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How to Avoid Being Behind the IT Eight Ball

As schools and government agencies navigate their way out of lockdown orders and into a new normal of remote or hybrid work, there are eight core strategies they might keep in mind to sustain a productive IT environment.

A black eight ball sitting on a pool table in front of a yellow one ball and a blue ball.
“Behind the eight ball” is an old English American phrase referring to someone being in trouble or at a disadvantage. An early reference comes from 1923 from a column “On the Fence,” published in The Daily Hammer. It said, “If Charley Heinz doesn’t stop buying stocks, he may wind up behind the eight ball.” A more common reference is in baseball, and originally in the game of pool, where a player is behind the eight ball if they cannot make a direct shot at another ball because the black eight ball obstructs the cue ball.

As many IT units work to navigate their way out of a pandemic, an entirely new work environment awaits. As some employees begin returning to work face-to-face, others may have the flexibility and freedom to work remotely. The challenge for many employers is how to effectively manage both groups, especially if they need to coexist. In addition, the option of working remotely may make it difficult to retain or recruit new workers, especially in IT. There are eight important core strategies which can help CIOs and IT managers navigate remote work.


Of all the core strategies needed to ensure a positive IT culture, communication is probably the most important one. While actively discussed, it’s not easy to succeed. During the pandemic, some IT organizations found their remote work communications were more effective than with face-to-face. The key to successful web conferencing is keeping the focus on the topic, the frequency and consistency of meetings, and the engagement of the staff. Providing an occasional “social meeting” with the staff helped people keep connected throughout the month.

In addition, requiring all staff members to have their cameras on during the web conference (except for extenuating circumstances) ensured colleagues could see and react to people’s faces, which created a sense of team. Managers need to determine the best method to communicate when there is a mixture of a remote and face-to-face workforce. A hybrid model may be the best solution in those instances. Whatever strategy you choose for your department, having a communication practitioner within your IT department is essential. The job of this person is to take the complex and make it understandable. IT practitioners know the technology but may have difficulty explaining it in simple terms. Communication in whatever form it takes should always be clear, concise and frequent.


If employees do not feel empowered, it is difficult to feel motivated. Asking your employees how they can feel empowered is important. Feeling empowered can inspire employees to work harder and more readily embrace change. It can promote positivity in your environment if you provide experiences where the employee can “call the shots,” provided they are making carefully calculated risks and are actively working within a team’s perspective. Another useful strategy is to ensure your staff have a seat at the table, whether virtually or on-site.


Particularly in remote environments, making employees accountable for their time and work productivity is critically important. If you have team of 15 employees (the number of balls in eight ball pool) all performing above expectations, and one employee (the cue ball) is circumventing your system, animosity can be created within the team. The manager, not employees, should be managing the accountability of the team and actively dealing with personnel issues. In a remote environment, the manager should connect with employees not only during normally scheduled meetings, but also through “spot checks” during the day. When web conferencing, employees should have their camera on and eliminate virtual backgrounds to confirm their location. A remote environment for employees and management can work, but the level of accountability needs to be clear and consistent.


Tied to accountability is the ability of IT management to manage effectively. Portraying empathy is also important. Understanding your employees’ background, work and personal lives can help managers make strategic yet empathetic choices. When employees feel management understands their individual situations, it helps create a unified environment and helps employees accept change more willingly. Having empathy for employees, as well as clients, helps create a dynamic, trusting and long-lasting workplace.


Risk is tied to owning the problem and avoiding miscues due to poor planning, handling or failing to anticipate potential pitfalls before they happen. If an employee is encouraged to “own” a project, they will be more willing to accept change and take on risks they would not normally tackle. What happens if they fail? Taking calculated risks helps us navigate potential failures, hopefully not repeat them, and chalk up what we learned as a teachable moment.


Working remotely can benefit the employer and employee, and also be a challenge for both. Some institutions can save dollars by not providing office spaces for employees if they can work from home. There may be additional savings by not having to invest in additional computer equipment and office furniture. There can be additional savings by reducing office commutes and providing more flexibility in work schedules, which can promote a better work-life balance.

The challenge of remote work is determining how to communicate effectively and minimize employee isolation. Some employees may have difficulty separating work and home life. Some employees are “online” and available all the time, while others work at specific times. Setting these expectations and time boundaries is important. The IT manager needs to promote consistent communication and ensure meetings are both productive and collaborative.


Creating a dynamic team environment can foster innovation. Creating an environment that promotes innovation will stimulate creative thinking and encourage staff members to “think outside the box.” This can create strategic and effective solutions to problems. Carefully considering a challenge shot in the side pocket can yield immense dividends. However, one must consider if the one-in-a-million shot was for individual or for team gain. Managers need to find the balance of providing the opportunity to innovate while strategically involving the team, either in person or in a virtual environment.


This leads us to the proverbial last shot of the game as you “call the pocket.” If you have succeeded in pushing all 15 of the pool balls into the pockets without scratching, you only need to sink the eight ball. You have used your management skills, geometry, and mental and physical skills to prepare you for the last shot. Creating a sustained positive IT culture takes time, whether face-to-face, remotely or a combination of the two. It requires consistent commitment, cooperation and communication to be successful. The key for positive change in your IT enterprise is to start the process and celebrate the small steps while keeping your eye on your next shot. If you make steady, consistent progress, you will positively change your IT culture.
Jim Jorstad is an innovative global force on the effective use of technology in teaching, learning and research. Currently the interim CIO at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, he heads a team responsible for providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. He has extensive experience in learning space design, strategic social media and deploying major IT technologies. His film and journalist work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR and he is the recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is also an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow, one of 50 IT professionals chosen worldwide for the award.