Coffee with Kehoe: Office of the future

In this edition of Coffee with Kehoe, State CIO Bill Kehoe recounts the changes our workforce underwent during the COVID pandemic and what that means for the future.

Transcript edited for length and clarity. (See video and listen to podcast)

Welcome to the second version of Coffee with Kehoe 2023. In today's episode, we're going to be talking about the post-pandemic office of the future and the work force of the future.

Can you talk about the impact the pandemic has had on the workforce?

Yes. COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on the workplace and the workforce. The pandemic came on fast, most of the workforce was sent home, and worked remote for a significant period of time, which was a dramatic shift in how we work. Our facilities became empty. Suddenly we had this culture of Teams and Zoom meetings and trying to onboard new employees in a remote environment. It was a dramatic shift in how we worked and our workplace.

What were the challenges government had to overcome because of that?

Well, the challenge was that we weren't necessarily set up to work remote in all cases, and we didn't have the right infrastructure in place, whether it be security or virtual private network. We didn't have the right devices in the hands of our employees. It's hard to take a desktop computer home, but it's a lot easier if you have a laptop or a tablet. There were a lot of really quick purchases of equipment so that our employees could work effectively from home. And then we had to make sure that it was secure, and we had the right security in place. And a lot of our processes were still paper in some cases, so our business customers that had a specific workflow that required paper, we had to revamp those workflows in many cases so that we had digitized documents and those workflows could be electronic versus manual.

That happened very quickly. There was a tremendous amount of innovation that occurred and I've heard lots of comments on, "Wow, government really can act fast if needed." This wasn't just an IT innovation and fast movement, this was business and IT working together to make things happen, not only for our employees but for our customers. You've got to remember that our customers could not come into our offices. Because the offices in many cases were closed down for a significant period of time. And so we had to put things online, in a very short amount of time, and find other ways to transact with our customers.

How do you see office space being used in the future?

I think there are times that we're going to need to come together. In the case of our agency in WaTech, we have people coming together for whiteboarding sessions and design sessions, and when we have to bring teams together for important team building discussions. We still have to build a culture. There are times when we're going to want in-person meetings, or hybrid meetings. We have some semblance of facilities, and we still have a data center that's not going to go away anytime soon.

What's your approach been at WaTech?

When I got here from Los Angeles County, my approach was that if we could keep people remote that we should. At that time, the vaccine was just coming out, and I felt like there was a re

al safety concern there if we brought our staff back in. One of my first real decisions was to keep people remote if they could work remote. Not everyone wanted to work remote. And we have people that come in sporadically throughout the week, which is great, we can accommodate that. Not everyone had the right set up at home, whether it be a private room or internet speeds that were efficient. And so they would come into the office, but for the most part, we have 80% of our staff or more that are working remote and come in at different times. But it's working really well. I think staff really appreciated that, and they appreciated it from a safety perspective, and they felt like they were very, very productive and wanted to remain remote.

And it's really helped the morale of our staff at WaTech and given them the flexibility that they want, and that I see in the future as well, not just for WaTech but for many other agencies. Now our data center folks have to come in, and there are staff that have to come in on a regular basis, but for the most part we're doing really well working remotely and productivity is high. And as I said, our staff morale is pretty high. Now, we still have to find time for picnics and get togethers and things like that. It's fun things to do, which is a challenge when you're remote, but we've been able to pull people together, have some fun, and continue to try to build a culture as hard as it may be when you're remote and hybrid.

As a state CIO, what's been your guidance to others in state government?

Well, when I talk to other state CIOs, we talk about common issues. Many states are still having people come into the office two or three times a week. Others have gone fully remote. I'm a big advocate, as we are at WaTech, for fully remote. Because I think that's the future. And we also have to consider our new employees coming in, and how hard it is to recruit. And the more flexible we are as an agency, the easier it is going to be to get some increased applicant pools because of the flexibility we can offer. If we require people to live in Olympia, come into the office two or three days a week, that's going to limit our pool. These IT jobs are very difficult to compete with, especially in Washington when we have major tech companies that are competing for the same talent pool.

What government can offer is the chance to improve our communities through public service, which many people are very interested in. And also, we can offer the flexibility to work not only outside of Olympia but also in other states. Now, I don't think a large percentage of our workforce are going to be in other states, but that is the future that we can work from anywhere, and we'll have a certain percentage working throughout the United States. And that's the future that I see, and that's the future I've been articulating to other government CIOs and leadership.

Let's talk more about people and the workforce of the future. You've touched on some of this, but let's just ask this question again. From your perspective, how has the workforce changed in recent years?

If you look at the workforce pre-pandemic and the workforce now, it's dramatically different in the mindset of the people that were in place, and those that are coming in. I think a lot of folks, like myself included, did a real check on, "Hey, how's it going? Am I happy with where I'm at?" And you see a lot of movement now. People want work-life balance. They want flexibility, and they want to enjoy their jobs. We're in a world now where people will move if they're not happy, if they're not getting the professional growth, and they're not being cared for, or they're not given the flexibility. And so we have to understand that, we want to not only hire well and provide flexibility, but we want to retain our staff when they get here. And there's a lot of competition.

It's really stretching us from an HR perspective and a leadership perspective to really stay in touch with our staff a lot more than we did in the past. The pandemic showed us that people were suffering in many cases with their mental health, and others, and their work-life balance, and then coming out of the pandemic really evaluating their work life. We have got to stay in touch with our employees, we've got to make sure they're cared for, that they feel appreciated, recognized for their work, and we have to check on their wellbeing as well.

When we talk about the changes in the workforce, can you talk a bit about the role that technology has played in that change?

I think it's brought a realization how important technology is. Technology's not a back-office function and it shouldn't be. It's a strategic partner with our business customers. The pandemic really forced that partnership to be strong. It showed that whether it's networks, wireless capabilities, security devices, all of that ability to work remotely, not only for our employees, but also our customers who now have to interact with us in different ways. Technology was at the center of that.

And I think I've seen an understanding in more of a realization that technology, leadership especially, has to be at the table with the business when they're talking about strategic plans, or how to solve problems. There's always a technology component there. I've seen that strategic technology understanding, and that strategic technology leadership is really on the rise, and more of a value placed on that. That's really what our agency does here at WaTech, we need to be that strategic technology leader that pulls in the leadership from the agencies, both on the business and technology side, and solves problems from an enterprise perspective. And that role, I think, has increased dramatically as well.

Can you talk about the workforce of the future, the skillsets needed and where you see things headed?

The skill sets that we need in the future are always changing with technology, and we have to be more on top of that. We have to really have the right job classification, right job families defined. There is a greater need for architecture, for different types of programming, more cloud-type skills, because that's where we're heading as a government and as an agency, we need to lead that. Jobs aren't going away, but jobs are changing. And the skillsets associated with those jobs, whether you were doing an on-premises type of a skillset before, and now we're moving to the cloud, we have got to make sure we have the right training in place so that our staff can transition more to those cloud-type environments. And those modern skill sets are going to be important.

How do you do that?

We anticipate the needs. And the legislature has told us, through legislation, that they want the agencies to move to the cloud, and a component of that is training where they provided funding and staff to build an enterprise training program that will help state employees transition from their current roles to the cloud. That has curriculum-based training, and takes advantage of our private sector partners, public cloud partners, that offer certificates and other things. We're establishing a robust training platform in a program to help our employees transition.