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As Tech CFOs Escalate Return-to-Office Strategies, Opportunities to Innovate Abound

Chris Wright, Managing Director Global Leader, Business Performance Improvement Practice
Gordon Tucker, Managing Director Global Leader, Technology, Media and Telecommunications Industry Practice

Amid the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and a decline in new coronavirus cases, firms have escalated discussions around returning employees to the workplace safely and smoothly. In the technology industry, planning and preparing for this eventuality have been going on for many months, particularly within the fast-growing software ecosystem. Many firms are itching to reunite product developers and programmers around office water coolers and conference room tables. In contrast to many of their Big Tech rivals that are driving the growing work-from-home and remote work trends, there are a number of tech executives who would be glad to reboot those cranky old office copiers that have laid dormant for more than a year.

Unlock Creativity, Beat the Competition

“Our goal is that the development teams are working together in a studio closely to help unlock their creativity, but a lot of our competitors right now are saying, ‘Hey, you can work anywhere,’ a chief financial officer of a technology firm said during a recent small-group CFO virtual roundtable sponsored by Protiviti. According to this executive, while quality has not been compromised, product development has been plagued by delays as employees struggle to manage personal and professional commitments in the remote work environment. “Our teams would rather delay and try to hold quality versus meeting ship-on dates and slipping on quality; that’s been the tradeoff,” he said.

During the meeting, another CFO explained why smaller firms are eager to reopen offices. “We believe we all need to come back because that’s what makes us different, the ability to problem-solve and instantly get an answer as a smaller company; to beat the bigger companies [that] have processes that take too long to make decisions,” he said.

Some tech companies are already starting to take advantage of the relaxing of stay-at-home orders by local governments. In San Francisco, for example, where the city allowed non-essential employees to return to the office on March 24, tech firm Fast announced that it will be one of the first companies to reopen its headquarters at 25% capacity.

Fast, which has already rolled out a flexible work policy allowing employees to work from anywhere in the world on any day of the week, said in the statement that “the physical office is an important option for collaboration. Each employee has their own preferred work style and should be able to choose what’s most effective and aligns with their comfort level.”

During the Protiviti-sponsored virtual meeting, one CFO said his organization is discussing the possibility of incentivizing employees to return once it is safe. Other return-to-work strategies include categorizing employees in a way that prioritizes those who need to be physically present in the office and those who don’t and devising a plan for employees who are in collaborative roles to be in the office at the same time. There are also ideas around repurposing conference rooms as collaboration (and not just presentation) spaces, creating a four-day work week for employees, and transitioning certain roles to part-time to produce better work-life balance.

Risks and (Crypto) Opportunities

In addition to stemming workplace creativity for some tech firms, the remote-work structure has created other risks that executives are working hard to manage. At the same time, it has brought innumerable opportunities that firms are hoping would remain long after conditions return to near-normal.

On the opportunity front, tech CFOs revealed they are increasingly interested in cryptocurrencies, particularly Bitcoin, which has seen growing acceptance by institutional investors and other major organizations. One CFO said a small group of people within his firm are being paid in Bitcoin for the simplicity and speed it enables within payroll. Another CFO added that his organization is exploring Bitcoin, encouraged by the maturity of its infrastructure and based on the recommendation of the company’s CEO. Still, some CFOs believe cryptocurrencies have a long way to go before they are more generally adopted by consumers and businesses for transactions.

Regarding the risk landscape, pandemic-related stress on certain types of customers, sophisticated cyberattacks and information security threats are constant concerns for many during this period. One CFO said the cyberattacks are being driven by the “proliferation of people working from home on unsecured networks.”

Protiviti’s most recent top risk survey highlights these and other risk issues that are top of mind for technology industry leaders this year and over the next decade.

Returning to the Office With Adaptable, High-Performance Teams

As tech leaders contemplate various return-to-office (RTO) strategies, they should consider a holistic approach, one that embraces a new vision of a high-performing, integrated organization that is more flexible and resilient.

For instance, instead of attempting to restore pre-pandemic operations, leaders can start to guide their organizations to innovate and deliver more rapidly and successfully. The central idea is not to apply new abilities to reemergence alone, but to also make these skills and attitudes intrinsic to a collaborative and agile culture. If organizations retain their new agility and discipline as they reemerge, they can remain as adaptive as they’ve become during the pandemic and come back on premises doing things differently and better.

In sum, tech firms’ RTO approach should include:

  • Building a culture of adaptability
  • Executing a model for reemergence that embodies the attributes of unification alignment, collaboration and innovation.
  • Appointing operational leaders to monitor changes and report on reemergence plan progress to executive leaders.

You can read more of the key takeaways from the CFO virtual meeting here and explore our dedicated CFO Exchange website for topics that matter to today’s fast-growing technology companies.

Noah Kessler, Managing Director with Protiviti’s Internal Audit and Financial Advisory practice, contributed to this content.

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