Pulse Signals

How to help employees adapt back to the physical office (according to tech leaders): March Signals part I

April 5, 2021
min read
Shareefa Jaffer
Shareefa Jaffer
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Short-term solutions may be needed to bridge the return to offices

Signals is a monthly overview of trending topics amongst the Pulse community of IT decision makers.

As vaccine rollouts continue, tech leaders are considering what the return to the physical office will look like. Any predictions must take into account the changes remote teams have adapted to over the past year, and new habits that may be likely to stick. 

Productivity tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack have become the new office space, and it’s not just because of necessity. These collaboration tools provide a variety of benefits; for example, there’s a digital record of conversations that can be referred back to later. Why would such benefits be disregarded once employees can safely return to the office?

It’s unlikely that the technology landscape we return to in the physical office will look the same as it did over a year ago. With this in mind, we’ve highlighted 4 key areas that tech leaders are thinking about when it comes to the return to work:

1. Keep flexible work hours

Being able to log in and work asynchronously had positive productivity benefits for some employees, negative for others.

Offering employees flexibility on a case-by-case basis may be key as time is needed to adapt to the new office environment physically, emotionally, and from a lifestyle perspective. (We discussed how flexibility may even depend on employee age and preferences in February’s Signals post.)

Organisations may have hired from different geographies after seeing the benefits of remote work—how is collaboration maintained with permanently remote elements of the teams? Time differences may have required unusual working hours for some, how will this translate to the physical office? This is where remote collaboration tools may need to be kept around.

2. Accept that workflows may be completely different

Workflows may have been reorganized entirely as new software tools were added to foster remote collaboration. In many instances, where organizations have adopted remote collaboration they may have noticed an increase in agility, productivity, and visibility compared to classic meetings/whiteboard collaboration in the physical office.

With these positive impacts and the workflow habits that have been ingrained while using the tools, organizations may need to spend time figuring out how to combine organic office workflows with the digital tools.

“Right now, you send an email, you get a response back right away. Nobody is traveling. There's no lead time. But when people start traveling, you'll go back to delays on email responses. People have forgotten what that is like.” - CIO, Software

3. Break down the disconnect between personal devices/work devices . . . and accept the security risks

Figure 1

Using personal devices for work may offer convenience for switching between personal and work tasks, but opens up the attack surface for non-vetted accounts and devices.The biggest concerns cited by security leaders are home network security and data leak prevention. If work is stored on personal devices, how will security navigate the transition back to the office? Device-scrubbing may be a laborious but necessary process, given more than half of leaders (55%) are concerned about devices re-entering the physical workplace (Fig. 1) and two-thirds (66%) of organizations have a bring-your-own-device policy (Fig. 2).

Figure 2

With remote teams, security leaders have lost the ability to perform ‘spot-checks’ simply by walking through the office and observing poor security hygiene, such as unlocked screens. Though controversial, employee phishing tests have been performed—and in some instances backfired.

As organizations add more devices to the network, including any tech that enables safer COVID-19 protocols, the Internet of Things (IoT) attack surface also increases, giving security teams more devices to secure and audit.

In addition, networks such as LinkedIn can be easily leveraged to understand exactly who has access to what data within the organization. This can lead to highly targeted and effective data breaches. 

In light of all this, perhaps companies will consider offering work devices with the expectation that they will be used for both work and personal activities so that security protocols can be established with this in mind. 

However, security risks are defined and solved as they are seen in action. For technology leaders, the proverbial security silver bullet doesn’t exist. There will be much to learn in the coming year as teams return to the office.

“[Security breaches] can be like sleeping agents, and they'll wait to get into the buildings. It's like SolarWinds. It's been there for a whole year. They only woke up recently though. So that is the biggest worry.”
- CIO, Software

Only use productivity monitoring tools if they help foster collaboration and enablement

Figure 3

Is productivity something that can be adequately monitored? Indeed, should productivity be monitored?

More than half (58%) of technology leaders are either looking to implement a productivity monitoring tool, or already have. This is a tricky program to implement for two reasons:

  • It can encourage the wrong work behavior: either over-working or focusing on exceeding metrics that don’t directly benefit the business 
  • It can create a feeling that employees are being policed and lead to a culture of mistrust

Organizations realize that, if they haven’t already, they need to stop considering ‘time-spent’ metrics and need to instead focus on work completed, transactions processed, or calls answered. The days of monitoring screen time or keyboard usage are over.


Leaders agree that there is a need for transparency here. A culture that targets employee productivity without support simply causes employees to feel under pressure. If employees are approached with a focus on collaboration and enablement, access to productivity metrics, management, and HR can create a positive environment rather than a toxic one. In this scenario, projects can be accurately tracked to completion and resources/timelines can be adjusted where necessary.  

TL;DR: With so many new habits ingrained through a year of remote work, the transition to the physical office may look drastically different than what we remember. It will be a process of figuring out how best to plug new tools and habits back into a physical space, all while keeping a close eye on the myriad security issues teams may be facing.

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