COVID-19 challenged IT leaders to keep essential operations functioning reliably and securely while ensuring staff safety. Now that the pandemic is gradually receding, many leaders are assessing their operations and concluding that even in normal times work-at-home teams can work both effectively and productively.
When the pandemic hit, leaders scrambled to ensure there would always be a way for teams to work together, regardless of their location, observed Chris Fielding, CIO of resilient IT infrastructure provider Sungard Availability Services. "At first, bringing people together over their computer screens felt a little more forced than it would in person, but developing a dynamic where virtual meetings are more comfortable and similar to an in-person conversation marked an important step in getting teams to collaborate and work together in an agile fashion," she explained.
Now, as permanent remote work becomes an option, many IT leaders are starting to think ahead, studying how dispersed teams operate and learning how individuals can be self-sufficient and accomplish tasks independently while working at home.
DeVry University, a for-profit educational institution with campuses spread across the U.S., rehearsed fully remote IT operations long before COVID-19 arrived. During these sessions. the organization learned that an at-home IT workforce must function collaboratively, particularly when a significant amount of problem-solving is required, stated Chris Campbell, DeVry's CIO. Team members working at home need to constantly drive conversations with key partners to ensure solutions are collaborative, and that they are making their thinking visible to both managers and other stakeholders, he advised. "It’s the self-driven, self-directed, and collaborative attributes that IT leaders should look for in their team members," Campbell said.
While most IT leaders agree that open communication is essential for a successful remote work initiative, finding the right balance between offering friendly support and overbearing scrutiny can be tricky. "Getting the balance right when it comes to when, how, and how often you touch base with your team [can be] challenging," admitted Anthony Cummings, director of infrastructure and operations at Salesforce recruitment firm Mason Frank International. "You don't want employees to feel isolated or disengaged, but you also don't want to micromanage or trigger video call fatigue either."
He noted that the biggest lesson Mason Frank learned during the pandemic was discovering how to communicate with at-home staff via multiple communication methods and ensuring that they were tapping into the right channel for the right message at the right time.
IT leaders should enable and empower their teams by encouraging social conversations and providing opportunities for recognition and rewards, advised Sarah Pope, vice president, future of technology, at business and IT consulting firm Capgemini Invent. "Appointing an employee that's already part of the IT team to lead social and cultural initiatives, introducing weekly shout-outs on team calls, and providing options for in-person get togethers are a few ways leaders can instill a culture of engagement," she recommended. Additionally, leaders should help their employees remain excited and engaged about their career path progression. "Although they may feel more disconnected physically, they will feel engaged and connected on the path for their progression," Pope said.
Creating a permanent at-home IT workforce requires careful planning, Cummings said. "Most organizations have been figuring things out as they go, adapting and changing things along the way," he explained. "However, if you're now settling into a long-term at-home way of working, it's time to remove any ambiguity and close up any gaps in your policies." Cummings stressed that at-home workers should know what's expected of them in terms of objectives, turnaround, and acceptable response times to email and text queries and instructions.
Key attributes IT leaders should look for in at-home IT workers include self-motivation, effective time management, organizational preparedness, work ownership, and the ability to communicate. "IT is a part of the business that touches every horizontal and vertical business unit, so without the ability to plan and communicate workloads effectively, there will be ripple effects on delivering outcomes and potential employee burnout," Pope noted.
IT leaders should also look for at-home staffers who can take the lead and aren’t afraid to voice opinions, concerns, or ideas. "It’s more difficult to keep track of everyone in a remote environment, so having employees who can take the initiative to ask for more work when they need it or bring new ideas to the table can be valuable attributes," Fielding explained.
While most IT tasks can be successfully handled from home, the goal of having an entirely remote IT workforce isn't likely to arrive anytime soon, if ever. "Virtual work can only go so far and, at some point, [some staff members] must be hands-on," observed Dee Anthony, a research director at technology analysis and advisory firm ISG. "These hands-on jobs are not conducive to being remote," he concluded.