Remote work works — now fix the culture, CIOs tell NASCIO

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The National Association of State Chief Information Officers published a report Tuesday revealing that its members’ attitudes shifted dramatically after more than a year of pandemic-induced remote work.

The report, titled “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: A Resilient and Adaptable State IT Workforce,” includes open-ended responses about workforces from top state IT officials interviewed as the pandemic was beginning in February and March 2020, and again at the beginning of this year. While many of the responses — such as those pertaining to the need to improve government pay scales and focus on career advancement for employees — were predictable, the NASCIO report also highlighted how expanded remote work shifted from a topic seldom considered by CIOs to a practice that is now widely assumed to continue.

Meredith Ward, NASCIO’s director of policy and research, told StateScoop that even though only a few states — such as Virginia and Tennessee — had robust remote-work programs before the pandemic, and only three CIOs even mentioned remote work as a workforce priority in last year’s surveys, no state CIOs voiced outright resistance to the new status quo in this year’s round of questionnaires.

“One of the recommendations is to make sure that they offer flexibility and that’s the key word,” Ward said. “Because some people are not good at working from home, some people just don’t like it. And to keep a good workforce, you have to offer some kind of flexibility, and that’s not something that states have traditionally really done.”

Beyond expanded remote work, many of the other top changes in business processes, practices and investments noted by officials in the surveys related to remote work in some way, including the expansion of collaboration tools and remote meetings, digital government services, broadband, legacy IT modernization and cloud computing environments.

CIOs are also embracing new opportunities in the remote-work paradigm, such as the possibility of hiring out-of-state workers. In this year’s survey, 72% of CIOs said their state allows employees to live out-of-state. “There was never a statute that prohibited [remote work], just misinformation and fear,” one CIO told the association.

“I think we’ve seen over the past year how part of this has been politicized,” Ward said. “People at the top or the public think if you’re not at your desk, then the state’s not really running or you’re not doing your job, and we know that that’s not the case.”

Many NASCIO members said their employees were more productive working from home, and that the concern is no longer whether remote work is viable, but how to construct a healthy and sustainable work culture. Managing burnout, encouraging vacation time and recognizing and celebrating milestones and accomplishments were ways CIOs proposed to improve remote-work culture. “We are much more flexible than we previously believed. IT was never the barrier to more flexible work arrangements, culture was,” one CIO told NASCIO.

Ward said organizations have a lot to consider, such as how supervisors are trained on how to manage workers remotely, a common practice in the private sector that many government agencies only recently began studying.

“If we are in a completely remote world going forward, there are a lot of mental and behavioral health issues that are going to just have to be addressed,” Ward said. “How do we interact with our state employees to make sure how are you doing, how are you doing in your job, what do you need from us, all of those things. I think in general we’ve seen more of the human side of our coworkers. Because you never know what’s going on at home with somebody, what kind of care they’re having to give during the pandemic.”

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National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), remote work, work culture, workforce
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