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A Dx Roadmap for Leading the New Hybrid IT Workforce

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The temporary shift to a remote IT workforce has evolved into permanent hybrid teams for many colleges and universities. Leaders can become more effective in this new normal by leveraging the EDUCAUSE Digital Transformation (Dx) framework as a roadmap to transform their leadership approach and make the most of this new way of working.

A Dx Roadmap for Leading the New Hybrid IT Workforce
Credit: Dmitry Demidovich / Shutterstock.com © 2022

The coronavirus pandemic forced higher education IT departments, like so many other organizations, to rapidly adjust how they provide services, including how and where IT department employees work and how they communicate and collaborate (with one another and their clients). The pandemic also challenged IT leaders to find creative ways to keep teams motivated, productive, and engaged. While some of these changes were temporary, many are becoming permanent, fundamentally shifting how IT teams approach their work. IT leaders must adjust their approach to leadership to be effective and help their organizations succeed in these rapidly changing times.

The EDUCAUSE digital transformation (Dx) model provides a useful framework for thinking through the leadership changes needed to support the new hybrid workforce. The Dx model describes how leaders must leverage coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts to achieve lasting transformations that fundamentally change how their institutions provide services.Footnote1

Shifting to a hybrid higher education IT workforce, with many employees working remotely for all or part of the work week on an ongoing basis, fundamentally changes how IT leaders approach their work. A hybrid workforce alters the employer-employee compact, transforms how IT organizations provide many of their services, and, if done right, improves employee job satisfaction and productivity. If done incorrectly, it may lead to employees feeling disconnected, create barriers between units, result in service gaps, and, ultimately, contribute to the loss of valuable team members.

Viewing the move to a hybrid workforce through the Dx lens can serve as a roadmap to help IT leaders identify which aspects of their approach need to be adjusted to lead their teams successfully in this new normal.

The EDUCAUSE Digital Transformation (Dx) Model

The EDUCAUSE Dx model describes an intentional transformation of "an institution's operations, strategic directions, and value proposition" through coordinated shifts in culture, workforce, and technology. A series of internal and external factors serve as signals or triggers that enable or create the need and setting for the transformation. Successful Dx efforts reinvent how services are provided, enhance education delivery, improve student services, advance research, and enable various other outcomes that enhance value and improve services.Footnote2

The resulting transformations can have a large, institution-wide impact or smaller impacts on a unit or specific service. Regardless, all of these transformations create value for stakeholders, the IT unit, and the institution.Footnote3

The EDUCAUSE Dx model provides a framework that helps leaders intentionally explore the areas where they need to focus their leadership skills to successfully oversee their transformed workforce. The inputs or signals include the pandemic, the maturing of cloud and collaboration technologies, a more mobile workforce, a changing job market, institutional financial challenges, a rethinking of work/life balance, the "great resignation," and other factors. Leaders must explore what departmental culture shifts need to happen to embrace a hybrid workforce and then make the necessary changes to how people approach their work. When thinking about workforce shifts, leaders need to evaluate the skillsets employees need and then consider changes to job descriptions, working terms and agreements, hiring, and onboarding. Leaders should consider what technology shifts are required to support collaboration, client interactions, and secure and efficient work. Correctly doing these things will provide value to the institution and its employees.

The Inputs: Setting the Stage

When thinking about leading the new hybrid IT workforce, leaders should consider the factors (signals, inputs, or contexts) that brought higher education to this point. Many of these developments were already happening but were not as ubiquitous or at the scale that the pandemic initiated. If the pandemic had occurred five or ten years earlier, seamlessly functioning with a remote workforce would not have been as easy as it has been.

