Post-Virus Telework: Michigan Considers the Future

More than 300 people tuned in to Government Technology’s Michigan Virtual Digital Government Summit today to hear experts from the public and private sector weigh in on something they’re all familiar with by now: telework. From AT&T, Accenture and the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget, speakers interrogated that ubiquitous phrase, “the new normal,” and found a permanently changed landscape after COVID-19 — not only of the workplace but of IT management, planning and opportunities.

In a brief recap of Michigan’s IT efforts to keep state government in business during lockdowns, CIO Brom Stibitz said the state transitioned nearly 30,000 employees to remote work almost overnight in mid-March. This required increasing the number of virtual private networks, boosting Internet service provider bandwidth and demanding a lot of guidance and training from the help desk, Stibitz said, but employees barely missed a beat because it was an acceleration of what was already underway.

“We’ve spent years planning and preparing for — if not a pandemic, certainly for the ability to have our teams work in a modern environment. We’ve spent years moving toward a secure cloud-based environment that allowed for business to continue no matter where we were all located,” he said. “We in the IT world will be counted on to frame what the new normal will look like. Now that our teams have seen the endless possibilities for remote collaboration, there will be calls to take it to the next level and to continue to innovate.”

Many CIOs have told Government Technology that some technological transitions now underway —to cloud, to remote work, to more digital government and services — were not a matter of if, but when. With that in mind, speakers at the virtual summit talked about getting ready for inevitable changes, not only in terms of technology but personnel.

Not everyone is there yet. Phil Bertolini, co-director of the Center for Digital Government,* polled the event’s 300-plus participants and found that 58 percent of them felt their government was ready for a hybrid work environment. And some people aren’t ready personally.

AT&T Sales Manager Dominic Savone, who sells to customers in state and local government and education, said it’s not only vital to have a plan for remote work and technology, for things like dynamic traffic management and priority and pre-emption — but to understand each employee’s needs.

“I was very surprised at the amount of my customers that had employees who didn’t have a broadband connection, whether they chose not to have one, or they just couldn’t get it, or couldn’t afford it,” he said.

But as pointed out by Lisa Cawley, a managing director at Accenture, the fact of a global crisis put almost every agency on the same page as far as recognizing the need for change, facing similar challenges and asking similar questions.

Cawley said one of the common barriers she’s seen is cultural, namely a resistance to the unknown: “that isn’t how we do it around here.” But she was optimistic that changes can be an opportunity for staff to imagine the future and start thinking about what’s possible.

“Remote working has really challenged that,” she said. “Some of it is about flipping and reframing a barrier to an opportunity. How do we come at this and see what is valuable, and what’s challenging, and maybe some of that challenging stuff will end up resolving itself to a certain extent because you might start to have more people working together physically.”

Speaking for the state DTMB, General Manager Tiziana Galeazzi said she has already seen benefits to telework. She said IT employees have attested to being more productive and engaged, with fewer interruptions but more frequent interactions with supervisors. They also report a better work/life balance without having to commute. From a management perspective, Galeazzi said having a hybrid workforce will make the state more resilient, reduce costs long term and attract more talent with flexible work schedules.

To make the most of a remote workforce, Galeazzi recommended that leadership focus more on outcomes than time spent in the office, with outcome-based metrics for both teams and individuals. Technologically, she recommended that IT departments standardize and consolidate to the extent possible, to reduce complexity and therefore cost.

For Cawley, telework carries the potential for national recruitment strategies — a nationwide talent pool to draw from, and therefore a more competitive workforce. She also said the future of government will require less real estate and be more virtual than not, drawing a comparison with telehealth today.

“We’ve been seeing through the pandemic the need for people to get care and have great concern about going to a hospital … and I think that is an indicator of the future of government,” she said. “Can I just get my driver’s license on my phone? Is there any need to go back into an office? … I think those are the ways we start to see it.”

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company.

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