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PHOTO: Gaurav Baya

States are opening up, but it's still unclear when a return to on-premises work for non-essential industries will make sense. As key enablers of on-premises and off-premises work, CIOs are in a unique position to share when and how this will happen. Some of their thoughts may surprise you, especially regarding how many people will permanently return to on-premises work.

We are clearly in a period of optimum warning for the inflection point (“Seeing Around Corners” by Rita McGrath) that will change us as we come out on the other side of this. Yet an open question remains: will the "new normal" be better or worse for us as workers?

How Long Before Employees Return to On-Premises Work?

“The timelines are all over the map and subject to change. And sometimes frankly, they are meaningless for parents, if safe childcare or eldercare are not available. In this context, what date is chosen doesn’t matter but employer flexibility is of paramount importance,” said former CIO Joanna Young. CDO Jay Brodsky is concerned “about employees with families and the lack of adequate childcare options this summer.” For this reason, “planning must consider childcare and caring for people who might be high risk. There are a lot of considerations,” said CIO Martin Davis. Former CIO Michael Kail added, “I can't even get a haircut yet, so I am not sure how one plans to return to any semblance of on-premises work.”

However, CIO David Seidl said, “In specific disciplines, we're getting ready. This includes wiring, classroom upgrades, network maintenance and limited tech support. We're handling delayed maintenance in physically distanced ways with safety measures in place. But how soon will we be back in a more significant way? There's a lot still up in the air. We are doing well with work from home for most of our IT organization. We'll be part of the overall planning and process.”

Former CIO Isaac Sacolick said his clients are all in the planning stages, but will be opening slowly. Many are starting with volunteers and only a small percentage of employees are signing up for it. New York City will be particularly slow. Numbers may be down, but commuting and elevators remain serious problems. Liability is an issue as well if you require employees to return and they get sick. While the odds of coming in contact with someone carrying COVID-19 is small in most areas, the concern is very real. "The big issue is the super spreaders indoors, so offices and meeting rooms remain for me a big question,” continued Sacolick.

Former CIO Tim McBreen is concerned about these issues too. He said he has “two clients starting back at 25%. They are each bringing people back by department.” He went on to ask what do you do when you're in a group situation, and someone doesn't want to wear a mask? Leadership has to be tough and not allow exceptions. “All of this is very scary for someone like me with cancer.”

Nevertheless, healthcare CIO Jason James said, “we will start seeing people return to offices within the next 60 days. Some organizations have already started. Our planning has begun, but our focus is on keeping our employees healthy and safe. We intend to keep embracing remote work as an option for those that choose it.”

CIO Paige Francis agreed, stating, “this will be the year of choice .... We don’t anticipate more than 30% of employees on campus at any given time. But it’s fluid.” Italy was clearly ahead of us in terms of the virus timeline and returning to work. CIO Aldo Ceccarelli said businesses there “have reopened and IT is supporting among really uncertain rules and heavy bureaucracy.”

Related Article: We May Never Go Back to Work as We Know it (and That's OK)

What Percentage of Workers Will Return to On-Premises Work?

If this is the year of choice, what percentage of workers will return to work? And will this moment permanently change the way we work and live?

For example, we know that 50% of workers are working from home and roughly 37% of US jobs can plausibly be done from home. So, when asked about the 50% figure specifically, almost three quarters of CIO participants said at least half of the workforce or more will eventually return to on-premises work, and 27% said at least three quarters of the workforce or more will do so. However, many CIOs told me they would have voted for 50% or lower given the choice.

Being a bit more conservative, Sacolick said, “I think it will be 25% to 33%. I also think at least 33% will become near-permanent remote workers. Now take this a step further. Let's say they have the vaccine distributed a year from now. Will everyone want to go back to the old normal? I'm very doubtful.” McBreen said, “realistically there might be multiple waves until it balances out. Some will rush back and then pull back, others will go slow. Others will offer options.”

