CIO Wendy Pfeiffer on getting hybrid work right

Wendy M. Pfeiffer is a technology leader who’s as dedicated to excellence in operations and delivery as she is to maintaining a focus on innovation. She joined Nutanix as SVP and CIO following a successful career leading technology teams at companies like GoPro, Yahoo, Cisco Systems, and Robert Half. Highly regarded by her industry peers for her courageous transparency and candor, Pfeiffer also serves on the boards of Qualys, SADA Systems, and the American Gaming Association (AGA). 

On a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Pfeiffer shared her insights about the numerous demands being placed on CIOs today, what she’s gained from her board experiences, and how the ways in which we work are evolving. Afterwards, we spent some time talking through Pfeiffer’s five-part series for “The Forecast by Nutanix” on IT’s role in enabling hybrid work, as well as what she’s learned running IT for a hybrid-first company. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: What motivated you to produce this series on hybrid work?

Wendy Pfeiffer: Work is now eternally hybrid. What I mean by that is, we’re not going to be able to count on having everyone in the same place at the same time ever again. So, how do we respond to this changed nature of work? Instead of just being observers and saying, “Well, it’s not like it used to be,” how do we focus on changing the methods we use to respond to that?

If I think about my primary mission as an IT professional, it’s to enable technology in service of business and people, and today, business is different. Technology is different. People are different. So, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, studying it, reading, and speaking to folks. And the bottom line is, I didn’t find that anyone had any great ideas.

So, I started thinking about the IT experience as a product, and the employee experience as a product. If I were delivering a product into a new marketplace, I would need to learn everything I could about that marketplace, and then I would need to adjust some parameters of the product to be appropriate. And in doing so, I discovered these simple principles that I think make a difference towards enabling hybrid work.

Hybrid work is asynchronous, so you have to enable asynchronous things. It is characterized by context switching, and context switching has a negative impact on productivity. How do we counterbalance that? There are just all sorts of principles that are at the heart of hybrid work that, if you take them one at a time, we already have some tooling to address. We already have some techniques in use. We already have some design thinking around how to address those things. If we focus our efforts on those, we can improve the nature of work.

Part one focuses on managing constant change. Why should that become a bigger focus in 2023, and what are some everyday ways we can do that in a hybrid workplace?

I think that hybrid work in general is characterized by the change that comes from continuous context switching on purpose. Like most people, I find change to be stressful, and yet, I have developed some ways to deal with change. One is to have a home base, a foundation that’s not changing and that’s solid even as things around it changes. So, I was thinking about how to create a solid foundation in technology, and one of the easiest ways to do that is through ‘anchor technologies.’

In my organization, we have chosen a handful of anchor technologies, and we’ve doubled down on enabling our employees to be very comfortable with them, to always expect that those technologies will be available, functioning, and even to feel expert in them, the same way that you feel expert after you’ve been using your smartphone for a while. We want people to feel like, I’m not just a medium user of Zoom or Slack — I’m a Zoom ninja and know all the secrets. As soon as that competence and bedrock are there, then that gives us the foundation from which to launch new things.

For example, with online whiteboarding, I’m not launching a new technology; I’m launching a new online whiteboarding feature in the context of Zoom. So, I’m minimizing the amount of change the employee has to go through. They already feel comfortable when they see it show up as a feature in one of these anchor technologies.

It’s psychological, but it makes a huge difference in terms of our adoption of new technologies. We find that when we are launching new technologies in the context of our anchor applications, we see a massive uptick in adoption. In the past, we would launch a new technology, and about 30 days in, we would see about a 25% adoption rate. Now we see about an 80% adoption rate. And, you know, that’s a beautiful thing — much less training time, immediate productivity for our employees, etc.

In your second video, you get into asynchronous productivity, and you talk about those ‘watercooler’ conversations that many CIOs are concerned about — chance meetings that foster collaboration and innovation. How has that changed in the hybrid workplace?

Before the pandemic, most of us who worked in global companies already had people who worked in different time zones in different locations all over the world and were part of our teams. But back then, we didn’t care what kind of an experience they had. We didn’t pay much attention to them. You sort of had to be physically in the room, where the conversation was happening, to have a voice in that conversation. So we were leaving some of the productivity of those ‘remote’ participants on the table.

