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PHOTO: Dylan Ferreira

Tim Flower has some advice for IT leaders managing the digital workplace: Watch out for “in your ear.” It’s a reference to a scene in the movie "Field of Dreams" in which Shoeless Joe Jackson tells rookie Archie Graham to be ready for anything on the next pitch.

Shoeless Joe Jackson: The last two have been high and tight, so where do you think the next one's gonna be?

Archie Graham: Well, either low and away … or in my ear.

Shoeless Joe: He's not gonna want to load the bases, so look for low and away. But watch out for in your ear.

"Organizations have been so hyper-focused on COVID and getting folks back to work safely that they’ve put other plans on hold," said Flower. "2021 is about moving the business forward without reintroducing IT challenges from the past. If IT doesn’t watch out for ‘in your ear,’ we’ll be back to where we were in 2020."

Flower is global director, Business Transformation at Switzerland-based NexThink, makers of a digital employee experience platform. NexThink is a sponsor of Simpler Media Group's virtual Winter Digital Workplace Experience (DWX) Conference, held Thursday, Feb. 11. Flower will present “IT’s Strategic Shift in a Changing Workforce.” We spoke with Flower about what’s next in the digital workplace, and how IT leaders can set their teams and organizations up for success.

Navigating the World of Hybrid Work

SMG: What should IT leaders be thinking about when it comes to the digital workplace in 2021 and beyond?

Tim Flower: Over the past year, businesses were thrown into digital transformation without expecting it, and the success measure was to survive. Now we have to think about how to bring about the transformations planned for 2020 that we never really got to, while at the same time keeping the benefits of working remotely. While we didn’t expect remote work to last as long as it did, we can now see that hybrid work is here to stay, and organizations are having a hard time innovating with these new changes.

SMG: What does hybrid work look like to you moving forward?

Flower: Hybrid brings about some unique scenarios, and without information, businesses are going to struggle to figure out how to manage it. An executive recently told me that his business had gone from managing 5,000 employees in one building to managing 5,000 buildings — all with one employee each. It's a completely different model. And now you have an empty building with nobody in it.

So when it comes to hybrid, you need to ask yourself: What does my public health situation look like? Am I still restricted to bringing in only 50% of my workforce? How do I manage those folks coming back into the office? You also need to look at the numbers, like how many people are working from the office versus working remotely, and how that affects the employee experience.

NexThink's Tim Flower:  "I don't like revolutionary change. I like building on what works, discarding the things that don't, and moving quickly to something bigger and better.".

SMG: How does the employee experience change for a hybrid workforce?

Flower: Think about your experience in the office, using the key technologies that you rely on every day like network connectivity, productivity tools, even things we also use at home now, like Zoom. If that experience is better in the office than at home, that might drive behavior and you could end up with more people in the office than you need or should have. So hybrid for me comes down to managing not just the persona of a worker or a group of workers, but their work style. Understanding how their work style and behavior play into their persona, and how to manage that in a unique situation.

Conversely, if you’ve enabled technology that you want to take advantage of in the office, how do you make sure that employees are actually going in, and not working remotely instead? We recently did a survey that showed 70% of tech leaders are seeing call volumes continue to spike. The top challenges are WiFi, video calls and connection issues. The problem is, executives think their teams are staffed and prepared to handle those, but call volumes say they're not. So IT teams are still very much in the dark. And now when you add hybrid to it, trying to manage that extra layer of complexity, they're going to get the ball that’s “in your ear” — that unexpected hit.

Partnering Up to Improve the Employee Experience

SMG: How can IT professionals lead their teams to overcome these kinds of challenges?

Flower: I've always been an advocate for turning the lights on. It’s all about gathering and using the right information to impact outcomes. The employee experience is the important information you need versus just managing the technology. But technology teams need to be equipped to do something with that information.

Experiential data will likely require not only specialties, but accountabilities that IT doesn't have. So I recommend working with HR and the business to create tighter partnerships with stakeholders that can actually take action on that information. Then, marry that up with the technology changes that need to happen so that your employees are really well taken care of.

SMG: How has the role of IT in managing the workplace changed since COVID-19, and what should leaders prepare for in 2021?

Flower: Most executives I speak with are more concerned about employee experience because experience drives business results. IT can keep the lights on, and they can even do transformations. But if they’re not paying attention to the employee experience, that will negatively impact business results. And it's not just about productivity. I can be productive all day long, but if I'm not producing quality work, then what good is it? That’s why IT executives are really paying attention to the wellbeing of employees, their quality of life and their quality of work.

All of that also contributes directly to culture. We need to understand what our employees are going through and how people are feeling when they're working in a single office at their house. A partnership with HR allows IT to take action on those issues. IT’s ability, its reputation and its contribution to the bottom line all hinge on their ability to understand the employee experience and make sure that it's improving.

SMG: Can you give me an example of how IT can work with HR to improve the employee experience?

Flower: A large prescription provider is using the digital experience score from NexThink and the employee feedback to baseline and improve their Net Promoter Score (NPS). They're looking at employees almost as customers and finding out how they feel about the company and the IT teams that support them. So they're able to look not just at the tech, but the opinions, feedback and sentiment of the employees to get a score, and then make improvements. This process turns subjective data into objective and actionable information that they can then do something with.

Their IT team now has the reputation and the ear of the business, as well as the capacity to work on strategy and do some really good things for the business. Our customers are not only seeing the benefits, but they can actually measure it.

Building a Better IT Reputation

SMG: What kind of expectations do employees have of IT teams, and have those expectations changed since the pandemic?

Flower: There's the perception that IT can't help employees with their issues, so IT is put in a position where they not only need to perform, they need to outperform. They have to demonstrate that they can bring positive benefit to the business, but performance is going to be hit-and-miss if you've got that blindfold on. IT teams that turn the lights on can do things they've never been able to do before, which not only drive the business but improve IT's reputation. For IT executives and teams that aren't doing that yet, there’s still a disconnect.

Back to some of the survey results I talked about earlier: IT executives believe their teams are delivering a good service, but employees disagree. Technology has only gotten more complex for employees. They put up with a lot, and statistics show that half of them don't call support. So the ticket count at the help desk only represents half of the issues. And employees just get tired. If IT can’t help, then I'm not going to call. I'm going to wait for it to fix itself.

SMG: What is your top advice that you can offer to IT leaders as they continue to find the right balance in the workplace?

Flower: First, turn the lights on. Don't just gather data, but gather information. I would even go so far as to say, get your head out of the sand and enable your teams to take action. Employees and their experiences are going to affect your bottom line, so plan for the unknown.

Second, we've got the next year or two mapped out with this whole thought of hybrid and getting back to work, but watch out for ‘in your ear.’ There are some unknowns coming at you. When the lights are on, you can see what's coming and will be better able to react to it. And finally, form partnerships with other teams in the organization, especially HR. Get the right stakeholders in the room to be able to take action on the information that you gather.

SMG: When you look at the future of the digital workplace, what excites you most?

Flower: I’m excited about the fast evolutionary changes we’re undergoing, moving away from firefighting and on to showing value, like top and bottom line impact. I'm excited about enabling other IT teams to improve their reputations. But I don't like revolutionary change. I like building on what works, discarding the things that don't, and moving quickly to something bigger and better.

Make plans today to attend our free, virtual event: 2021 Digital Workplace Experience Conference Series.