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Even though many enterprises shut workplaces immediately in response to COVID-19 lockdowns, IT decision-makers from global companies expect a phased return in the next year and a half, with 82% of employees on average expected back to the office in that time, according to new research from Xerox.

The Future of Work in a Pandemic Era” found that organizations plan to move most employees back to an office setting, according to Steve Bandrowczak, Xerox president and chief operations officer, who added that “there is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we work.”

What’s more, the survey found, IT leaders said the sudden shutdown and the resulting hybrid work environment exposed technology gaps in their organizations that required more investment in the coming months.

SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)

In preparation for a return, companies are investing in new resources to support a hybrid remote/in-office workforce, according to a news release, with 56% increasing technology budgets and 34% planning to speed their digital transformation as a result of COVID-19.

“The many conversations we are having each day with clients support what the survey found,” Bandrowczak said in an interview. “They are taking a phased approach to reopening facilities and calling people back to the office, and they are reviewing their technology investments to speed their digital transformation and prepare for what is expected to be a flexible work environment for the foreseeable future.”

In addition to the pandemic, CXOs are grappling with an economic downturn. The US entered a recession in February, and the Federal Reserve warned of a 6.5% contraction for the year. A new survey found that worries about a second wave of COVID-19 infections (59%) tops the list of concerns for IT leaders, according to the PwC CFO Pulse Survey taken the week of June 8, followed by the financial impacts of the pandemic (42%), and cybersecurity risks (19%).

For its survey, Xerox Holdings Corporation commissioned the independent research firm Vanson Bourne in May 2020 to poll 600 IT decision-makers including senior C-level professionals from the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, and France, whose organizations have at least 500 employees.

SEE: Life after lockdown: Your office job will never be the same–here’s what to expect (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

According to a press release, respondents reported challenges caused by the sudden transition to remote work, with 72% saying they were not fully prepared from a technology perspective.

In addition to technology (29%), the biggest pain points during the required work-from-home period were communication breakdown across teams/employees (26%), and maintaining focus (25%), Xerox said.

3 top takeaways

  1. “Employees may not be going back to the office all at once—or even in the same capacity as before—but the need for organizations to support a hybrid workforce is here for the foreseeable future.

  2. To mitigate against future disruptions, such as the rapid transition to remote work resulting from COVID-19, companies will look to invest in new technologies and seek added capability from existing tools to accelerate their processes to digital transformation.

  3. COVID-19 is feeding digital transformation plans and companies are placing a renewed focus on meeting employees’ needs with both hardware and software.”

Attitudes about working from home have changed during this time. Among the countries polled, according to Xerox, the US is the most likely to have an increase in confidence in remote working (86%), followed by the UK (80%), Germany (80%), Canada (77%), and France (75%).

SEE: How to work from home: IT pro’s guidebook to telecommuting and remote work (TechRepublic Premium)

Some 58% plan to change their work-from-home policy within the next year, highlighting the need for companies to support a hybrid workforce, Xerox said.

Meanwhile, a new poll from WalletHub found that nearly 60% of Americans think COVID-19 has changed the way they work for the better and that almost a third think that physical offices are a thing of the past.

Even so, IT leaders in the Xerox survey said a wholesale switch to widespread remote-only work was not in the making. The need for in-person communication for personal development and talent assessment was cited by 95% of respondents.

Those sudden work-from-home orders did catch companies off-guard, with only 28% saying they were fully prepared, according to Xerox.

To better support employees, 70% of IT decision-makers globally are reevaluating their budget spend, according to the press release, with companies increasing investment in remote technology resources (55%), or a hybrid of remote and in-office resources (40%). The pandemic also has businesses prioritizing investments in cloud-based software (65%), remote IT (63%) support, and collaboration software (52%), it said.

“Collectively,” the report said, “these considerations reinforce an earlier point: Companies have valid reasons to embrace a hybrid model of remote and in-office work, if only to chiefly reap the best of both worlds.”