September 07, 2022

Article
3 min

How Workflow Automation Improves Hybrid Workforce Efficiency

Organizations can streamline onboarding and offboarding, reduce costs and improve service for end users.

Craig Holland

During the COVID-19 pandemic, IT service management got a whole lot more complicated. 

When a new employee needed a new device, IT could no longer simply walk a laptop down the hall and help the new hire set it up. Instead, organizations had to devise systems for delivering devices to employees at their homes. When users experienced problems, they could no longer count on a visit from someone in the IT department to help them out. Instead, companies relied heavily on remote troubleshooting.  

As the workforce churned, it became harder to retrain employees on complex IT tasks, and there were fewer senior engineers to handle tasks previously entrusted to them.

For decades, IT departments and enterprise applications have been using automation to streamline repetitive and error-prone tasks. These automations were often complicated and introduced via code by developers, and then had to be maintained through upgrades, various code revisions and bug fixes. With the development of APIs, it became much easier to connect to systems in a standardized and rational way. Instead of having to know what version of an application was running on a target, you only needed to know the API versions and depth of reverse compatibility.  

As the technology progressed, the idea of a messaging bus evolved into messaging buses, and we’ve now seen the advent of not only automation but macro messaging, which is able to tie together a wide variety of disparate systems. 

As many of the services moved to the cloud, SaaS providers began to enable connections between services through their user interfaces, making it even easier for nonengineers to build systems of systems. The complication then became how to manage the various Software as a Service platforms, with all their various data sets, security settings and administrative settings. From this challenge, IT as a Service (ITaaS) arose to provide a single pane of glass over SaaS applications. It allows IT teams to automate jobs between their applications and across all their SaaS portfolios.  

It might not be the most exciting application, but the classic HR example of “joiners, movers and leavers” is an observable example of how workflow automation has come a long way — and is still not done evolving. It shows how automation can help an IT organization to do more with less, and how it can do more with fewer trained coworkers. What would normally be considered a sensitive or complex task can be handed down from a high-clearance engineer to a low-clearance administrator. 

Now that the return to office is well underway at many companies, a number of organizations have settled into hybrid work environments, with employees splitting their time between the physical office and remote locations, such as their homes. As companies adjust to this new model, they must implement workflow automation to improve the user experience and the efficiency of their hybrid workforce.

Take a Complex Task and Make It Simple

An employee’s first few days on the job can set the tone for their entire tenure. That’s why it’s so important to make sure new hires are immediately armed with the tools they need to be as effective as possible at their jobs. However, there’s simply a lot of different things to set up when a new person enters the company, and workflow automation is often the only way to prevent roadblocks and delays. 

Historically, IT teams had to log in to a variety of systems to create a user, build out the user’s security posture and make sure that person had access to what they needed. Even with the advent of single sign-on, there were always some systems that could not be integrated with SSO or were too costly. SaaS provided IT with a great way to deliver applications, but it came with its own very long list of complications.

By using ITaaS to integrate their different systems, organizations can automatically populate a new hire’s information throughout their application portfolios. Not only will this speed things up but workflow automation can help to prevent human error. If a mistake is made, it can be fixed by simply correcting the source data instead of having to directly log in to a given system.

The same is true for offboarding. When employees leave an organization, IT shops must quickly shut down their accounts and capture any important data. Workflow automation makes this process much faster and simpler.

How to Reduce Costs by Automating Workflows

IT workers can be expensive and time-consuming to train. When you consider the very long list of applications (especially in SaaS) that workers are using now, it boggles the mind that the IT department must try to support them all. Generally, there are about 10 primary applications that an enterprise will use, including those for mail, chat, finance, productivity, and phone and video calling. Because those applications are common and prolific, it its typically easy to find trained workers. Outside of that top 10, however, it becomes much more unlikely that an IT organization has deep administrative knowledge of the applications, and therefore will require training or automation.

There are about 20 common SaaS applications that still require relatively sensitive access to primary systems via identity management or some other mechanism. Although IT engineers can make it all work together, they really don’t have time to make administrative changes once a system is integrated. This is where automation has a major impact on costs.  

Organizations often fail to take full advantage of the features and benefits offered by their IT service management platforms. By optimizing these systems and setting up automated workflows, businesses can lower their IT support costs without sacrificing productivity and security. If your engineering organization can automate what would otherwise be a risky or security-sensitive operation and hand it down to the next tier, that frees up time and drastically lowers the cost of that ongoing operation. 

Returning to our “joiners, movers and leavers” example, even if all employees came back to the office, it would simply not be a great use of human resources to send IT staffers running all over a campus, solving problems that could be addressed (or prevented entirely) through workflow automation. Automation takes expensive humans out of the mix for small-potatoes problems and allows those staffers to focus on more valuable, strategic and fulfilling projects.

Relying on Automation to Provide Improved Support

When Steve Jobs was praising one of Apple’s new product offerings, he would often tell the audience, “It just works.” That’s all users really want from their technology. They want their devices to help them perform their jobs, and when something goes wrong, they want to get to a solution in as few steps as possible. 

Workflow automation can help limit the number of steps that users and IT support staff must take to resolve a problem. In addition to having engineers simplify complex operations, organizations should seek to automate any processes that are simple and repeatable, with artificial intelligence (AI) potentially even kicking off next steps in the process based on existing information. 

A human is often needed when a trouble ticket requires some consideration. For example, if a new employee wishes to switch from a Windows machine to a Mac, this is something a human would likely handle to get the necessary approvals from management. An AI would eventually be able to have a version of that conversation and seek out the necessary approvals. Eventually, it might even be able to do a cost analysis of the amount of interruptions the case would create against the cost of the new laptop and worker happiness, determine it’s not worth the conversation and issue the laptop.

The goal should be to push things through automated systems for as long as possible, with humans only stepping in for the parts of the support process that can’t be handled by AI. This sort of workflow automation leads to improved satisfaction for both end users and support staff, and it leads to faster resolution, helping hybrid workforces to stay productive, no matter where they’re working from.

Story by Craig Holland, who brings 30-plus years of experience to the digital community. He has worked with some of the most dynamic companies and brands that we know and use today. He was part of Yahoo’s founding team and built out the global network infrastructure. He next moved to Cisco, where he built the company’s first Platform as a Service. Next, he went on to a few interesting startups, and finally to Viacom and Condé Nast. At Condé, he focused on bringing the company into the digital age with a migration to full cloud service offerings to allow teams to work seamlessly anywhere at any time. Throughout his career, Holland has also acted as an adviser for the likes of Google, Slack, Zoom, Amazon and Splunk.