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The Unsettled Future for the Future of Work

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Craig P. Orgeron
February 17, 2023

In many ways, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was measurable and even predictable. In the public sector, where budgetary woes often contribute to legislative battles over funding, the pandemic served as a once-in-a-century bellwether ushering in an era of both more than adequate funding and as an accelerate to modernize aging information systems. In many ways, the public sector was primed for this sort of push given the pandemic-induced surge in the demand by citizens for improved digital services. Data collected by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) found that that 94 percent of CIOs report an increase in demand for modernized and digital services pushing citizen services to include more automation and digital identity services, as well as the application of technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Yet, the recovery of the highly upended reality of office life as a result of the pandemic remains a work-in-progress across the public sector, as well as many sectors of the United States economy.

Public sector and private sector firms alike faced significant barriers in enabling employees to work from home in response to the pandemic. At the time, survey data from Gartner in June of 2021 of over 4,000 employees provided mounting evidence of resistance to a wholesale return to a fully on-site experience, with 39 percent of employees likely to leave if a “hard return” was mandated, and 55 percent of employees saying their ability to work flexibly would impact whether or not they stayed with their employer. Among employees who were currently working remotely or in a hybrid arrangement, 75 percent said their expectations for working flexibly had increased, and only 4 percent said they would prefer to go work on-site full time. And, nearly three years after emergency declarations lurched the country into a public health crisis, the struggle over getting workers back to the office just reached a vital milestone: 50 percent are back at their desks on average, the most since the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Years into the evolving nature of hybrid work, and on the cusp of emerging from the haze of the COVID pandemic, companies are still figuring out what works. And just as a sense of normalcy creeps back into work life, mass layoffs announced in recent days by Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Meta (Facebook and Instagram), have introduced even more uncertainty. As was noted in the Gartner research, with the onset of the pandemic many office workers had definitive preferences for flexibility in where they do their work. In 2021, as nearly 47 million people quit their jobs in what has become known as the Great Resignation, workers demonstrated a readiness to leave jobs that weren’t fulfilling their needs. Yet, even with this unprecedented trend, remote job postings peaked at 20.6 percent in March 2022, according to LinkedIn data. And companies are continuing to tweak approaches to hybrid work, with many tech companies asking employees to come into offices three days a week or asking employees to come in 30 days a quarter, with differing approaches granting employees more latitude in how they allocate their time.

Firms, including General Motors, Starbucks and Disney have sought to draw workers back to the office. Yet, return-to-office metrics are likely at a peak, with hybrid and flexible work options becoming the norm across a myriad of sectors. In fact, many employees have embraced this new normal, and in the face of on-premise work mandates, have left for remote prospects elsewhere or scoffed at in-office requirements. In many cases, though slow and halting, companies are beginning to accept that the traditional in-office work week is an outdated norm. To that end, over half of U.S. jobs that can be done remotely were hybrid as of November, up from 32 percent in January 2019, according to data from Gallup. And, with many companies doubling down on flexible work, there are unanticipated consequences, like the dramatic office space recession happening around the country. With unique outliers such as Austin, Miami and Salt Lake City, urban downtowns are conspicuously vacant. The number of employees working in downtown office space remains more than 40 percent below pre-pandemic levels in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and the number of employees in Pittsburgh’s downtown is down by half, with commercial office space around the country on track to lose $413 billion worth of value.

Ultimately, success in both the private and public sector is about great organizations with a success-oriented culture and employee engagement. And, as the future of work hangs in the balance, and layoff announcements accumulate, employee engagement has fallen to its lowest level in nearly decade, with just 32 percent of workers saying they feel engaged at work, compared with 36 percent in 2020, according to Gallup. During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, public and private sector organizations were tested with intensified expectations and increased demand for their services. However, with data that suggests that productivity declined during the pandemic and the remote-work revolution, matching citizen and consumer post-pandemic service expectations may be the canary in the coal mine in the future of work debate.

Author: Dr. Orgeron has extensive technology experience in both the private sector and the federal and state level of the public sector. Currently, Dr. Orgeron is Professor of MIS at Millsaps College. Dr. Orgeron has served as an Executive Advisor at Amazon Web Services (AWS) and as the CIO for the State of Mississippi, and President of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

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