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PHOTO: Robynne Hu

The more I talk to experts regarding the future of the workplace, the more I believe COVID-19 will fundamentally change the nature of work. It certainly has become a watershed event for the workplace. More importantly, it seems clear that the social contract between workers and employers will be modified forever after the virus leaves us. For example, an IDG survey found that the majority of organizations said employees won't be back in the office in 2020. The survey also confirmed what we all know: the work from home shift has forced the digitization and automation of existing workflows and processes.

Given this, what changes do we need immediately and what changes will be needed over the long-term as new models of work become instantiated? To get as much of a preview as possible, I asked CIOs in the CIOChat what they thought. Many of their answers may change your perspective — as they did mine.

What Will the Return to the Office Look Like?

Interestingly, public and private sector employers had different responses when it came to the topic of returning to the office.

Public Sector: A Mixed Answer

“Pre-COVID, almost none of our employees were remote with any regularity. Post-COVID, I think 75% of our employees will be partially remote, but a few will be 100% remote,” said Franklin W Olin College of Engineering CIO Rick Osterberg. He said the reason for this is “higher education tends to attract people who want some in-person community, like students, they are yearning to be together again. I'm confident we will not see 100% remote staff.”

Osterberg wasn't alone in that sentiment. University of Delaware CIO Sharon Pitt said, “for those who work close to campus as opposed to living at greater distance, I envision that work will be hybrid — sometimes in, sometimes out of the office. But the flexibility to work remotely will be huge for wellbeing and other life concerns. It seems clear that most public sector organizations will have more fluid office situations.”

At the same time, former CIO Raechelle Clemmons suggested numerous higher education CIOs told her “they will not bring most of their staff back to campus when this is over. They're giving up permanent space, talking about hoteling options, and going mostly remote.” For this reason, Michigan State University CIO Melissa Woo said she “needs to develop policies around permanent remote work that are sensitive to being at a state-based institution.”

Pulling together the public sector story, Grand Valley State University CIO Milos Topic said, “The pandemic has uncovered and accelerated several types of crises across various industries. As such, no single answer will apply considering some jobs can only be done onsite. Overall, more flexibility will be the key going forward.” For this reason, University of Tulsa CIO Paige Francis claimed “there will be less compulsion for public sector organizations to equate in-the-office with the office. We will focus more on the job and less on the location.”

Private Sector: Less People Will Be Working in the Office

Flexibility will be the name of the game moving forward according to Net Health CIO Jason James. "There will be millions of people that never return to a pre-COVID schedule as we move to flexible schedules. They may return to an office, but not every day. Flexibility will be the new norm," hesaid. Former CIO Mike Kail agreed that there will be more flexible policies in the future, but believes we will see a gradual shift back to the office too, because people enjoy and benefit from in-person discussions.

Not everyone painted such a rosy picture of the return to work. “Commuting sucks and businesses want more productivity and leaner staffs. That, plus new technology on the horizon like augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) will make working in offices less desirable,” said Former CIO Isaac Sacolick. For this reason, former CIO Ken LeBlanc expected certain industries will remain virtual, seeing this period as the long-awaited proof of video's success. Finally, former CIO Tim McBreen sees an increase in outsourcing in the future: “Companies will also take a new look at staffing models to see if makes sense to have as many employees. This means there will be more outsourcing of services over time.”

Related Article: CIOs Share Business Continuity Plans Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

What Analysts Predict for the Return to Work

The partially remote workforce came up frequently throughout the Gartner Symposium 2020. The analyst firm cited organizations creating workweeks where employees spend 2-3 days in the office, said University of Toronto CIO Bo Wandschneider, "This becomes a non-wage benefit/perk.” Analyst Dion Hinchcliffe said, “A Gallup poll recently reported only 25% of workers expect to go back. Few CIOs I talk to expect anything like the pre-COVID days. Work-from-home is here to stay, but I expect just over half to go back at least a few days a week. If we turn the dial up on the future-of-work all the way, we will get the following: 1) VR (holodeck-style open collaboration); 2) self-organizing virtual teams; 3) Alexa that knows all our IT and data; 4) AI that helps us automate everything; and 5) 8K screens."

Related Article: Will We Ever Go Back to the Office Again?

CIOs and HR Leaders Need to Collaborate More

One topic participants agreed on was the need for CIOs to work more directly with colleagues in different departments, especially HR. Some CIOs are already making moves in that direction such as Stephen diFilipo, who is already working with HR to address both onboarding and reskilling, in an effort to ensure the workforce has "21st century skills." Miami University CIO David Seidl suggested this went beyond just working with HR, saying, "We need to find ways to replicate the casual conversations and water cooler moments too. Investing in ways to build teams that have a community feeling is a critical. In organizations that will stay remote or hybrid, HR and other business areas need to adapt to handle things remote workers may need."