Following are some of the factors that contributed to the inflection point that resulted in ongoing hybrid work:

  • Institutions have been making significant investments since the mid-2000s to shift many key applications and services to the cloud. These investments have made it possible to rapidly scale and provide services from any location.
  • Collaborative office tools such as Google Workspace, Microsoft Office 365, and other web-based productivity tools have matured. These tools allow for seamless synchronous and asynchronous collaboration among people in multiple locations.
  • Collaborating with other remote workers has become more common over the years, although not at the scale that happened with the pandemic.
  • Institutions are increasingly using videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and FaceTime.
  • Today's workforce is much more mobile, resulting in a reevaluation of the employer-employee compact and an increased focus on work/life balance.
  • An anticipated drop in enrollment due to shifting demographics has led institutions to explore staff and budget reductions and increase efficiencies.

The pandemic provided the spark that brought many of these factors together, creating the perfect environment for this new hybrid working model.

Leading Shifts in Culture

In many ways, shifting workplace culture is the most challenging aspect of any transformation effort, and the move to a hybrid workforce is no exception. At the start of the pandemic, people across institutions pulled together amazingly quickly and cohesively to achieve what many referred to as "the great pivot"—switching from in-person to online instruction and work. As the pandemic wanes and that shared sense of urgency passes; keeping staff aligned; shifting interactions; creating a shared sense of value, belonging, and equity; and instilling common workplace perspectives become more difficult. Transforming the culture to embrace this new way of working requires intentional leadership focused on the following key components.

Provide the flexibility that employees desire. Many staff members want to work remotely for at least part the work week on an ongoing basis (if their role allows it), but does the culture of the department and institution permit that?

In August 2021, EDUCAUSE and CUPA-HR conducted a QuickPoll of higher education human resources (HR) and IT professionals and found that "four out of five respondents for both HR and IT told us that their ideal work arrangement is at least a partially remote environment. More than a third . . . prefer a mostly or completely remote work arrangement."Footnote4

Ithaca College is experiencing this shift firsthand. As of fall 2021, about 42 percent of full-time IT staff members (in a department of 55) have permanently transitioned to working remotely for three or more days per week, and another 21 percent have elected to work remotely one or two days each week. In addition, almost 10 percent of IT staff now reside out of state, and some have never set foot on campus. This is a big change from pre-pandemic times when only about 5 percent of the IT team at Ithaca College regularly worked remotely.

Adjust department processes, practices, and policies. Many aspects of the departmental culture need to be thought through to provide employees with this flexibility. Looking at some of the institutional and departmental processes, practices, and policies is a great place to start. Here are a few examples:

  • Have a formal telecommuting policy. This institution-wide policy should provide guidelines on eligibility and requirements, equipment, who pays the cost for an internet connection, acceptable work locations, working-hour expectations, and other telecommuting details.
  • A written telecommuting plan needs to be in place for each employee who will be working remotely for some or all of the work week. The plan should cover the employee's work hours and schedule, performance expectations, business processes, and other items specific to the telecommuting arrangement. This plan should be reviewed at least every six months. Telecommuting should be viewed as a benefit (not as a given), and there cannot be any negative change in productivity or services that the employee provides.
  • Adjustments may need to be made regarding how to measure an individual's job performance. At times, perhaps subconsciously, people's physical presence in or around the office is seen as a measure of job performance. When staff work remotely, they can be "out of sight, out of mind," which can lead to the impression that they may not be working as hard as those who are seen around the office. It's important to define performance expectations and outcome measures upfront.
  • Put processes and expectations in place so that people who are less visible to management will be just as likely to be considered for assignments or advancement as those who are on-site. This requires intentional work to ensure that everyone is treated equally and fairly, regardless of their work location.
  • Clearly define expectations around working hours (including across time zones) and when and how people disconnect. This includes expectations for when people will be available for meetings and to colleagues and considerations of work/life balance (ensuring that people who work remotely establish boundaries for their work and personal time).
  • Establish practices for managing on-site and hybrid teams so that no individual is left "out of the loop." Everyone should have access to team resources; get equal opportunities to contribute, present, and lead (as appropriate); and feel that they are fully empowered team members regardless of their work location.
  • Have thoughtful discussions and establish guidelines for dealing with the "hands and eyes" issue. These are issues that come up with on-site team members who may be asked to take on additional tasks that those who work remotely cannot (physically reboot a server, see what's going on in a room, help set up for an event, etc.).

