CIO and CHRO: The new power couple

As workforces become more remote, chief information officers and human resources teams must collaborate

The future of the workplace has never looked more uncertain. More than one in three of us now work exclusively from home, according to the Office for National Statistics, and the idea that remote working isn’t feasible, which some employers used as an excuse to keep staff in the office, has disappeared. Work is changing and with it, work policies and IT practices need to as well.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, employee IT policies and human resources rules went out the window as businesses moved onto a war footing. Workers were sent home and asked to make do and mend with whatever IT equipment they could find, while employees felt on call at all hours, struggling to juggle work priorities and family life. That wasn’t feasible, nor was it safe, for businesses and individuals in the long run.

“As distributed workforces become commonplace for many businesses, security teams must work to bring security practices up to speed with the new working policies,” says Ian Pitt, chief information officer (CIO) at LogMeIn. “The past year alone has given hackers so many newsworthy events to take advantage of, which has seen ransomware and phishing attacks go through the roof.” 

While workers sitting in a physical office among their peers can ask for advice if they receive a suspicious email, when they’re sat home alone it can be easier to be caught out. The haphazard technology practices installed in the early days of the pandemic made that more complicated, as a single device could be used for work during the day and to keep the family entertained at night.

Rethinking HR

A wholesale employee re-education programme to make people aware of the risks of working from home is vital. This requires strong relationships between the CIO and chief human resources officer (CHRO). 

“It’s not necessarily in my mind a distinct handoff between one team and the other in this new future of work,” says Jacky Cohen, vice president of people and culture at Topia. “We both have shared goals: the CIO wants to have the right technology in place for security and data protection, but also they want to enhance the employee experience. That makes IT’s job easier.”

Managing distributed workforces is a challenge, says Yvonne Wassenaar, chief executive of automation firm Puppet. “The extremes are much easier, what becomes hard is when there’s a blend,” she says. While the first wave of the pandemic brought chief marketing officers and CIOs together in an attempt to keep the business promoted and on an even keel, this “new normal” phase requires chief people officers, or HR, and CIOs to work together to shore up businesses’ working practices and their cyberdefences. 

“There’s a real pull to bring CIOs and chief people officers together to rethink what’s possible with the advent of technology,” says Wassenaar.

Cohen is seeing stronger connections built between IT and HR departments in businesses. “I would hope there is already some sort of established foundation,” she says. “If there’s not, it’s just like building any relationship internally: you need to establish your shared goal and you need to build trust, and some of that takes time. The foundation of any relationship is understanding each other’s business and understanding your motivations.”

That’s because the office and ways of working are changing significantly. Workplaces are likely to act more as social hubs that people dip in and out of. That requires technology and HR to more carefully dovetail together in pursuit of the shared goal of business prosperity and making workplaces welcoming, even if they’re accessed remotely. 

“The experience of the pandemic has shown us we don’t need to be at a traditional workplace environment to do our best work,” says Jon Grainger, CIO at law firm Slater and Gordon.

Onboarding new staff

A major challenge that requires HR staff and IT staff to work together is the way in which new arrivals to businesses are brought on board during the pandemic. One of the benefits of the new way of working is it allows companies to be braver in who and how they hire. “It opens up a more diverse pool of talent where location is no longer the prerequisite to opportunities,” says Grainger. But ensuring recruits feel part of the team is difficult. 

“That begins right at the start of the employee life cycle. How do you onboard colleagues and develop a culture with employees? How do you make sure they have the right facilities and right access to equipment, having potentially not met another person in their business face to face? This gives up lots of different challenges as well,” says Charlie Knox, director of product and solutions at “people solutions” firm SD Worx. 

One of the main aggravators of employee disengagement is poor IT: if people feel they aren’t technologically supported to do their job, they quickly decide to stop engaging with the work they’re set. For that reason, IT and HR need to not just co-exist, but to build upon each other’s work, to improve the employee experience. 

This doesn’t mean micromanaging employees, though; it’s vital to give them support, but not to be overbearing. Instead, trusting workers, while giving them the information they need to keep themselves and the organisation safe while working online, is important. 

SD Worx had to increase the proportion of its IT systems available online 24/7, says Knox. “We’re increasingly seeing systems move into cloud technology,” he says. But with this, organisations are seeing massive shifts in the way they work. HR and CIOs need to collaborate to ensure employees feel well supported in tackling new processes. “As an organisation, we rolled out to all our employees an improved security awareness training,” Knox explains. 

“It starts with awareness and then you start to implement controls, both from a technical perspective to help you with data leakage, making sure you can monitor and configure your systems from moving out of your safe boundaries, and prevent things from moving onto USB sticks.” 

Successful collaboration between CIOs and HR is essential in the long run and, apart from numerous other business benefits, will avoid IT chaos.