Net Health's James views now as a watershed moment, stating: “There must be a humanization of IT. This is where technology leaders work not only with HR but also with real users to make sure technology is positively impacting their job, to understand who it is impacting.” Yet Osterberg asked, “Will there soon be an expectation that every employee has two big monitors, dock, adjustable desk and good chairs, both at home and in the office?” James's response was, “I have given up my corner office for a permanent home office. I may come in from time to time, but with my team spread out throughout the country, there is no need for me to always be in an office.”

Effective CIOs collaborate across departments and at times act as a bridge between different areas. While this isn't a new phenomena, it is more visible. Quick Base CIO Deb Gildersleeve believes IT needs to be part of developing the remote workforce strategy. Whether it’s making sure everyone has the tools and technology they need to do their job or ensuring security, IT and HR can partner on the right experience for employees. Pitt put it in stronger terms, saying partnership is mandatory “because we must rethink place, tools, services, policies and processes. All afford opportunities to redefine work and possibly reduce costs.”

For Hinchliffe, “the CIO and chief HR officer (CHRO) need to work more closely .... Only the CIO has absolute purview over the technology. Only the CHRO has the responsibility for the worker lifecycle. Together, they can address today's largely digital employee experience and guide it into the future.”

Related Article: How the CIO and CHRO Will Rethink Employee Experience Together

Where Can Business Processes Be Improved for the Hybrid Workforce?

There was a flood of responses to this question, including:

  • Fix end-to-end employee onboarding.
  • Adopt more paperless processes.
  • Refactor existing work processes from the ground up.
  • Understand and accept that digital may not be natural for some individuals.
  • Create agile principles and make sure there are clearly defined decision authorities.
  • Establish teams and provide them with both autonomy and guidelines.
  • Create effective digital platforms.
  • Make low code/no code a key pillar for the digital workplace.
  • Provide tools and technology that enable and protect the remote workforce.
  • Give business leaders tools to improve their workflows.
  • Embrace remote work and ensure everyone can do their job effectively outside the office.
  • Eliminate biases from your personal daily lives and then focus on the workplace.

Hinchcliffe said that “effective platforms, low code/no code, will get their prime place soon enough ... Pro code can't possibly keep up with all the urgent digitization and current events that demand rapid change. I see more and more CIOs that are prioritizing it in 2020, many HR shifts desire: 1) more support for dynamic staffing + designer gig careers; 2) No more performance reviews (talent analytics instead); 3) better design of overall worker journey; 4) Time + resources for continuous learning/upskilling; and 5) new models of work."

Related Article: Should Your Human Resources Team Be Working More Closely With IT?

Does Work Reimagined Need to Include Corporate Standards for Collaboration?

Opinions varied on this topic, from those who took a technology first approach to collaboration, such as Francis who said, "On-premises or remote you need a strong business collaboration solution,” to those who thought a solitary, IT-mandated collaboration tool would never fit all needs.

James argued people will embrace collaboration, not because it is a standard, but because they have to in order to do their job. Pitt agreed, suggesting it’s more important for the organization to promote the value of collaboration and communication. Standards may prescribe a response that is not in keeping with collaboration and communication.

Yet some saw a happy medium, where collaboration is encouraged within certain guidelines. As Woo said, “the sheer variety of platforms that we tolerate in higher education can negatively impact student, faculty and staff experience. I have a saying for those who say that the product that they want to use is better. The best product is the one that is best supported." Schulich School of Business at York University CIO Mark Orlan agreed and suggested businesses provide multiple channels to find and interact with coworkers, as well as clearly communicated standards for organizational collaboration and finite team collaboration.

Should CIOs Act as a Change Agent or Change Champion?

Pitt said the answer is both. “CIOs need to be working with HR, facilities, and across their IT team. They need to be modeling options for others in the organization and offering tools. James agrees and said the CIO role is evolving to a cultural change agent. It’s more than just about delivering technology or services. It’s about ensuring the safety, productivity and engagement of people. Traditional CIO were replaced by transformational CIOs and cultural CIOs.” CIO Mark Orlan said "being an agent of change is often the CIO's role ... and smartly giving credit to the business leader.”

Clemmons suggested, “CIOs are in a great position to paint a picture of what the digital workplace can look like. They can help other business leaders envision the future.” To which Hinchcliffe added, “it's a once-in-a-career opportunity to use the assets of IT to create a comprehensive transformation of work. I've been pulled into conversations around the world on what the new future of work will look like. Mostly, they are led by the CIO in conjunction with the CHRO.”

Parting Remarks

It seems clear that this is the CIO's moment to define the future of work. It is a time to align and to define a workplace that works for digital and on-premises workers equally. Or as Doc said in "Back to the Future," “the future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one."