With hybrid work set to continue indefinitely and job dissatisfaction fueling high turnover in some industries, savvy companies are actively making some milestone changes. Thought leaders have become aware of the unhealthy impacts of isolation and online meetings and are looking to alter how much of the day a person works alone, versus attending meetings or collaborating.
These and other issues have been very much on the mind of Wendy M. Pfeiffer, chief information officer at Nutanix. Pfeiffer is among an emerging group of iconoclasts trying to both equip remote and hybrid workers and figure out how to keep them sane, productive, creative, motivated and happy.
“If we hope to attract a diverse workforce, which is necessary to create products that can hold their own, we cannot create job descriptions that put people in a box,” said Pfeiffer.
“In the Nutanix IT organization, we’re creating hybrid organizational structures and blended roles. They allow people across different generations and geographies to work both collaboratively and asynchronously, on single-threaded and multi-threaded assignments, and to feel connected and valued within the company.”
IT professionals have moved up in the world. There were 500,000 unfilled IT roles in the U.S. in 2021. Globally, 3.5 million cybersecurity jobs alone will sit vacant this year. These are testaments to the importance companies place on digital tools and solutions.
The scarcity of qualified and experienced IT personnel has been compounded by lockdowns and visa restrictions since the pandemic, which has in turn boosted IT salaries and benefits, noted Pfeiffer.
The role of IT has also broadened. Besides maintaining compute, storage, and networking infrastructure, IT personnel are now responsible for helping employees work remotely, for cybersecurity protections beyond the office, and for the infrastructure behind future business models.
Pfeiffer believes that job satisfaction in her own IT organization has risen because her staff feels they are making a difference. Their work building and supporting high-performance, resilient, global, and secure infrastructure and services are considered mission-critical.
“The role hasn’t changed, but we worked relatively invisibly before,” said Pfeiffer
Wendy's recent accolades include being named one of Technology Magazine's 2021 Top 100 Technology Executives, 2021's Top 100 Women in Tech, Silicon Republic's Tech Titans, 2020 InspireCIO Bay Area Enterprise CIO of the Year and 2021 National CIO of the Year Finalist, the Fisher Center for Data Analytics' 2020 CIO of the Year, and one of HMG's 2021 Top Technology Executives.
“If it worked, no one complained. Now we’re much more visible. We’re the bridge that enables work to happen.”
Creating Blended Roles
A lot of work in IT is asynchronous, with people on the same team able to work during different times of the day. Global teams have had to operate asynchronously for years, but for those who also worked remotely, Pfeiffer believes the experience was poor even before the pandemic.
“My people would be writing code all day or on the phone handling support calls,” she said. “In isolation, those roles are no longer healthy.”
Creating blended roles is an attempt by Nutanix IT to raise job satisfaction.
“Half of a role could be working with technology while the rest might include interacting with people, perhaps providing tech support or learning about business needs,” said Pfeiffer.
“Blended roles allow people to avoid suffering from isolation. They also require IT introverts to stretch themselves emotionally with more people interaction and to look at assignments in new ways.”
Clarity Without Specificity
Pfeiffer said she thinks a skill that will be increasingly required of enterprise IT managers is “the ability to provide clarity without specificity.” The traditional way of managing IT is to provide a granular definition of what needs doing, she explained. The work is divided among team members with the manager checking on progress.
That’s hard to do with large, remote teams dispersed geographically, said Pfeiffer. A better way to manage remote IT teams post-COVID, she said, might be to set clear outcome goals with much of the detail left up to the worker.
“A manager might say, ‘We need a service that does x, y, and z. Here are some elements of that service. Here’s the team available to work on it asynchronously. Here’s the documentation. And then we’ll come back and review it.’ That’s a different mindset.”
Breaking Through the ML Barrier
With the increased scope and responsibilities of IT departments, another area Pfeiffer champions is the use of automation, artificial intelligence, and AI’s machine learning (ML) subdiscipline to handle manual tasks.
Instead of hiring more people with a greater variety of skills to do a lot of manual work, she’s focusing on offloading tasks to automation.
“A lot of tasks are candidates for machine learning,” said Pfeiffer. “However, we can only offload that work to the machine once it’s well understood. There aren’t smart machines out there thinking and figuring things out on their own. The first thing needed is documented optimal workflow and documented optimal design, so the machine can execute on that code.”
She expressed enthusiasm for newer low-code/no-code technologies’ ability to kick-start ML adoption. Because ML only understands code, typically scripted, a sticking point has been finding enough developers to write code that reflects IT processes, she said. But with new low/no-code tools, at least one of which Pfeiffer said she has already deployed and trained Nutanix IT on, “you don’t have to be a developer to be able to translate your processes into code.”
These tools should accelerate the adoption of ML, she said.
“ML has been around for a long time, but IT hasn’t had a pathway to consuming it until we figured out how to bridge our processes to it.”
The Human Factor
Very different generations are now working together in IT, from Baby Boomers to Gen X to Gen Z with different work habits and styles. Pfeiffer believes that now is the time to look at productivity across dispersed teams as a function of how well people can switch contexts from person to person, generation to generation, and task to task throughout the day.
Another challenge, she said, is that technologists in general often “struggle with EQ – emotional intelligence. We tend to feel more comfortable with tech, working in a single-threaded way.” The phenomenon has been exacerbated by the pandemic, said Pfeiffer.
“It’s not possible to persist for 12 to 18 months or a whole career working in isolation,” she said.
“One of the opportunities I see is in looking at social media and gaming to better understand how they draw out individuals. Gaming is very anonymous but tools have encouraged high levels of participation. There may be some lessons there for us in IT looking to engage the skills of remote workers.”