For example, before the pandemic, about 30% of our employees, globally, were full-time remote. They were not associated with a hub office. But 99% of the time, when we would have ideation sessions or strategy or planning sessions, those of us in a US time zone would physically get together in a conference room. If somebody couldn’t be in that conference room, they could be on the call, but they wouldn’t really collaborate and participate. We would use whiteboards, and the very act of stepping up and writing scribbles down on the whiteboard is an exclusive in-room experience. If you’re not in that room while it’s happening, you can look at those whiteboards afterwards and they’re unintelligible. If you’re listening in or you’re even viewing that conversation from a camera in the room, you can’t understand those whiteboard scribblings.

In 2023, we’re looking at fully 60% to 80% of most knowledge workers, at least at some point every week, working remotely. We’re never all going to be back in that room. Therefore, the biggest request I get as a CIO — and it’s usually from senior executives — is related to that: ‘Ideation has stopped; innovation is going to grind to a halt because we can’t all sit in this room and whiteboard together.’

I have a different point of view. I think that perhaps if we can find a way to ideate in a hybrid mode or asynchronously, then we can suddenly take advantage of that 30% of our employee population whom we used to not engage. Now we can have 100% participation.

What are some of the ways you’re doing that?

Asynchronous work requires a steady-state set of content that people can interact with. It requires writing, for lack of a better term. It requires expressing ideas in a context that transcends space and time. And then, of course, not everybody likes to read, not everybody speaks the same language, so we also need tooling that makes recordings and that creates transcripts of those recordings, so that over the course of 24 hours, a global team that might be living in 15 different time zones and 30 different countries can all take part in contributing to a conversation.

We are using tooling that creates persistent ways of communicating so that, even if you’re not in the room where it happens, you can still understand what happened, have a voice in what happens in the future, and make your mark. There are other tools and ideas as well. Nutanix’s Head of Design, Satish Ramachandran, talks about the need to make organizational changes to create ecosystems of collaboration around a time zone radius, so that we treat our global workers more respectfully.

Back in the day when we would have critical meetings in the US time zone, we had another set of executives who were missing dinnertime or getting up at four in the morning to participate. Most of us learned when we were all working from home that that’s incredibly disrespectful to our families and ourselves. People don’t want to go back to that. And yet, those people are key contributors, so we need to find ways of ensuring that we’re respectful of all participants.

Parts three and four are about reducing context switching and focusing on automation and self-service. Why is that important? 

One thing that happens when you are working in multiple modes is that the work itself can become complex and the technologies that we use can become complex. The more that we personalize, the more we have people engaging in using technology from all different contexts — this creates the need to do a little bit of everything.

The question becomes: How can we deal with the complexity of a work environment that’s inclusive of consumer tech and public internet and yet also must be very performant in physical offices and needs to happen across time zones and SaaS applications and on-premises data centers and all of those things? It’s overwhelming even to talk about it!

When we have great complexity and high volumes, those are wonderful times to automate, to take those high-volume tasks, those complex tasks, break them down into components and hand them off to the machine. It’s the same principle behind assembly lines. It’s setting up employees to succeed using the right mix of technologies, processes, and methodologies.

The fifth part explores consumer technology experiences for hybrid work. How do companies benefit by integrating consumer technology into the hybrid work system?

I think one of the things we miss as employers is that over the last 15 years or so, technology has become fun. I’m a huge gamer. I love the art and the science and the capability and the interaction design that’s grown up around that space. I’m a huge proponent of mobile devices. All of these things blend some serious technology, but also with serious fun. There are all kinds of interactions that are available that are just super cool. So why do we have to be so 1980s and sad and serious in the workplace?

If we brought our sense of engagement and our sense of fun and our sense of pleasure in using those technologies to work, what could we achieve, particularly if we’re working in a company that’s making products for other human beings? There’s no rule against me sitting here in my gaming chair, using one of my gaming computers, to do work. I’m even curating my own visual experience. I have this really cool streamer camera that lets me show up beautifully. Even using that consumer tech to curate my appearance is one of the things that’s available to me, so why not have a little fun as I’m working? Why wouldn’t we enable our employees to be comfortable and feel good about themselves and how they’re showing up professionally?

There are multiple studies that show a direct correlation between employee happiness and employee productivity. In fact, many studies show that employees are about 15% more productive when they report their mood as being happy versus their mood as being sad. So why not? Why not have happier employees by using technology to give them the experiences that they enjoy, even while they’re working?

For more from Pfeiffer on the changing nature of work and her passion for developing the human side of technology, tune in to the Tech Whisperers podcast.

Collaboration Software, IT Leadership, Staff Management