Image: Shutterstock/Nata Bene

As someone who suffers from a combination of bemusement and disgust at the proliferation of C-level titles at many organizations, I am somewhat flummoxed to find myself recommending a new C-level role. Still, the time has come for many organizations to elevate workforce experience, a combination of the technical tools and employee experience, to a C-level concern.

SEE: IT expense reimbursement policy (TechRepublic Premium)

“The future of work” finally leaves the laboratory

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the notion that the workforce was dramatically changing seemed well-understood and frequently discussed, but suffered from limited application. Aside from the occasional story about a company boldly announcing it was betting big on remote work or recalling everyone into a physical office, the nature of work remained largely unchanged.

COVID changed the dynamic rather abruptly. One of the great victories in the early days of the pandemic was technology’s ability to physically relocate a significant portion of the workforce from offices to distributed working. This shift may seem somewhat banal as we’re still in the midst of it, but this transition redefined a fundamental element of work: where and when it’s performed.

Technologies like cheap video conferencing, enhanced collaboration software and ubiquitous smartphones made this possible, along with the efforts of technology leaders who, in some cases, had to provision and deploy many of these technologies overnight.

The human side of workforce tech

Of course, redefining the essence of how we perform our work is more than a mere technical problem. From logistical issues like defining working hours and standards on when video cameras should be on or off, to deeper questions around mental health, we’re only beginning to understand the impacts of the most significant shift in work in a generation.

SEE: Juggling remote work with kids’ education is a mammoth task. Here’s how employers can help (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Historically, corporate IT organizations generally provided tools at the request of individual groups or business units. For example, finance might need some specialized data modeling software, while engineering would carefully select a mechanical design package, and then look to IT to aid in its deployment. During the pandemic, IT obviously provided the technical tools but was also called upon to share how to use them to complete job tasks, a role that was unfamiliar and difficult for many tech leaders that were more accustomed to monitoring bandwidth than employee burnout.

This combination of understanding genuine human elements, technology and design expertise is rarely found without actively seeking and nurturing the combination, and creating roles supporting and encouraging these combined capabilities. Expecting someone in your technology team to spend most of their day trying to understand and develop a refined employee experience in their spare time will likely be just as successful as expecting someone on your HR team to become an expert in the latest cloud-based collaboration tools as a side job.

These talent sets rarely overlap, and informal collaborations between IT and HR are fine for one-off efforts, but the fundamental change we’ve experienced in how employees work demands more than informal collaboration and closing your eyes and hoping everyone “just figures it out.”

Start small

If an executive role dedicated to workforce technology seems a bit extreme, consider starting small with a team dedicated to workforce experience that’s staffed with a combination of technical, HR and design talent. This 3- to 5-person “pod” should be tasked with not only owning the tools and tech that power your workers, but with designing when, where and how work is expected to be done. An initial objective for this team might be capturing meaningful best practices that individual workers and teams have created and sharing them across the organization. This will kick off the teams’ ability to understand and document the employee experience and begin to proactively shape it in a positive direction.

See: Burned out on burnout: Companies may be trying too hard to ease employee stress (TechRepublic)

Most organizations are well past the initial panic stage of deploying remote working and new collaboration technologies, where the focus was on basic triage and concerns about how employees would maximize their use of the tools seemed distant and unimportant. However, like any new set of tools and way of working, much of the value lies in understanding, refining and optimizing their use. No one has developed the answer for how work will be performed in the future or what combinations of remote and in-person work will be optimal for different types of organizations. Rather than relying on your technical and HR teams and individual employees to figure it out on their own, actively managing your employee experience through dedicated resources will create a much better result for all parties that ultimately makes your entire organization more productive, effective and engaged.