Most people are happy to help; however, over the long haul, these types of requests can add up and lead to substantial additional work and possibly resentment from those being asked to "run down the hall and see if someone is in their office" or "press the power button on a machine." The inverse can also be an issue. Those who work remotely may feel left out because they can't see and hear what's happening on campus. Having discussions with the entire team about these issues and brainstorming ways to address them can be very helpful in establishing shared expectations and norms for the team (and then periodically checking in and adjusting along the way).

Focus intentionally on engagement and connection. Ensuring a high level of engagement and connection with others is instrumental to the long-term success of a hybrid IT workforce.

Staff need to be connected with one another, regardless of whether they work on-site or remotely. They need to be connected to those they serve (students, faculty, and other staff) and with managers and administrators. If all of these connections were diagrammed, the matrix of pathways that need to be thought through, established, and maintained would be quite complex.

Facilitating these connections requires IT leaders to use a variety of strategies and ongoing, intentional focus. See table 1 for some recommended approaches.

Table 1. Recommended Strategies for Facilitating Staff Connections
Activity Virtual "Coffee and Conversation"

Purpose

Provide opportunities for informal interactions among staff members regardless of their location (virtual "water cooler").

Technique

Optional thirty-minute, bi-weekly gathering via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Once the meeting starts, randomly send people to breakout rooms of four to five people for a fifteen-minute conversation on topics of their choice. After the first fifteen minutes, bring people back and reshuffle the rooms for another fifteen minutes.

Audience

On-site and remote staff.

Activity Virtual "Town Hall" Meetings

Purpose

Keep people informed and have conversations about issues that are on people's minds (in a less-formal way).

Technique

Optional bi-weekly or monthly gathering via Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

Audience

On-site and remote staff.

Activity Student and Staff Meetings

Purpose

Bring students and staff together.

Technique

Hybrid or virtual meetings with student and staff employees (once or twice a semester). During each meeting, engage in breakout activities designed so that staff and students can interact and get to know each other better.

Audience

On-site and remote staff and student employees.

Activity Email Digest

Purpose

Keep all staff informed of developments across the department.

Technique

Each week, have managers from each area provide one or two brief updates. Collect these updates in an email digest that is sent to all IT employees.

Audience

All IT employees.

Activity Division and Department Meetings

Purpose

Provide business updates and facilitate discussions among all IT employees.

Technique

Host monthly hybrid or virtual meetings.

Audience

All IT employees.

Activity Social Gathering

Purpose

Build connections among staff.

Technique

Hold occasional in-person gatherings in a social setting (such as a park).

Audience

IT employees.

Activity One-on-One Meetings

Purpose

Discuss work efforts, priorities, and performance (supervisor/employee).

Technique

Hold in-person or virtual weekly or bi-weekly meetings.

Audience

All IT staff and supervisors.


Host "IT together" days. In addition to the ongoing engagement activities described above, provide an opportunity once or twice a year for all staff to gather in person, perhaps over multiple days. Regardless of whether they are fully or partially remote, local or out of state, all staff would be expected to attend. These once- or twice-a-year opportunities help build connections and community, which pays dividends throughout the year.

The IT division at Ithaca College calls these events "[email protected] Together." Everyone in the division comes together for two or three days of business and strategy discussions, social gatherings, campus tours, and a division retreat. The IT division treats this time almost like a conference, providing different programming and interaction opportunities that help build stronger relationships among staff members and between staff members and campus leaders, and a deeper understanding of the physical and IT environments on campus.

