The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has invested “proactively and preemptively” in technology, so that when the coronavirus pandemic hit NIH it was able to seamlessly transition to a telework environment, according to the NIH CIO and Director of the Center for Information Technology, Andrea Norris.

After more than a year of lessons learned in the pandemic era, NIH is kicking off a new IT strategic plan this month that will include changes in the workplace, including with telework.

“We’re getting ready to do a new NIH IT strategic plan we’re going to kick off in September, and we’re excited about that,” Norris said during a Federal News Network event on Sept. 16. “Looking at things we’ve learned through the pandemic and, where over the next few years the kinds of capabilities that we think are going to be really important for us to put in place, where we need to accelerate, things that we might need to make some adjustments.

“There are certainly going to be some changes in what the future of the workplace is going to look like,” she added. “We’ve got some folks thinking about that. And so, we’re anxious to get started with that.”

Over the last year, Norris said NIH conducted three million virtual meetings involving 10 million participants from all over the world. For staff not working in the labs, telework became the new normal, and Norris said NIH “did not really miss a beat” in the transition.

Norris also offered that in the past NIH would bring in students, postdoctoral researchers, and post-baccalaureate researchers to their labs to work during the summer, but last summer was the first they were unable to do so. However, Norris said NIH was “determined” to provide a learning opportunity for students and ran the program virtually for the last two summers.

“So, we used technology and a lot of creativity to support our students again this summer, and have them all work, participate remotely, and so we’re anxious to you know get the feedback on that,” Norris said. “It’s not ideal, but we were able to make it work.”

Norris said she was able to spend time with students and gather their feedback on how to make the virtual program better if they need to run it virtually again next summer. Nevertheless, NIH is taking full advantage of remote work and hopes the feedback will only enhance the work they do going forward.

“NIH is an agency that does experimentation. I mean that’s what we do. And so we’re very willing and interested in trying different things and if it doesn’t quite work, we’ll move on to something else. That’s what makes it wonderful, a wonderful place to be,” Norris said. “I think you have to do that when you’re trying to change culture, when you’re trying to make big, big changes at national scale.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.