivo, says the adjustment to remote work will continue for the foreseeable future, and it can cause mental strain that needs attention.
“The long-term impact of working from home is coming to the surface now with the social capital of working in the office running out,” Lennon says. “Some are feeling burnt out, isolated or are finding it hard to find work-life balance in this new setup. We all need to find ways to re-create the workplace culture and office dynamic online so that employees feel connected and engaged. We want to make sure employees understand and feel a part of the company’s culture and aligned with our goals so they can work effectively and happily under this new model.”
Securing the hybrid enterprise
Mark Angle, CIO of OneStream Software, says that after the pandemic, his company, like most technology firms, will continue to embrace virtual work. The challenge, he says, is how to secure the company’s data regardless of where its workforce is, without causing employees to feel held back or that someone’s watching over them.
“Every time we start to develop a solution, we think: ‘How will this make life easy for the employee to be productive?’ We have been thinking about these issues for months now and are striving to stay ahead of what’s coming,” he says. “All technology leaders need to think about enabling revenue generation first and cost savings second. We have to figure out how to help our employees to navigate the disjointed back-to-normal process that is to come and do it in a way that is seamless enough to put them out in front of the competition.”
Peter Zornio, chief technology officer at Emerson Automation Solutions, says his cybersecurity concerns include ransomware and the inherent vulnerabilities of a hybrid in-office and distributed work environment.
“In 2021, companies must undertake an honest assessment and inventory of their technology and supply chain resiliency from a security perspective,” Zornio says. “Protection against ransomware and other malicious code requires new approaches and skills to stay ahead of the curve on cutting-edge technologies that can support hybrid, open-source environments.”
Flipping the 80/20 IT landscape
Will Keegan, chief technology officer at Lynx Software Technologies, says IT planners have long prepared for remote technology to account for about 20% of their workforces, with the other 80% in the office. In 2020, those numbers were reversed.
“Beyond the VPN functionality, IT leaders have to commit to keep their networks secure in spite of the majority — and in some cases the entirety — of the company working from home during 2021,” Keegan says.
This shift has led to a greater mingling of personal and enterprise data on remote machines, and hackers have taken advantage. Protecting these mixed systems will be a tall order in 2021.
“Companies are asking for devices — laptops, tablets, and phones — where there is far more fine-grained allocation of system resources depending on whether the employee is working on business aspects or personal ones. And the IT leaders want to control these systems remotely,” Keegan says.
Systems will be needed to isolate corporate users’ work environment from their personal ones while protecting sensitive data from network and insider threats, he adds. Companies will also need to monitor corporate assets while allowing remote backups, upgrades, and the ability to protect and disable remote assets that are compromised — all while enabling the user’s work environment to operate seamlessly.
Skilling up for accelerated digital roadmaps
Elastic CIO Kim Huffman says the pandemic sped up the evolution of the company’s business practices, once IT had completed the shift to remote operations and rethought how best to support employee’s technology needs and well-being. This was a common theme for IT leaders in 2020, and the next year will advance the impact of accelerating digital transformations, in particular around the necessary skills mixes for success.
“The 2021 business priority is now moving beyond multi-year digital transformation efforts to digital business model innovation, which focuses on speed, flexibility and agility,” Huffman says. “The rapid migration to the cloud and focus on time to value has created an unexpected change in the skills IT leaders look to hire for. In 2021, in addition to technical expertise, it will be a priority to find people with the ability to foster change management, as the makeup of the workforce evolves and the technology it requires evolves with it.”
Scrutinizing IT budgets
Kris Singleton, chief information officer at Enseo, says 2021 will bring with it greater scrutiny of the costs of collaboration tools, and her company will be considering whether some cloud-based systems should be brought in house.
“We’ll need to evaluate the impact SaaS tools like Slack and Zoom are having and if the ROI is worth the subscriptions,” Singleton says. “We’ve also pulled some of our tools out of the cloud and transitioned them back on-prem to reduce costs or offset increased cloud utilization costs in other areas. A big question we need to answer in the months ahead is the net benefit of the hybrid approach — weighing the cost savings against the increased maintenance efforts.”
Emerson’s Zornio thinks it’s time to see what real value is being delivered from investments in advanced technology such as AI.
“For digital transformation programs to deliver ROI, you need to build programs that address specific business problems with measurable outcomes, get buy-in from business owners on the metrics, and engage with the people who own the process,” he says. “There’s no room for technology for technology’s sake. All technology must be applied to tackle specific problems and employees must be empowered and trained on how to use it.”
Maintaining 24/7 uptime
A year filled with uncertainty has led people to demand increased stability in the systems they need to work remotely, says Rob Zelinka, CIO of Jack Henry and Associates. In the next year, his firm will rely on these systems more than ever and they also need to have faith in the ones his company markets externally.
“We live in a 24x7 world where it’s expected for systems to be available 100% of the time,” Zelinka says. “There are no bonus points for 100% uptime. Anything less puts you in a position where you have to leverage the trust you spent years earning with your customers. We prefer to leverage that trust toward investments in additional products and services to help our customers drive the outcomes their customers expect from them.”
After a difficult year in which a demanding work environment has been among the only constants, IT teams are facing work fatigue, says Jon Check, senior director of cyber protection solutions at Raytheon. It’s likely to get worse in 2021. Even as some people return to the office, most firms will continue to demand increased IT support for distributed employees. To adapt, Check believes IT leaders need to be proactive and consider their colleagues needs as they continue to feel the pressure.
“To help combat this expected fatigue across teams, IT practitioners must arm themselves with mentors spanning various departments to create a support system that encourages collaboration,” Check says. “Department leaders must also grant their teams the flexibility to walk away from work when they need to, and consistently check in with their employees to ensure they are empowered to prioritize their own personal and mental health. IT is filled with frequent high-stress and high-risk discussions, and a good leader will know how to disclose this information in an effective way that limits this stress as much as possible in order for teams to overcome the challenges ahead — instead of being crushed by the pressure they can cause.”
Blending safety and innovation
Craig Williams, vice president and CIO at Ciena, is considering what tools will be needed to help the technology workforce collaborate safely next year, with an eye toward facilitating innovation while working in a hybrid environment.
“We’ll need to identify a new set of collaboration tools to meet our remote needs for product development and customer engagement, like new whiteboarding and touchless conference rooms and virtual IT support,” Williams says. “We’ll also see businesses leverage augmented reality tools to help enable sales, services and support functions. Given these aren't normally part of the corporate technology stack, it will require a good amount of research, trial and error and adjustment to get it right.”
Williams also thinks we’ll see new tools specifically focused on enabling people to work in a safe environment.
“Companies will adopt the necessary health tech, from something as advanced as contact tracing to as simple as a thermometer, to ensure their workplace is meeting protocols,” he says. “These health scans might even start to integrate into collaboration tools like Slack, Teams or Kloudspot to ensure every employee has the information they need to stay healthy. It might start to feel like we're going through TSA to enter offices, but it will be necessary to get this right.”
OneStream Software’s Angle also sees a challenge in measuring who is ready to return to the office and who isn’t.
“The methodologies used to track that people coming into the office weren’t sick will have to be expanded to include tracking of a person’s vaccination record for COVID-19,” Angle says. “A new world of work from home will now collide head on with a desire to go back to the office. It won’t be a one or the other, it will be a full-on need for technologies that seamlessly integrate work from home workers with employees in the office.”
Author: Paul Heltzel
Paul Heltzel is a writer and editor, formerly of Discovery News, National Geographic, NPR, and PC World magazine. He lives on the Rappahannock River in Virginia with his wife Deborah and their three kids.