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Grappling With Growth, Employee Needs, and Security Amid a Return to Offices

As organizations strive for a new version of business-as-usual, executives must prepare for challenges around infrastructure, varying guidelines, and balancing employee flexibility with office collaboration.

Organizations of every size are facing the challenge of the hybrid workforce and the processes around returning to the office. Familiar phrases like "You're on mute" and "Can everyone see my screen?" aren't going away anytime soon. While a hybrid working model can be a boon for things like boosting employee productivity, there's no playbook for this unique situation, and business leaders around the world are weighing the pros and cons of in-person collaboration and the remote flexibility their employees enjoyed this past year.

As organizations strive for a new version of business-as-usual, executives must prepare for challenges around infrastructure complexities, varying guidelines for regional offices of global organizations, and finding the right balance of flexibility and collaboration.

Infrastructure Is Going to Get More Complicated
Audio, video, and Internet connections are creating a new wave of headaches for IT teams as they navigate the process of reopening offices. While Zoom calls are now a part of everyday life, employees expect the same ease of connection and AirPod-quality audio from anywhere. This has proven to be complicated, with spotty remote connections and social distancing guidelines for in-person conference room attendees.

Enterprise infrastructure has also grown in complexity as networks were disrupted and new security protocols were put in place. It's no secret that our company-issued computers quickly turned into Hulu stations and education hubs for our kids over the past year, and it's going to take some cleaning up to protect organizations. In its "2021 Global Technology Governance Report," the World Economic Forum estimates that cyberattacks jumped 238% globally between February and April 2020, putting a greater strain on security and IT workers. These teams will once again be put to the test of ensuring employees can continue collaborating with the tools and routines they prefer, while adhering to company regulations and security standards. If organizations don't secure the tools employees want to use, employees will find workarounds and use unsanctioned apps, which will only create more of a security concern.

The Lack of a Global Standard Adds Complexity
As a business leader of a global organization, the idea of working with my international partners and watching the company grow on a worldwide scale is invigorating. Having spent much of my time on the road for the last decade, this past year was especially unusual. While the jet lag and time changes were often a challenge for my international trips, the value of in-person time with teams and customers around Europe and Asia can't be underestimated.

It's not only a challenge to figure out our headquarters' reopening plan in the US, but it's critical to include our international teams in the next phase of work plans. It will never be a comfortable situation for the person dialing in remotely via Zoom when everyone else is in the room. Side conversations often happen, and that team member on the phone will miss the benefits of in-person collaboration.

I learned firsthand what a challenge it is to resume international business travel last month; despite being fully vaccinated, I had to complete four COVID-19 tests to attend a few business meetings in Europe from the US. It added an extra level of stress to business travel, and I sense that pre-pandemic levels of this type of travel are a long way off. It's a challenge deciding how to operate within this new hybrid environment, but communicating directly with our teams, and listening to their feedback, will help us get there.

Meeting Employees Where They Are
According to a recent PwC report, more than half of workers surveyed said they prefer working remotely three days a week, while 68% of US executives said workers should be in the office at least three days a week to "maintain a distinct company culture." While every organization will have different policies and expectations, approaching it from a place of empathy and understanding for employees is critical — not only to keep them engaged at work but to also provide the flexibility they need to succeed.

I've learned over the past year that, even remotely, we're still able to be creative and collaborative and find new and exciting opportunities in our roles. According to a McKinsey survey, 41% of employees said they were more productive working remotely than in the office. I understand that, for example, engineers may prefer to be together more often to troubleshoot and develop new solutions, whereas marketing may be fine operating on Zoom and in Google Docs. It will be hard to convince a single team member to commute in every day if their team isn't there, so I think we'll see a rise in "company collaboration days" where teams agree to go to the office on certain days.

I look back at the past year as a learning experience. While it was certainly challenging, I hope the workplace of the future evolves to include the best of pre- and post-pandemic working environments. While test-free, limitless travel across borders might be far off, we can make strides with our local teams, offices, and hybrid work styles to enable success.

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