Establish norms for virtual and hybrid meetings and interactions. We are all still relatively new to the world of online meetings. As such, standards of behavior and expectations for things like when cameras should be on, whether it is OK to multitask, if people should use the "raise hand" option before speaking, whether to have your microphone muted, and other online meeting etiquettes are still not universally shared (and can vary by type of meeting). Therefore, establishing expectations upfront is beneficial because it lets people know how they should conduct themselves during hybrid and online meetings. One way to do that is to have a slide at the start of each online meeting to establish the expected norms (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Suggested Norms for Online Meetings
Suggested Norms for our Meeting. Camera options: Off, User preference (checked), On when speaking, Mostly on. Microphone options: Muted unless speaking (checked), User preference. Dialog options: Raise hand to speak, Free flow (checked).  Multitasking options: As needed, Limited (checked), None - all focus should be on the meeting. Chat options: Please contribute to discussion via chat (checked), Use chat for questions (checked).
Illustrations by Starhide and Honza Hruby / Shutterstock.com © 2022

Leading Workforce Shifts

While the shifts in culture involve thinking about the shared practices, processes, and policies that impact the way people approach their work, shifts in workforce involve looking at the specific roles, duties, and skillsets of the team. The shift to a hybrid IT workforce may require adjustments to some or all of these.

Rethink various aspects of people's work, so the greatest number of staff can benefit from the option to work remotely. The opportunity to work remotely does not apply equally to all IT roles and employees. This may lead to a divergence of work experiences and satisfaction levels among team members, which can also lead to resentment by those who are unable to work remotely.

Potentially compounding this resentment is that the disparity often develops, at least initially, along the lines of salaried versus non-salaried (hourly) positions, with those in salaried positions traditionally having more flexibility than those in hourly positions. The inability for hourly employees to take advantage of the benefits of working remotely (no commute time or related transportation costs, fewer distractions) may further divide these groups of employees. As a leader, finding ways to address this disparity, and the possible resentment that can go along with it, is important.

At Ithaca College, 79 percent of current salaried IT employees are in roles where they can work remotely one or more days each week, but initially, only 9 percent of hourly IT staff were in roles that allowed for that option, giving salaried employees more flexibility and control over their work environment.

With a bit of creative thinking, IT division leaders made small adjustments to how some work was structured for many of the positions that did not initially lend themselves to a remote option, and now just about all IT employees who want to work remotely can do so for at least one day per week. Being intentional about addressing these potential gaps was an important part of transforming to a hybrid workforce.

For example, Ithaca College endpoint technicians, whose primary job is hands-on computer installations and troubleshooting, have required paperwork, training, and other activities that they complete at their desks. These activities take up about 30 percent of their time each week. Instead of doing some of that work each day, they focus on the hands-on parts of their job during their four days on campus, and then they do their desk work on the one day they work remotely. Remote days are staggered to ensure that there are always a minimum number of technicians on campus (including student employees to fill the gaps if needed). Service-desk analysts are provided softphones and other technologies to allow them to work remotely one day a week, while still maintaining adequate staffing at the physical service desk for walk-in support as well.

Team members understand that these arrangements require adjustments. When one team member is working remotely, some of that person's burden may have to shift to those on-site on that day, but the benefits in terms of job satisfaction and increased focus time on the day or days that person works remotely outweigh the negatives. Overall job satisfaction and productivity have increased, and while hourly team members may not have the same flexibility as some of their salaried colleagues, they can take advantage of the remote work option and its benefits.

Ensure people have the skills they need to work remotely effectively. Working remotely may require IT staff members to rethink how they perform some aspects of their jobs. While most IT staff are comfortable using technology, they have varying proficiency levels with activities like collaborating with others remotely, leading remote or hybrid meetings, providing and obtaining project and work updates, and time management (including balancing work and non-work time). Providing specific workshops and other training opportunities and modeling good approaches are important.

Review job descriptions and roles. When an individual shifts to working partially or fully remote, that person's job description should be reviewed. While the fundamentals of their role shouldn't change with the move, some specific duties may need to be described or approached differently. For example, references to specific locations or physical tasks may need to be changed to focus on the service or outcome instead of a particular approach.

