What are the impacts on IT when a remote workforce becomes a global workforce?

WORK

Eric Johnson
September 24, 2021

It started with a two-week lockdown. Companies in almost every industry hustled to equip employees with the tools they’d need for a “quick stint” working from home. As we all know, weeks turned into years, quick fixes turned into long-term solutions, and suddenly businesses had a basic infrastructure that enabled employees to work from anywhere—which made them wonder, “why not hire from anywhere?”

Additionally, countries around the world have recently opened their doors to digital workers and started offering residencies, special visas, and other incentives to attract adventurous professionals. Between this and international hiring, many companies may trend away from being generally concentrated in a few major areas and toward being globally distributed, in different time zones, and fully remote. And it’s IT’s job to shape a new way of working that works with this model.

In a world where 70% of white collar workers are fully remote, IT has had to completely rethink business operations. As an IT leader myself, I can already see three areas where change will be profound and influential: digital employee experience, asynchronous work, and automation. In these areas, I believe that teams like my own will lead the way into a new way of working.

Building an employee experience in the cybersphere

In 2021, news outlets started to report on something called The Great Resignation—a wave of employees leaving their jobs due to burnout, frustration, or new opportunities. A Momentive study found that one in four people is considering quitting in the next six months, and Gallup reported that employee engagement rates are at historic lows, between 20-30% in the U.S. and Canada. Employee experience is now a top business priority in almost every industry. In the past, that would have been a problem for HR. In 2021, it also falls to IT.

People don’t have physical touchpoints like company events, office culture, or even in-person meetings to connect them to their coworkers or employer anymore, which means they have to be engaged through technology. Which, in turn, means that IT will need even closer alignment with HR to understand how they can help support a virtual culture.

Many organizations have identified flexible hours, the ability to relocate, and access to the latest collaboration solutions as strong incentives to keep employees around, and will need to work with their IT teams to build systems that support a great virtual employee experience—and quickly. Others are using virtual events to keep employees engaged or turning to tools like Sendoso, a gifting platform, or Bonusly, which enables employees to give each other micro-bonuses. 

Companies will also need to find software solutions for regularly collecting feedback from this new remote workforce to keep a pulse on how engaged and productive these employees are and make continued improvement to the employee experience.There may be sensibilities or needs specific to certain countries or cultures that HR teams wouldn’t know about, or diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns. It falls on IT to facilitate that as well. 

With each initiative, IT will have to consider the privacy and security concerns of each employee region, consider how each new solution will fit into the overall stack, and ensure that data is stored and organized effectively for company goals. It might not sound intuitive, but employee experience has become an IT priority. 

Creating an asynchronous work environment

One of the greatest challenges the new global workforce presents is something that almost every remote worker has personally had to cope with: conflicting time zones. The way most businesses run, most professionals spend hours in meetings every week (up to 15% of an organization’s time, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review). Having a distributed workforce can make scheduling meetings that work for everyone extremely frustrating.

On top of that, the Momentive research team found that 74% of employees feel like some of their meetings “could have been an email”—another sentiment that you might relate to. To me, it seems clear that a meeting-centric way of doing business isn’t sustainable. Instead, it seems like we must be moving toward asynchronous work, in which people collaborate on projects on their own time, according to their own schedules. 

Imagine if, instead of having a meeting, employees were able to use a simple bot to get their questions answered. Or imagine they could access an internal database to get new resources or hop on a virtual blackboard to share ideas. These solutions could exist for each department, or even for individual teams.

I think that we’ve only just started to see the beginning of the innovation in this area, but it will become more and more developed as the global workforce grows. This is where IT has an opportunity to step up and lead how organizations can reimagine the way that companies operate. 

Collaboration solutions that facilitate asynchronous work are varied, and need to be evaluated individually alongside each company’s goals, existing stack, and concerns when it comes to data and privacy. Shifting to asynchronous work will doubtless create a lot more homework for IT teams who want to do it well. But it will also make for a much more effective way of doing business across borders. 

Employing automation judiciously 

Automation is a loaded topic, and rightly so. Shifting to algorithms that replace a judgment call with a black box can create blind spots and perpetuate bias. But automation is also the inescapable force of the future, and when companies use it judiciously, they’re able to act with far greater agility and scale.

Automation will be essential when globalization takes full hold—as a way of triggering next steps in projects, keeping employees connected and communicating, and staying connected to customers despite disparities in time zones. IT will need to learn how to evaluate automated solutions and differentiate between the “good kind” of automation (which helps people work more effectively) and the “bad kind” (which is a black box).

Fabrizio Biscotti, research vice president at Gartner, recently said,“Hyperautomation has shifted from an option to a condition of survival. Organizations will require more IT and business process automation as they are forced to accelerate digital transformation plans in a post-COVID-19, digital-first world.” I agree with him. Embracing automation is no longer optional.

If IT teams want to come out on top, it’s time to start thinking about what their company can automate and what the implications of automation are on different parts of the business. 

When IT first emerged in the seventies, the responsibilities often boiled down to making sure everyone’s computer was working. As information management became more central to business success, the function was elevated, becoming a key part of operations, strategy, and even product. 

Now, the workforce is largely remote and IT is the foundation that companies are built on. I, for one, look forward to seeing what we can help build next. 

Eric Johnson is chief information officer at Momentive.

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