The HigherEd CIO and the Pandemic

Posted on Tuesday, June 15, 2021

CIO Martin Bernier outside of Concordia University pre-CANHEIT 2021.

The pandemic has represented a period of hyper-speed digital transformation at higher education institutions across Canada. At Canada’s Higher Education Information Technology Conference (CANHEIT 2021), four Chief Information Officers sat down to share their pandemic reflections with IT professionals from across the country. Our Chief Information Officer, Martin Bernier, was not a panellist, but we were curious and wanted to hear our CIO had to say.

What’s your biggest leadership surprise during the pandemic?

I’m constantly amazed by our level of adaptability and resiliency. The pandemic exposed how IT infrastructure and systems are critical to operations, communications and more. Despite the rapid pace of change and facing difficult choices, my team has been ready to step up. Day after day, they continue to ensure the University can deliver on its mission. 

My primary responsibility has been the health, safety and well-being of my team. This has been important to assuring cohesion in our operations and critical projects. I think the team is a big reason why we are able to continue the pace and lead transformation. Everyone has demonstrated empathy and kindness to one another which contributes to how we work together. We make a conscious effort of uplifting everyone and celebrating success as it comes. I was pleasantly surprised to see my team promoting their colleagues’ presentations at their CANHEIT sessions. 

The leadership team assembled a clear list of priorities quickly at the start of the pandemic. We’ve also leveraged our Digital Campus Transformation Plan, our roadmaps and other planning resources. The foundation and vision for transformation were there, we just accelerated the deployment. Information Technology and the organization delivered so many amazing achievements during this crisis and a lot of that depended on collaboration. 

What have you found to be the biggest difficulties in keeping your team working together over the last 12+ months?

There are a number of challenges when we aren’t communicating face-to-face. Regular and consistent conversations have always been a priority, but we are trying to be proactive about concerns and questions. 

We are in a situation where things are very fluid and changing on a regular basis. We try to respond to concerns and questions with transparency and consistency, even when no clear answers exist. I’m open to showing vulnerability to have these conversations. Sometimes I face personal obstacles and I don’t always have all the answers right away. Vulnerability is creating the space for dialogue.  

What changes have happened over the last 12+ months that you think will be a permanent change?

Information Technology has been a critical and strategic partner during the pandemic. This will become the new reality. With so many new technologies in place, a new digital culture is emerging in every part of the organization. 

Within Information Technology, we had a smooth transition without interruptions to our work because we had been doing remote work pre-pandemic. Our processes and technologies were ready. The good news is that we designed our collaborative workplace before the pandemic to complement remote collaboration. We have the technologies and space to support a hybrid working model. I think this model can be expanded across the organization, and from speaking to Canadian colleagues, at other institutions too. 

What people, process and technology changes are you planning to take over the next 12 months that will improve the adhesion of your hybrid work team?

People, people, people! It will be a challenge to keep everyone engaged in the coming months, whether in-person or virtually. We had the chance to experiment with working remotely before the pandemic, but completely remote for an entire organization is a new frontier. 

We need to find ways to overcome the online fatigue people are experiencing.  We are looking closely at how we shape virtual meetings, interactions and culture to meet the various interpersonal needs of employees. For example, we make regular virtual team calls to align everyone on our plans and priorities. However, we need to make more time to check in with people. It is crucial to find opportunities for small talk and to share personal stories. I am looking at new ways to integrate our key values and culture into our online interactions. 

If you had advance knowledge of the crisis, what would you have done differently in the years preceding COVID-19?

The timing was perfect for Information Technology. Six months after the launch of our mobile working pilot and our collaborative workplace; people, processes and technology were ready for this change. More than I had ever expected. 

The challenge was more about setting up the organization for success. This meant more communication and training on new tools. Fortunately, our Digital Campus Transformation Plan was almost ready at the start of the pandemic. This helped guide and accelerate our digital transformation journey. 

Can you share one thing you’ve done to support yourself during the pandemic?

Being socially isolated was not my biggest challenge. This may come as a surprise to many, but I am an introvert. Having Teams sessions every day with so many people, I was tired of the social interaction. It was draining.  

I’ve tried to better balance my work and personal life. I carve out time for my kids. I also exercised more, mainly walking. It really helped when my team started an internal challenge; my competitive side took over. It pushed me to take over 53,000 steps in one day and close to 90,000 over that weekend. This has led to walking more every day. I also like cycling and exploring my areas (Gatineau, Ottawa, Montréal). I’m constantly pushing others to be active with me. I hope everyone makes time to support their own wellness.

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