Having more of the department working fully or partially remote may also impact the work of people in supporting roles. With fewer people in the office, some functions may not be needed or can be subsumed into other roles. For example, an office receptionist or office manager may be freed to perform other duties since there are not as many people in the office and physical things to order and manage.

Be open to hiring people from out of town, and be intentional about how to onboard them. A hybrid IT workforce can open the door to hiring people who live far away from campus, greatly broadening the hiring pool for potential new staff. A hybrid IT workforce also allows your current staff to relocate to be closer to family or for other personal reasons.

Working closely with the HR department will be required to determine if there are any restrictions on where someone can be located. Some institutions have restrictions on out-of-state employees, and certain states have requirements that make it challenging for an institution to have employees based there.

At Ithaca College, about 10 percent of the IT staff now work from out of state. Two relocated after having been on-site at the college for some time, and the others were hired with the understanding that they did not have to relocate to Ithaca, New York. This flexibility allowed us to retain two talented employees and hire skilled staff members for positions where our local market didn't have people with the needed skillsets.

Thoughtful care should be given to the onboarding process to ensure that new employees—especially those hired and working from out of state—have the opportunity to fully understand the culture, context, and environment they need to support in their role. Even the most technical back-end staff member should have an understanding of the institution. Without the ability to walk the campus, interact with students, and see how the campus uses IT services, finding ways to provide equivalent experiences for these staff members through meetings, virtual tours, individual and group conversations, and various other interactions is essential.

Leading Shifts in Technology

The shifts in technology required to adequately support and lead a hybrid workforce are probably the easiest and most comfortable aspect for IT professionals to think about.

Most IT staff are already familiar with Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams. Learning and using additional tools to facilitate hybrid brainstorming, group communication, project management, and collaboration can help reduce impediments to work. Even if only one team member is remote, the entire team should use remote tools so that everyone on the team has equal access and the ability to collaborate and participate. Those quick whiteboarding sessions in the corner meeting room need to move online to ensure that no individual is disadvantaged.

The use of unified communications tools, such as Microsoft Teams Phone, Google Meet, RingCentral, and others, provide increased flexibility and location independence and allow staff to seamlessly transition from one location to another.

With some staff working on-site only part of the week, establishing "hoteling" or "transient" office space is important. Equipping these reservable spaces with docking stations, dual displays, mice, and keyboards (and providing staff with compatible laptop computers) ensures that people can quickly establish their temporary office home base for the day or two each week that they are on campus.

Leadership Matters

Using the lens of the EDUCAUSE Dx framework to look at the changes needed to lead the new hybrid IT workforce provides IT leaders with a way to think about some of the shifts to an organization's culture, workforce, and technology that are necessary to be successful. But in the end, success comes down to effective leadership. Approaching team members as individuals, listening to their concerns, making adjustments, inspiring and supporting them, and speaking to both their heads and hearts will make all the difference.

Whether managing people who work on campus or remotely, leadership matters. By being intentional and thinking about the shifts to the culture, workforce, and technology, the new hybrid IT workforce will become a high-performing team that can take advantage of all the positives hybrid working provides while minimizing the challenges.

Notes

  1. D. Christopher Brooks and Mark McCormack, Driving Digital Transformation in Higher Education, research report (Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Research, June 2020). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. "Defining Dx," EDUCAUSE Dx Journey (website), 2022; D. Christopher Brooks and Mark McCormack, Driving Digital Transformation in Higher Education, research report (Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE, June 15, 2020). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. More information about the EDUCAUSE Dx model can be found on Dx Journey microsite. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. D. Christopher Brooks and Jacqueline Bichsel, "EDUCAUSE and CUPA-HR QuickPoll Results: The Misalignment of Preferences and Realities for Remote Work," EDUCAUSE Review, September 10, 2021. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.

David Weil is the Chief Information Officer at Ithaca College.

© 2022 David Weil. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.