How Can CIOs Prevent The Creation Of A Post Pandemic Two-Tier Workplace?

On-site employees may fair better than remote workers
On-site employees may fair better than remote workers
Image Credit: Jamie Anderson

In the post pandemic world CIOs are facing a major challenge: where should everyone work? There are those people who have been just waiting for permission to return to the office because they like the environment and the interaction with all of the different people. However, on the other hand there are the people who actually prefer to work from home and who might leave the company if they were forced to come back into the office. CIOs are going to end up with a hybrid work environment with some workers in the office and some remote. How is this going to work out for everyone?

It’s A New World At Work

CIOs are hearing the same thing over and over these days: let your workers decide where and when they work. This impetus, of course, stems from the Covid-19 pandemic, when CIOs sent office workers home for a year and a half, with surprisingly few hiccups. What we discovered was that productivity didn’t suffer, and our workers enjoyed their newfound freedom. Now, we’re being told, CIOs can’t go back to the old, controlling ways without our workers revolting. That may be, but here’s what almost certainly is going to happen if the people asking for a hybrid workplace get their way: CIOs will have a two-tier workplace, with on-site workers getting the bulk of the promotions and raises.

So the big question for CIOs is why would this be, especially after we’ve apparently just seen the benefits of remote work? It turns out that the reason is very simple: the experience that we had during the pandemic was totally different from the circumstances that we will experience going forward – which means that the pandemic past can’t be used as a reliable guide to our pandemic-free future. One key point is that during lockdown, workers had a sense that they all had to pull together to keep the business afloat (and their jobs) and CIOs were willing to let workers decide what to do and when. The biggest difference between the pandemic practices and the hybrid arrangements we are considering for the future is that in the former, workers really had no choice. It was simple: everyone who could work from home did work from home. In contrast, in virtually all the proposed hybrid approaches, employees will choose whether they are in or out of the office.

In order for a CIO to understand what all of this means, just imagine that you and your friend are doing the same job at roughly the same performance level, but your friend decides to work from home while you decide to return to the office. Sadly, there are no prizes for guessing which of you will get ahead. We need to understand that this is unfair but true. There are many reasons why this will be so, even if we understand that it is unfair. To start with, there is human nature: if I’m the CIO trying to sort out candidates for promotion, I’m looking for signals of who is more motivated and who is more committed to the company. I believe that you put in the effort to be with us in the office; however, your friend didn’t. It may be a biased and unfair signal of motivation and interest, yet it is one that most CIOs will find hard to reject. Unless a CIO is terrific at managing performance carefully and objectively – and few of us are – face time still matters a lot.

The Disadvantages Of Working Remotely

CIOs need to understand that employees in the office get more access to leaders, who likely will be in the office most of the time, even in hybrid situations. These on-site employees get first crack at opportunities that pop up, simply because they are likely to see them first. Another difference for remote workers is that they will now likely become a minority who beam into meetings. Even with good video, it won’t necessarily be the same as it was when “calling in” on a speakerphone meant that participants in the room could forget about you, but the problem is that you will still be the odd person out. If the video screen is too small, there is a good chance that you likely will be ignored; if it is too big, your face will be subject to intense scrutiny by everyone. Even a small delay in your transmission becomes jarring when everyone is trying to talk face-to-face. We need to understand that technical glitches are no longer so understandable if you are the only one having them. Just a reminder: it isn’t so cute when your dog starts barking on the video now that everyone else’s dogs are quietly at home.

CIOs need to realize that it is also a challenge and arguably more work manage remote workers. This requires more scheduling for checking in and more intelligence-gathering on the part of managers. And it will require running more interference for projects of remote workers who cannot do that as easily themselves. CIOs need to look at it this way: when supervisors have one group in the office and another group working at home, they end up having to operate two different systems of management. The big question is will they be able to do both and keep them straight? If they can’t, then the default is likely to be the in-office approach, for the simple reason that managers know it better. Once again, the result of this is that remote workers will be at a disadvantage.

CIO have to keep their eyes open and realize that there are two likely rebuttals to these concerns. The first is, let’s make sure that supervisors at all levels take the time to focus on worker’s objective performance outcomes so that it doesn’t matter whether we work from home or not. This can be reinforced by potential legal issues. Anytime CIOs have two groups of otherwise equivalent workers doing the same jobs but we are treating them differently, it’s an open door for legal challenges. The second rebuttal is that the situation will be different if we have only occasional work from home, so the differences between in-office and hybrid won’t be all that great. That may well be true if everyone takes roughly the same amount of time at home. But that is extremely unlikely. The central demand from employees is to have choice, and employees vary considerably in their interest in remote work. Even with the best of intentions, it’s going to be hard to imagine a system where we won’t end up with two separate tiers of workers. No, we don’t want it to happen, and we don’t want to believe that it will. However, we need to go into this grand hybrid-workplace experiment with our eyes open.

What All Of This Means For You

Once upon a time life was simple. CIOs would go into the office and everyone who worked for them would be there also. However, then the pandemic hit and for a long time nobody was in the office. Now that the pandemic has receded, CIOs are looking at a brave new world. In this new world, some workers will want to come into the office and other will prefer to keep working from home. There is the very real possibility that this may cause a two-tier workplace to be created. How can CIOs deal with this?

CIOs are being told by their workers that they want to have the option to work from home. The challenge with this request is that it will surely create a two-tier workplace if we approve this request. This were different during the pandemic because everyone had to work from home. In the future, only some workers will chose to work from home. Workers who come into the office will have more contact with leaders. They will also be better positioned for new opportunities simply because they will know about them sooner. Remote workers also run the risk of being overlooked or ignored because they won’t be physically present in meetings. Managing two sets of workers will create new challenges for managers. Workers in different locations legally have to be treated the same way. If not many people choose to work from home, this may not be such a big deal.

Having two different sets of workers is going to cause some real challenges for CIOs. All of a sudden we are going to have workers that we see everyday and workers that we never see. The ones that we see all the time will be better positioned to have their careers move forward. It is going to be the CIOs responsibility to find ways to make sure that where a worker chooses to work does not negatively impact their career. It’s going to be a challenge, but isn’t that why we come into work?

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: What extra steps do CIOs have to take in order to make sure that remote workers are included?

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