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Blog Post|11 minutes

Help Wanted: New Remote Work Roles Blur Lines b/n IT & HR

March 15, 2021

Fair warning, I tried to avoid using the obligatory good news, bad news opener for this article, but I couldn’t help myself.

It’s just that we sort of are living in the age of good news, bad news. Especially when it comes to IT support and remote work.

So here it goes.

First, the good news:

If you work in IT support, your colleagues need your expertise now more than ever before. There is no longer a neighboring desk on which they can gain entry if they can’t log onto their work systems. The office is the laptop, the laptop is the office. The pandemic elevated the IT ‘helpdesk’ to become both the lead actor, musical composer, and director of the same play.

This has to be tempered by the bad news:

Most IT teams still take little to no account of the employee’s overall digital work experience. That’s right. It’s not so much about whether users are connected or not, it’s more nuanced now with remote work. What digital problems are knocking employees off course and disrupting their ability to focus? What issues, both technological and collaborative, do they tolerate and why?

To answer questions like these, the skills that worked a few years back in IT need serious updating in order to be relevant today.

‘Remote work? But this is the way we’ve always done it’

First, it’s worth remembering what the status quo was like only a couple of years ago. People often forget, but at least in the U.K. and in most places in Europe, many employees technically had the option to work from home. It was baked into EU law that you could ask to work remotely but this option soon proved toothless as the employer was under no obligation to say “yes.” The more switched-on employers agreed where possible.

However, a large number of businesses declined the option of remote work. By doing so they unintentionally excluded people with disabilities who might not be able to access a particular office, or who might find public transport just too much. People with certain psychological conditions would have found themselves less than welcome if they had agoraphobia, or were somewhere on the autistic spectrum, or had difficulty dealing with people, lights or noise.

From this point of view, the many months spent under coronavirus restrictions have been a revelation. People who “couldn’t” work from home were suddenly forced to do so and many businesses found them no less productive.

Alongside this, however, we’ve learned that for some people working from home has simply been one continuous circus act (and not the fun kind). Whether it’s due to frequent disruptions from restless children or unreliable Wi-Fi,  I think it’s reasonable to assume that a good portion of the workforce will gladly return to the office, at least on a reduced basis, when their time comes.

Coronavirus, we hope, is going away.

The question is what’s next – and more importantly, what new hires will HR bring in to facilitate the likely extension of a hybrid work culture?

New departments, new skill sets

Let’s begin by paying tribute to the work done by so many HR professionals. All of the changes above and they coped. That’s quite an achievement.

Something that worked in the short term, however, isn’t going to hold forever. A survey conducted by S&P Global found that 67% of companies are expecting to remain hybrid in terms of on-premise and working from home.

Corporate enterprises are going to have to upskill in a number of areas. Here’s where they should start:

Do we need a ‘Head of Remote Work’ (& team)?

HR needs to be equipped to deal with the comings and goings of people who do or don’t want to work remotely. They also need to be certain that the business managers and directors are equipped with the right skills to deal with a workforce they can no longer see, and that the IT department is equal to supporting in terms of infrastructure.

There has to be somebody or some entity tasked with managing this area.

We don’t have to look too far for plausible job requirements. Before the pandemic hit, many businesses were already looking to fill the role of ‘director of digital workplace’—what I consider a close cousin to the ‘head of remote work’ position. Robert Half International even posted a 1,718-word job advertisement for a ‘director of digital workplace’ which listed 49 requirements and 38 qualifications, a detailed mix of UX, IT, and business leadership expertise.

Though I don’t see a Head of Remote Work or team needing super-specific technical knowledge, some technology expertise certainly wouldn’t hurt. What’s vital though is that your remote work leader has the capacity to work efficiently with cross-functional teams and can demonstrate clear communication skills (if you’ve ever been on a Zoom call with two or more colleagues, you know what I mean).

Do we need a ‘Head of Reintegration’ (& team)?

It’s likely that most companies now have a substantial group of colleagues who have not been in an office environment for over a year. Although the economy has slowed worldwide there is also the very real probability that you have new hires who have onboarded in 2020 and 2021 without ever having met their colleagues in person.

Research from Tinypulse suggests that employees who haven’t had the luxury of ever meeting their colleagues in person struggle to connect with their teammates and company values.

International companies (and even large national businesses) will also face the challenge of things happening at a different pace within different territories. Some countries are surging ahead with their vaccine rollout so logically employees should be invited back earlier to the office if local health officials deem it safe enough in those locations. All of this will need careful management.

Also, any reintegration-specific team will need to address novel questions about employee equity and access.

Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab, touched upon this topic in one of his astute observations about the nature of remote work at the beginning of the pandemic:

  • Who will be responsible for ensuring that newly-remote workers have healthy, ergonomic workspaces at home?
  • Who will sit down and audit every single perk and benefit offered globally, and ensure that remote workers have equivalent benefits to those who choose to work onsite?
  • Who will lead an end-to-end tools audit, ensuring that tools which do not support asynchronous workflows are deprecated or replaced, and ensuring that existing tools are used in remote-first ways?

Do we need a ‘Head of Technology Communication’ (& team)?

Every IT support person will be familiar with complaints when a system is upgraded. Communicating any changes to people who work from home requires IT staff that have savvy soft skills and customer facing experience.

The boundaries we once had pre-pandemic have made the interactions between IT and employees all the more important now. Certain interruptions with a help desk technician seemed almost forgivable back in the office.

“Oh you’re kicking me out of my desk for the next 15 minutes to update this application for me? Great, I’ll go grab another cup of coffee and have a chat with my work buddy.”

That type of reaction is unlikely to occur when you’re left with nowhere else to go. Charismatic, friendly technology communicators will be in high demand, and they’ll need a leader who can bring in the right IT people to speak to employees on their level.

Do we need a Head of Shadow IT (& team)?

See: Batman, but with a more nuanced understanding of cloud security.

In all seriousness, I think there will be a demand for technologists who can safeguard against shadow IT threats without acting like the “no police” for every tool that an employee wants to use.

People working from their office are unlikely to use a bit of (for example) DropBox or Zoom when your company has standardized on other technology. But in their home, remote workers may feel differently and will need an explanation of how their decisions can impact personal and corporate security.

TechRepublic reports an alarming picture when it comes to shadow IT and security during the pandemic.

The lines may blur but flexible work will speed ahead

The purely transactional view of IT support and employee engagement was already moving towards the door marked “exit”.

What seems likely in the near future is that when the Coronavirus is no longer a pressing issue, its impact on accelerating the trend towards flexibility will remain, and it will be the job of HR and IT to manage that transition – even if the transition has to happen after the change is already in place.