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IT leaders face reality check on hybrid productivity

Once an organizational boon, hybrid work productivity is on the wane. Many CIOs see more time in the office, new leadership skills, and streamlined collaboration offerings as part of the answers.

By Stacy Collett, Contributing writer, CIO 

DEC 19, 2022 spot itleadership cw remote work by fizkes shutterstock 1606120399 2400x1600 hero 4

Fizkes / Shutterstock

CIO Ted Ross believes the honeymoon is over for breakneck productivity when it comes to hybrid work, and he’s not the only one. Tech employees at the City of Los Angeles IT agency who were forced to work remotely in the early pandemic days were very efficient, Ross says.

“Fully into the pandemic we had a 34% increase in project delivery,” he adds. But since then, productivity and innovation have waned, in part because of fading relationships between once in-person teams, along with a slew of new IT employees — 45 in the past year — who haven’t yet built those relationships.

“We’re actually very supportive of hybrid telework,” Ross says. “It comes down to finding a balance” of what can be done effectively remotely and what needs to be done in the office, he adds. In response, Ross started training supervisors on how to create those relationships with digital “checkpoints” to keep productivity humming.

At insurance company National Life, CIO Nimesh Mehta says his IT team saw productivity increase 26% during the pandemic “because I think people didn’t have anything better to do than work,” Mehta says. “Now I’m seeing productivity drop.”

The same goes for innovation. “We’re a team that likes to work together, likes to whiteboard and solve problems,” he says. “When we lost that, I asked my team to tell me one thing we came up with that was innovative during COVID that we actually executed — not ideas that we had in the past that we just did faster — and there was dead silence.”

Hybrid productivity on the wane

It’s a familiar scenario for many CIOs. Productivity increased markedly during the shift to remote work, but it is now lagging behind what many leaders want it to be, bringing about a reckoning on how to remain productive in hybrid times.

In the first half of 2022, productivity — the measure of how much output in goods and services an employee can produce in an hour — plunged by the sharpest rate on record going back to 1947, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When it comes to hybrid productivity in the tech and services world, perception and reality are often misaligned. In a recent survey of more than 20,000 people, Microsoft found that 87% of employees say they are productive at work, while only 12% of leaders have confidence that their workers are being productive. The company also analyzed trillions of anonymous productivity signals from its products and found that for the average worker, meetings, chat, and after-hours and weekend work have all increased over the past two years.

Indeed some types of IT task-based work can be done productively from home, but relationship-based tasks — innovation, strategic planning, relationship-building with customers or stakeholders — are difficult to do remotely.

To reset the productivity and innovation scales, companies are recalling workers back to the office a few days a week, giving team leaders extra latitude with managing their own teams, and streamlining a glut of collaboration tools brought in hastily during the pandemic, ensuring productivity can return to pre-pandemic levels (or higher) and innovation can get back on track.

Here are a few examples of adjustments IT leaders are making to help hybrid workplace arrangements work better for their organizations.

Spreading the load

Engineering and construction management firm TRC Companies couldn’t escape the 

effects of the Great Resignation over the past two years. At the height of the pandemic, VP of IT Rob Petrone felt as though he was losing an IT employee every few weeks.

Making matters worse, “we were very dependent on certain individuals to do a lot of things,” so when one employee suddenly left the company, “we had to hire multiple people to fill his role,” Petrone says.

In hindsight, giving one person too much responsibility, although he was very productive, “was not the right approach,” the IT leader says. So Petrone reorganized the team and individuals’ responsibilities to better balance workloads. In addition to backfilling roles, he has also hired additional IT staff this year.

Augmenting staff with outside help

TRC Companies also keeps productivity humming by augmenting its IT team with overseas development staff when possible. 

IT group leaders can call on these developers as needed for projects, “which also gives them job development and management experience in leveraging these folks, giving them assignments, and then providing feedback,” Petrone says.

This phenomenon of “dynamic sourcing” is growing in popularity of late, enabling IT organizations to scale up staffing on an as-needed basis.

Instituting in-office expectations

After several false starts many IT organizations have followed through with return-to-office directives, at least part time. “I think [remote work] has its places, but in our organization it’s the culture that draws people together, and I think we’ve eaten into our culture bank,” Mehta says.

Today IT staff are in the office three days a week, Tuesday through Thursday. Mehta sees a big increase in collaboration, innovation, and problem solving. “Things that would have taken us three to four months to solve over Zoom calls or Teams meetings now take 20 minutes,” he says.

The office mandate had some consequences. Mehta lost less than 2% of his IT staff that did not want to commute. “I had to shake their hand and say, ‘I really love you, but that’s not who we are,’” he says.

Transforming team leaders into orchestrators

Organizations are realizing that hybrid work is more about how teams come together — not just what’s right for the organization or individual, says Jonathan Pearce, workforce strategies lead at Deloitte Consulting. So more companies are ratcheting up expectations for their team leaders to decide how work gets done, and then hold them accountable as a team when it comes to performance and rewards.

“We’re expecting more team leaders to have open discussions with their teams on what’s working and not working around communication, the norms around [how quickly] they’re expected to respond and how we come together when we need to collaborate,” Pearce says.

“The question now becomes how do we up their game as managers — not just managers of work but really orchestrators of a more complex team environment,” Pearce says.

Good managers make work more enjoyable for their teams, are better able to identify and use each employee’s strengths and help those workers gain more skills and experience they need to develop their careers and be more productive, he adds.

Streamlining collaboration tools

As organizations shifted to remote work due to pandemic-induced restrictions on in-person gatherings, and as they continue to enable work-from-anywhere policies today, they’ve implemented plenty of 

collaboration tools to help workers get their work done.

But Eric Johnson, executive vice president and CIO of Momentive, doesn’t see those technologies delivering all the hoped-for benefits.

“The whole intent of collaboration tools is to help workers be more efficient, more engaged, to get work done better, but as you introduce every use case imaginable, they almost worked against being more efficient because you have to start having to jump between 12 different tools to get work done,” Johnson says.

Nearly 80% of workers were using collaboration tools for work in 2021, up from about 50% in 2019 — a 44% increase, according to Gartner. 

So many IT leaders are taking steps to pare down those tools to streamline work. At the City of Los Angeles, “we found the benefit of providing standardized tools and methods,” Ross says. “But I’m sure some teams still have their own [solutions]. Now that the ship is floating it’s about efficiencies and improving some of those operations.” 

The city initially used a myriad of project management solutions and work assignment solutions. Now it has centralized on Google Workspace and Google Suite, Ross says.

In the long term, Ross does see a greater push for more work to be done in the office, but he does feel strongly that hybrid telework should be here to stay.

“I believe hybrid telework can be done very effectively, and you can do it in a way where people are performing at a high level, but also at a sustainable one because they’re juggling some of the work-life balance that they were craving.” Ross says. “I think a lot of people felt that their life was unsustainable before COVID, and now I think the pendulum has swung back into a reasonable place. Digital tools allow us to work remotely, but to have a long-term work relationship there are some things we want to do in person as we build our strategies, as we mentor, and I think that’s where we’re going to need to push it.”

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