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After a year of remote work, companies were starting to bring employees back to the office, but the more contagious delta variant and surging COVID-19 cases are giving employers pause; complicating office reentry timelines. Amid the uncertainty, IT departments could need to again shift to fully remote operations, but are they better prepared for such a switch this time around?

“Organizations continue to navigate their return to the workplace plans. With the rise of the delta variant and increased COVID-19 cases, business leaders are thoroughly reviewing, adjusting and pausing reentry plans for the months ahead,” said George Penn, vice president in the Gartner HR practice.

Citing a recent Gartner survey, Penn said that about 10% of HR leaders who were planning to reopen company offices in the third quarter of last year have since delayed reopening to “sometime” in the fourth quarter of 2021.

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Fully remote all over again: WFH 2.0

At the onset of COVID-19, companies switched to remote work virtually overnight. For many employers, the initial impetus was on speedily ensuring business continuity. At the same time, remote operations also led to new challenges for the collective workforce; especially IT teams overseeing company networks.

“It was difficult for many IT teams at the onset of the pandemic, as IT needs changed drastically overnight. In addition, the fully remote work environment left a barrage of new vulnerabilities that needed to be managed in new ways,” said George Brasher, general manager and global head of print services and solutions at HP.

“But companies were forced to learn quickly and put policies and technologies in place to safeguard their networks, data and endpoints,” he continued.

With more than one year spent prepping these hybrid environments, Brasher said many organizations are comparatively better equipped now with automated, cloud-based tech, and these have alleviated “much that initial burden that fell on IT teams.”

“The companies that have invested in hybrid work environments are best prepared to adapt seamlessly to the unexpected, including future scenarios that could result in entire workforces working remote again,” Brasher said.

While these preparations and investments could help organizations adapt more readily if remote operations are needed on short notice yet again, Brasher believes companies are better positioned for a smoother transition if needed.

“Many companies have already invested in the technologies required to enable a hybrid workforce, making a sudden shift back to remote work much less disruptive than it was a year and a half ago.”

As part of the investments to enable hybrid teams, Brasher said companies have taken a different approach to security, extending the “security perimeter well beyond the office,” accelerating cloud adoption and digitization. Rethinking cloud and digital strategies is an especially key consideration for companies that were not making these digital transformation investments pre-pandemic.

“We’re seeing many companies now accelerating their efforts to move most or all of their IT processes to the cloud, and digitize and/or automate manual processes,” Brasher said.

Workforce empowerment and “clutter” barriers

Jason Conyard, SVP and chief information officer at VMware, provided an overview of the company’s network security practices. Overall, these policies are set in partnership with the security team, the networking services team handles policy implementation and information security is responsible for detecting and responding to “inquiries, potential risks and abnormalities,” he explained.

“With that background, implementing our security policies and detecting abnormalities is done with many checks and balances throughout the team,” Conyard said. “We operate as a team, where many individuals are skilled on multiple disciplines.”

The idea of empowering employees with the skills, tech and knowledge to support themselves as well as other teams was a common theme in these executive conversations. As David Burden, CIO of ForgeRock, explained, the shift to remote work accelerated the shift to a “more self-service IT model,” while noting that this change was “afoot” before the pandemic.

“Whether it’s educating employees on how to better engage with IT or empowering employees to adopt more digital skills, we have found that teams and our workforce are stronger when they are less reliant on IT for things that employees can address on their own,” Burden said.

Additionally, these moves also help the “culture of a critical function—the IT team,” Burden explained, noting that “in a more self-service model, technology talent feels less of the burden of more mundane tasks and can uplevel their organization’s support and value.”

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Over the last year, remote workers have leveraged a vast suite of software to enable virtual collaboration from afar, such as video conferences and messaging services to virtual whiteboard tools. One of the challenges related to the switch to remote work has been software clutter, according to Burden, although he said the “IT community has grappled” with this for “a while.”

“A self-service model exposes this challenge more broadly, and it can also serve as a barrier to employee empowerment,” Burden said. “IT organizations need to help their leadership identify the correct suite of tools that will help the organization remain productive and breed collaboration without creating the type of software clutter that can leave employees feeling confused.”

Burnout and “workforce health”

Employers are in the midst of a so-called Great Resignation as burned out employees quit and amid a tight labor market and deal sweeteners to jump ship. For the better part of 2021, there has been speculation of a looming barrage of turnover, and in recent months, employees have been quitting their jobs at a high clip.

While these cross-training strategies and focus on agility could be a critical move during this period of high turnover, there are strategies companies can keep in mind to minimize attrition; especially during a potentially clunky and stressful switch back to remote operations.

Citing company research, Cian O Morain, research director in the Gartner HR practice, said “workforce health has taken a hit” over the last 18 months, and that these “disruptions will keep coming;” specifically mentioning employees pivoting back to remote work after recently returning to the office.

Interestingly, day-to-day changes such as changing where a person physically works are more than two times “more fatiguing than ‘big transformations,'” Morain explained, referencing Gartner research.

“With this change, it will be key for leaders and HR to treat the return to remote as another disruption and not make the mistake of thinking ‘it’s a return to what we were doing before so it does not count,'” Morain said.