By Sara Castellanos 

Information-technology leaders are ramping up investments in collaboration tools and automating repetitive tasks as they reimagine a new era of "hybrid" work in the coming months, with employees splitting time between their homes and physical offices.

Atlassian Corp. is experimenting with virtual avatars to lessen so-called Zoom fatigue. PepsiCo Inc. is exploring how to automate business processes to free up time for employees. Meanwhile, SurveyMonkey Inc. is testing a way to answer many IT-related questions through artificial intelligence-based chatbots. The U.S. division of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP has developed an app that allows employees to reserve physical workspaces.

Even though the efforts aren't uniform, chief information officers are rethinking the tech and processes that have guided their companies over the past year of remote work. Some believe physical offices will be reserved for employees whose life circumstances don't allow them to work remotely, as well as for face-to-face client meetings. Tasks that require individual concentration would be handled from home.

Technology that helps promote collaboration and feelings of inclusiveness among all employees, regardless of their location, is becoming even more critical, said Archana Rao, CIO at Australian business-productivity software maker Atlassian. "(CIOs) are beginning to worry about how we are going to find solutions to create belonging and trust, and how we really ensure a strong company culture," she said.

The Sydney-based company's executives recently issued a companywide mandate requiring employees in shared spaces to call into video meetings from separate computers, even if they are in the office, so that remote workers don't feel left out, Ms. Rao said.

The majority of Atlassian's 5,750 employees world-wide are currently working remotely, with the company last July announcing they aren't required to come back to an office.

Along the same lines, an Atlassian team formed over the past year dedicated to managing the workforce's collaboration tool is experimenting with "futuristic" videoconferencing solutions that include employees using virtual avatars on video calls instead of their real faces, Ms. Rao said. "People do get tired of being in that box on the screen all day long," she said.

Business reliance on such tools will only increase with hybrid work. The world-wide market for so-called social software and collaboration tools is forecast to grow to $4.5 billion in 2021, up from 17% over last year, according to technology research firm Gartner Inc.

IT leaders are thinking about what it means to support innovation in a hybrid world, said John-David Lovelock, chief forecaster at Gartner. "It's now moving to more about what the new 'anywhere employee' is going to look like," he said.

"The office is really not going to be a place for solitude email," said Seth Cohen, global CIO of beverage maker PepsiCo Inc. "It's going to be more of a place for collaboration." Some employees, however, may need to go to the office more often than others because their home environment might not be conducive to productive work, he added.

Mr. Cohen is exploring the use of advanced analytics to determine, for example, whether people are using conference rooms. Real-time data will help the company repurpose rooms based on employee needs.

Most of PepsiCo's approximately 120,000 employees in corporate positions in the U.S. are continuing to work remotely and the Purchase, N.Y.-based company expects to begin reopening some of its offices this summer and ramp up capacity over time, he said.

For years, CIOs have been focused on how technology can be used to improve the experience of business customers. But with remote and now hybrid work, they are turning their attention to technology that makes employees lives' easier, said Eric Johnson, CIO at online-survey software maker SurveyMonkey.

Mr. Johnson recently began testing how an AI-based chatbot made by software maker Espressive Inc. can automatically answer common IT-related questions such as how to reset passwords. Such a tool will be useful for employees in the new hybrid mode because they'll get real-time support regardless of what time zone they are in and whether the help desk is open or not, he said.

"(Employee) experience is becoming a much more important part of business strategy," Mr. Johnson said.

The San Mateo, Calif.-based company's more than 1,300 employees are working remotely with tentative plans to go back to offices no earlier than July, he said.

Professional services and technology firm PwC's 55,000 employees in the U.S. and Mexico are still working remotely and some U.S. employees are planning to go back to offices at a limited capacity beginning in May, said Joe Atkinson, chief products and technology officer of PwC's U.S. division.

When they go back, they will use a proprietary app called Astro to reserve physical workspaces and conference rooms before they enter the building. Astro will also include an in-app badge that allows employees into the office only if they are approved to be there on a specific day and time, based on social-distancing guidelines and health checks.

"Return-to-work in a hybrid mode (is) going to require some innovative technology," Mr. Atkinson said.

Write to Sara Castellanos at sara.castellanos@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 12, 2021 17:32 ET (21:32 GMT)

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