By Mark Skelton, CTO and VP of CANCOM UK&I
2021 is already setting the stage for yet another massive overhaul of the way we work. Currently, 65% of HR professionals expect workers to split time between the office and home post-COVID, and as few as one in six employees want to return to the office full time.
While an impending transition to hybrid-working appears a certainty, there remains alarmingly little clarity about how general staff and IT teams are expected to adapt to the pressures of such a transition. As we saw throughout the pandemic, workplace transitions of this scale are no easy feat, and in order for businesses to be competitive during such periods, ample IT support and digital skills training is essential.
For businesses in the UK, however, this a lot easier said than done, with a seemingly insurmountable tech skills gap presenting significant problems.
How did the skill gap affect remote working?
Prior to the pandemic, studies showed that as many as nine in 10 (88%) of organisations admitted to a shortage of digital skills, which was already having a negative impact on productivity. During the transition to remote working, however, the pressures resulting from this shortage were pushed to the extreme. Video conferencing tools, cloud platforms and VPNs may seem like every business’ best friend now, but the initial implementation of these tools was not a smooth process. Employees had to be rapidly trained to reach just a functional level of proficiency, and in addition to an expected onslaught of teething problems, every new update held the potential for disrupting workflows and steepening learning curves.
While general employees may have struggled to adapt to this, the biggest pressures arguably surround internal IT teams – many of which lacked the resources required to handle the rapid increase in raised tickets on top of their normal day jobs.
Aside from the obvious hit to productivity, this also bred a slew of cybersecurity issues. Frustrated with their tech and lacking support, much of the UK’s home-working contingent have felt an urge to resort to risky ‘quick fixes’ over the past year, resulting in shadow IT (the use of unapproved devices and software) or the evasion of crucial software updates. With the rate of cybercrime having increased by an estimated 19.1% over lockdown, the prevalence of these practises amongst the workforce is now a major threat to business continuity.
What are the unique challenges of hybrid working?
After more than a year of remote working, many businesses will now feel they have effectively traversed these challenges, and that they could comfortably continue under remote working. One of the biggest mistakes businesses could make this year, however, is approaching the transition to hybrid working as merely a natural extension of remote working.
While remote working encompasses various employees working in different locations, it rarely involves employees collaborating across different workplace environments. Hybrid working, on the other hand, not only entails the use of home offices, but that of central office spaces, meeting rooms and more tech in need of adequate servicing
For hybrid working to reach its full potential and truly work, there needs to be a seamless experience across the various workplace environments in play. Without the proper collaboration tools, not only will businesses struggle to sustain a high-level of cooperation across their workforce, but they will also run the risk of excluding staff working remotely.
There are already concerns that in-person workers are more likely to get promoted, and if exacerbated by poor connectivity, the disadvantage experienced by remote workers could spiral out of control. It is therefore paramount that when implementing a hybrid working model, businesses take the time to truly evaluate their and employee needs. This means exploring a wide breadth of collaboration tools that are specifically calibrated for hybrid working, not just remote working. Supporting any projects with behavioural analytics tools will also prove instrumental, as these help businesses understand how their employees are responding to new upgrades as they are implemented.
Ultimately, all of this additional tech will require serious manpower to implement effectively and securely. This will also require staff to have access to sufficient IT support, and an efficient process for resolving issues when they arise. Tech issues can quickly cause the potential benefits of hybrid working to unravel and undermine the progress of modernising workplaces that has happened over the last 18 months.
How are HR professionals responding to this?
2020 was a wakeup call; it taught us that tech investment is largely dependent on how well staff can respond to workflow changes. If there is simply not enough support or training available, businesses are destined for poor ROI, no matter what tech they choose.
It is no wonder, then, that in an attempt to curtail a renewal of these resourcing issues, 43% of HR professionals are already seeking to address hybrid working challenges by hiring more tech skilled staff. This is certainly a strong start, but it ignores the key problem of how difficult it can be to secure IT staff and maintain costs, long term.
That explains why flexible resourcing has become an increasingly attractive solution this year. It enables businesses to sidestep the heavy burden of maintaining specialist IT staff, instead switching them off and on, so to speak, for specific projects and deliverables. These self-contained hires can minimise the long-term resourcing costs associated with digital transformation and free up resources to ensure high levels of quality within said timeframes.
Solving IT resourcing long term
Hiring more staff and carefully deploying flexible resourcing can help businesses mitigate the effects of the IT talent shortfall for the time being. However, it’s not a long-term solution, and is still reliant on the initial availability of a skilled workforce – a problem that must be addressed at the source.
Worryingly, research by The Learning & Work Institute suggests the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015 – the exact opposite of what is needed to close the widening talent gap. Recent pledges to improve access to adult education show a promising start towards counteracting this, and the UK is fortunate in that it is certainly not devoid of existing workers considering a switch to tech, with an estimated 55% of non-tech workers contemplating a career change to tech-based roles. However, greater access to adult education (particularly through stronger financial support) will be key to more people feeling confident to pursue a career in IT.
As we all keep our eyes firmly on the future and anticipate how the future of work will look in practice, industry need to understand that for the tech-enable hybrid working to succeed we need to address the skills gap. One does not work without the other. With the current rate of digitalisation, there needs to be a significant change in how businesses, IT leaders, and the UK Government approaches promoting IT careers amongst young people. The recent workplace overhauls are merely sign of the times, and until we prepare for future changes, organisations will always feel like they are playing catch up.