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The move to hybrid work, permanently

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Cisco’s journey to a remote and now hybrid workforce was described by CIO Jacqui Guichelaar during a talk Wednesday at the Lesbians Who Tech Pride Summit.

Cisco’s use of Webex grew during the pandemic.

Image: Josh Wood/Cisco

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, like most tech leaders trying to figure out how to transition employees to remote work, Jacqui Guichelaar thought, “What do we do and where do you even start?” Guichelaar, group CIO of Cisco, had a distinct advantage because the company already had a business continuity plan in place.

But we didn’t have one for this,” Guichelaar recalled during a talk Wednesday at the Lesbians Who Tech Pride Summit. “I don’t think anyone had one. So we literally did what most tech teams had to do … use [our] tech and smarts and take challenges on one by one.”

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What surprised Guichelaar and her team was the pace at which they found themselves working. “Everyone knew we’d be working 24/7 for days to come, but no one knew how for long.” The global IT team started in China, and pretty soon realized “the situation would be far-reaching.”

Within 10 days, the company had a remote workforce, she said. “We’re lucky in many ways, but one of the really great things was we had a killer network and we’re a big, collaborative company and had many of the programs already in place to help us to trigger things like VPNs and split-tunneling to manage traffic as the volume increased during remote work.”

One particular challenge was transitioning 3,000 call center agents in India—all of whom had never worked from home due to government regulations, Guichelaar recalled.

Cisco’s IT team deployed laptops, enabled Wi-Fi and “literally over a weekend, we joined forces with thousands of companies in India and went to the government regulator asking them to relax their regulations and rewrote our code. That kind of regulatory discussion with the government, in my experience, takes years, not days.”

One of the most valuable things Guichelaar and other executives did was to stay “very close to our employees.” Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins did weekly check-ins on Webex that the entire company was invited to. Those calls were used to disseminate information about what the company was doing with technology to make sure the work from home experience was the best it could be and making sure employees were safe, Guichelaar said.

“We had doctors joining the calls so we could learn about the virus,” she said. Those weekly calls became something “we all looked forward to” with open discussions that also included how the company was helping communities and hospitals.

Reimagining apps

Fast forward to today. The pandemic has accelerated two trends that Guichelaar said were already happening beforehand—decentralization and enhanced security.

IT began “reimagining apps” and moved away from private data centers to the cloud. But concerns over putting highly sensitive information in the public cloud have led to an increase in the use of hybrid clouds, she said.

Gone are the days of sitting in one of Cisco’s “networking campuses,” Guichelaar said. The decentralization of the workforce and data means “we will never go back to the way we were. So security has become a really huge, important topic” because it requires IT to secure employees using mobile devices to access data. That to me is the challenge,” she said.

The past 18 months have shown that transformation is “not a big, one-time event.” When the pandemic hit, there was a sense of the unknown and what would come next, and that led to the drive to build agility into everything Cisco does, Guichelaar said.

There are four things that stand out from the last year and a half: Getting the tech basics right, reimagining apps, providing employees with secure access to data and transforming Cisco’s infrastructure to a hybrid cloud model.

“Most importantly, we’re empowering teams,” she said. At the end of the day, no company can run without its people.”

Now, Guichelaar is focusing on the move to a hybrid workforce. “We’ve all learned work is not where you are, it’s what you do. We will not be going back to the office.” Everyone should have the right to make the personal choice about what works best for them–within the guidelines of the company, she said.

Surveys Cisco has done have revealed that 83% of employees want a hybrid model and that 98% of future meetings are expected to include at least one remote participant. Those who worked in a hybrid fashion during the pandemic had better mental health, Guichelaar said. This means having to “level the playing field” to make sure everyone feels included and has the same level of technology in their homes.

Shifting to services, “borderless talent”

“If you have a good hybrid work model you will be net better off” and experience less burnout, she said.

The three phases of hybrid work at Cisco are focused on technology, security and culture, Guichelaar said. The company is now segueing from a traditional hardware company to a services business to meet customer demand.

Business processes and systems are being re-engineered at the same time officials are changing the employee experience, she said.

“So what becomes critical is, how do we do that and increase the amount of output we’re giving the company while keeping employees engaged … we have to get our arms around that.”

One approach leaders are taking is to meet with business units to figure out “what experiences we need to provide to customers and work our way back from that,” she said. Cisco is also retraining employees “to move to a faster pace that we believe will help employees not only move faster and learn more skills but improve their development and careers,” Guichelaar said.

Her vision is “borderless talent” based on her long-held belief that people can work from anywhere. “If the pandemic didn’t prove that I’m not sure what would, but more and more companies are realizing talent can come from anywhere.”

This will be particularly helpful as more countries implement data sovereignty regulations, which will require Cisco to have more of a local presence, she said. “To me, it doesn’t matter where they are, but can they do the job.”

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