Tips for managers and employees to stay productive and grounded while becoming a full-time teleworker

Howard Spira, chief information officer at the Export-Import Bank, offers how-to advice for employees and managers to be professionally and personally successfu...

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As a long-time chief information officer, I have lived my professional life in a world of around-the-clock work. Much of my career has required managing a 24-hour operation with a single group of people and no formal shifts. That experience has provided the foundation for meeting the challenge of balancing mission-critical needs with work-life realities for a federal workforce adapting to full-time telework as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

I work with a committee of leaders at our agency, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, who meet every day, monitoring and responding to the challenges of leading through the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an engaged and impressive team. As we now roll into the second month of coronavirus telework, most of the mechanical issues of how to operate are behind us. Work-life balance is now emerging as the top concern amongst federal workers generally, as the norms that separated personal and professional lives have evaporated and we have responded creatively to managing during this crisis.

For most, work is a combination of individual effort and team activities balanced with personal lives. Routines like commuting to the office, working normal hours, and taking children to school have been disrupted due to social distancing and workplace flexibilities. We are seeing frustration as leaders, supervisors and staff adjust to this new normal.

While every agency is different, over the years I have developed a framework for working through the challenge of maintaining a committed and dedicated team that works effectively in a highly teleworked, 24/7 environment.

That framework is organized into three perspectives:

  • Leadership — the executives who run a company or agency.
  • Supervisors — the managers who have direct reports and oversee specialized staff but are not at the executive level.
  • Staff — the employees who do not direct others.

It’s important to recognize that you can be in all three of these buckets simultaneously. While no adaptation to change is perfect–and there are bumps along any journey–here is my time-tested approach to addressing this challenge.

For leadership:

  1. Create a clear tone-at-the-top. Speak publicly and clearly with your organization about the need for meeting mission needs and balancing that with a workable personal life;
  2. Maintain a consistent routine and rhythm for communication with your leadership team and the staff to listen to what’s happening and reinforce your message;
  3. Pay attention to scheduling and priorities and being clear about what is urgent and requires a response that is outside the norm;
  4. Practice what you preach—leadership voices are louder than you realize. How you comport yourself and your temperament matter. Your employees are paying attention.

For supervisors:

  1. Have a candid discussion with your team to echo your commitment to the tone at the top and to review any special service or customer requirements that your team needs to address;
  2. Have clear conversations with each member of your team about his or her work hours and expectations. Discuss how you will signal an urgent matter, preferably using a different channel (e.g., email constitutes normal business, while a phone call signals a critical situation);
  3. Help manage your customers’ expectations so they are reasonable and transparent, and so your staff is treated fairly (e.g., establish specific business hours);
  4. When assigning work, be clear about deadlines and time expectations. To the extent possible, let your staff propose workable deadlines. Discuss time budgets to confirm understanding, and if there is a difference, discuss it so you are all working on the same set of assumptions.
  5. Operating rhythms and communication are critical, so maintain routine communications and take as much uncertainty out of the schedule as possible;
  6. Monitor workloads and give relief when unexpected things are added. Reach out to your staff and ensure you’re giving them a chance to tell you how they’re doing and how you can help.

For staff:

  1. Be candid about your situation. Problems can’t be addressed if they’re not shared. You may not be able to get every problem resolved, but it will never get addressed if it’s not brought up.
  2. Negotiate clear hours with your supervisor. Keep your calendar up-to-date and comport with the norms established with your group. Block out times on your calendar to minimize double scheduling and carve out work time.
  3. Ask for clarification if assignments are not clear: When is this needed?  How much time will be expected for a project? How will we determine if something needs to be addressed outside normal hours?
  4. Be mindful or your work habits and their impact on others. If you are working late, consider not sending email until the next day during normal work hours (or use the “delay send” capability). Make sure to use features such as scheduling assistant to schedule meetings when people are free.
  5. Remember email is just one way to communicate. Phone or video conference is still best for sensitive and complex matters.
  6. Take care of yourself as well as your family and friends. Avoid accidentally being triggered into work. Turn your computer off, or otherwise silence your work when you’re not on duty. Find something that brings you joy and give it the space it deserves.

While none of these suggestions are earth-shattering, at this time of coronavirus response, they are a reasonable checklist and roadmap for key considerations to make our “new normal” sustainable through the remainder of this crisis.

Howard Spira is the chief information officer at the Export-Import Bank of the United States. He also served at the Treasury Department, where he led the technology team for the Office of Financial Stability — the team that ran the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Prior to his federal service, Howard was a senior IT executive in the financial services industry with an extensive background in international and domestic commercial finance.

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