sparsely populated office
PHOTO: Adolfo Félix

While many organizations are waiting for a vaccine before fully returning to the office, your planning should still begin in earnest now. Clearly, CIOs have a big role to play in ensuring the transition to on-premises work occurs in an effective and orderly manner. For this reason, I asked the leaders in CIOChat for their guidance and insights, which should prove valuable to anyone who is getting ready for their company’s return to the office (RTO).

Who Owns the Overarching RTO Plan at Your Organization?

While I was not surprised that CIOs weren't leading RTO efforts, it was good to hear they are key participants in this shared process and responsibility. CIO Martin Davis said, "I think it’s a collaborative approach in most companies as it requires input and actions from many different groups." Ownership varied from the CEO, the executive leadership team, the CHRO or a task force.

Who Are the Stakeholders for Generating the Overarching RTO Plan?

CIOs added group facilities and operational management to the list above as stakeholders. CIO David Seidl suggested, “It takes representation from everywhere. Our physical facilities folks did a lot of work to make the actual campus work with physical separation.” CIO Melissa Woo agreed, stating, “Our facilities teams have done an amazing amount of work to prep Michigan State University for the return to on-premises operations."

However, taking a broader perspective, CIO Stephen diFilipo suggested that “the RTO plan includes some aspect of [work from home] WFH. Stepping outside our organization, there are local officials, community organizations that need to be engaged in RTO — think childcare, social services and service providers.”

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What Unique Skills Can IT Bring to the RTO Processes?

CIOs bring their experience to bear when handling any issue and this is no exception. Former CIO Tim McBreen recollected how other crisis experience could inform current decisions. "A number of us CIOs have experience with relocating organizations. Most of us already had some level of remote staff prior to COVID-19, such experiences can be helpful to the rest of the organization. Of course, we have the technology piece which can impact many RTO strategies,” McBreen continued. He added that personally, “going through 9/11 and having to relocate multiple times 435 people from the Trade Towers to branches, to the NBC Tower back to branches, back to new offices, taught me a lot about the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Woo added, “IT can help others understand what alternate means technology can provide for activities traditionally done on-premises.” Seidl agreed, stating, “we're spending a lot of time helping other organizations take processes online in addition to showing them how we work remotely. We were capable of mostly remote work before the crisis started and thus helped others make their moves.” CIO Sharon Pitt added that “many IT organizations have been working remotely for much longer than their colleagues, so we are able to share best practices. Also, we are the source for what technologies might help a specific process or task.”

Process thinking is an area where CIOs can help back-to-work task forces. CIO Carrie Shumaker said, “process thinking includes designing good business processes, identifying critical path and dependencies, identifying and eliminating failure points, and data integration.” Davis said in addition there are “base-level business and data analysis abilities needed — gather data on all the impacted staff, integrate this data and process this data.” He added that IT can “help with tools for gathering additional information.” DiFilipo agreed, saying his organization is leveraging IT and the "trove of data in the wireless network to establish protocols for measuring and managing public safety." CIO Deb Gildersleeve suggested IT helps RTO by supporting the digital infrastructure. “Speed, details and connections matter most now as everyone is forced to speed up digital transformation.”

I asked CIOs at this point about project management. Seidl said, “ideally, project management isn't just an IT thing! But I've lent out our project managers when the campus needed that expertise and it wasn't available elsewhere and it was IT adjacent. Their success was our success.” Pitt said in her case, “our project management team is holding it together with band-aids and baling wire. They are being worked to the bone! We would not have made progress without them. The challenge is that so many people are engaged in the RTO response. It's all hands-on-deck.”

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

What Is the Scope of IT's Role in Return to Office?

Seidl said the role is “broad, including everything from hybrid and online teaching tools, video, collaboration, apps, analytics, automation and workflow, Wi-Fi, remote access, bandwidth, and more.” Similarly, Gildersleeve said, “IT's role has to cover enterprise and individual user needs, so we need to think very strategically and very tactically. For example, what does security look like when people could be streaming or running school tasks from corporate-issued devices. RTO is partial at best so we need to include WFH. Managing hardware or maintaining data centers is not optional, so how do we get people into those places when needed? We may own it but need more buy-in from facilities, project management and executives.”

McBreen thinks of RTO as a relocation more than a return. “Most have been working remotely. I build a specific on-boarding plan similar to new hire/transfer.” There needs to be a plan for hybrid work locations. For this reason, Davis suggested we need to “keep in mind that for some, RTO is actually continue to WFH, IT's role includes everything from reworking of equipment locations to helping get things organized, support and better establishing people at home.” Therefore, diFilipo said, there is a “the need to support workers regardless of location.” DiFilipo goes on to say that this is a time to “accelerate digital transformation at warp speed. For this reason, CIOs need to lead by example. In this process, they need to guide those who struggle on the path to technical enlightenment.” Shumaker said, “everything has an IT enablement. What will be the IT charter? That will depend on the organization, and on how well CIOs lead and collaborate. Do CIOs build trust now? That is the open question.”

Where Can Technology Most Aid Your RTO Process?

DiFilipo suggested, “just in time information/training regarding what will be required to RTO. This is about providing the confidence that RTO will transition smoothly.” Seidl said at his organization there will be waves to RTO. “This means that our technology is flexing to meet a variety of needs.” For Davis, it “means a continuation of WFH, plus how can we be smarter and avoid the needs for physical interactions, be it digital capabilities, smart devices or better remote working.”

At a strategy level McBreen said, “IT can remind people to have a plan B. Here, IT has to be flexible to handle plan A, B and reality.” CIO Gerard Au sees the opportunity for IT to create “a tailored experience and outreach based on information that we already know helps, especially for coordinating access and ensuring success.” In this case, “since we are primarily virtual for fall with a limited population being on campus for in-person classes, we are using technology/data to help us drive some of the opening plans. For example, which students have in-person classes that are back-to-back with virtual classes.” Meanwhile, Shumaker said, “analytics and reporting, data integration, and communication technology matter. These support us with all the statistics on density, health, contact tracing, case management, symptom tracking, and curriculum planning plus the enablement of virtual working and teaching.” Finally, Gildersleeve said low code can help the RTO process by giving business unit experts tools to create their own digital transformation solutions. IT can provide advise on setup and governance, freeing everyone to cover more ground. Gildersleeve added, “data collection becomes even more important. What concrete learnings did we gain in this wave that will inform our planning for the next phase?”

Parting Words

Clearly, RTO strategies and approaches will depend on your industry. And to be fair, many have continued to labor on-premises as essential workers. But with most still in the planning stages for a broader return to the office, it is time to consider how IT can help and the opportunity this presents to smart, business-savvy CIOs.