For this reason, James said perhaps “we will see commercial space evolve into mix-use housing as corporations consume less office space.” CIO Sharron Pitt said “it'll probably be less than any of these choices. Return to work will be defined by the governor of our state. We cannot return until that release. Once released, there will be phased re-opening activities. For now, most of our staff are working remotely until July 15 of this year, with a possible extension.” Young said, “the institutions with which I've spoken are modeling many solutions. It is important to have models and options and ways to turn them on/off as circumstances arise.”

CIO Jonathan Feldman added, "there is something much bigger at play here. We were already headed to reverse urbanization through better broadband, driverless cars, delivery and drones — the pandemic is just accelerating things and once you can live/work from anywhere why would you uproot your home for something like a job change? People will not forget the pandemic even when a vaccine is available. In the back of their minds, people will be thinking it could happen again and design their work/work lives accordingly when they can."

Related Article: The Remote Work Pendulum Swings Again: 9 Lessons Learned

Moving Beyond a Skelton Crew Doing On-Premises Work

CIOs had a lot of thoughts here, which are relevant to business leaders of all stripes.

  • Open office space will take planning, but rearchitecting is a requirement until a vaccine is available.
  • All meetings will need a remote option.
  • Some organizations will need to have A/B onsite groups.
  • People will need to be skilled with e-learning and provided with the required technology to moderate a hybrid onsite and remote organization.
  • Fears need to be addressed and liabilities and business risks removed.
  • Leaders need to figure out what works best for staff and operations — there will not be a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • Leaders need to change what they expect of employees given the crisis.
  • Leaders need to be compassionate and communicate as much as they can even if the answer is, "we don't know."

Francis said, “All that stuff is in the plan/design. What we truly need is confidence.” At the same time, Pitt said her “organization is working quite successfully from home. A few essential staff are called in to address support that must be provided on-site.”

Related Article: CIOs: Navigating the Weeks and Months to Come

How CIOs Can Support the Transition Back to On-Premises Work

I heard lots of amazing feedback here. Young said, “CIOs need to be actively listening to all who are asked and welcome the transition back. It is important to be super inclusive.” She continued, “don't make assumptions about what will and what won't work. Allow people to test the waters of on-premises because they may not know what works until they try it.” Sacolick added, “It is important that CIOs be the voice of pragmatic reasoning. [What can we do to effectively operate] over the next six to 18 months when risk and fear are real concerns? CIO [should be able to answer the question], 'what if we did this differently?'"

McBreen said it will take “working with the entire leadership team to have a plan that works for the whole company. The plan needs to include fairness to employee’s work/life balance. Phasing in the plan, and adjusting after the first wave, based upon experience.” Pitt said, “The agenda needs to include health and safety and business continuity. In enabling a return, employees need to be as engaged as much as possible to provide as many solutions as possible.”

If the Virus Has Another Wave, What Does IT Need to Put in Place Now?

CIOs provided wisdom for the entire business here. McBreen said, "Hopefully we will all learn enough from the first round to have in place a work from anywhere strategy. We need to make sure employees know what the plan is if the virus [resurges]. We shouldn’t be reactive again." To make this work, Pitt said, “We need to communicate at many levels, from town halls, to all-staff meetings, to Slacks/Teams, Zoom meetings, individual contacts, etc. It is very easy for staff to feel isolated or disconnected. We have to work hard on communication.”

Seidl said, “I think if we move slowly on the return, then there may not be as much of a back-and-forth. Instead, I think we'll focus on making sure the things that worked while we've been remote continue to get better.” James added, “IT needs to have solutions in place where employees can work securely no matter the location. This won't be true for every industry, but the majority of knowledge workers can do their job regardless of location.” However, Pitt said, “if we have another wave, that our remote work will look much like today. As we know more about the virus, we will adjust accordingly.”

Parting Remarks

Paige Francis said, “these waves are part of our lives now. The question is what we do to make transitions easier. And how is quality delivered unfettered by distance, location and choice of device. We are now living our IT mission statements.” Clearly, as Francis indicates, CIO leadership is really needed for organizations to live up to their potential. Hopefully, we can start that journey today and come out of this better prepared for what will be an ever-changing future.