Are federal agencies ready for the return of the workforce, in whatever form that may take? What should they consider and address to better prepare? We have looked at the environment and the challenges agencies may face and developed some key considerations for decision-makers.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, federal agencies have contended with a hybrid of remote and onsite workers, along with teleworkers who spend varying amounts of time in the office. As the pandemic eventually winds down, we should not expect to see a rapid return to the way things were before. In fact, they are unlikely to ever return to the pre-COVID model of limited telework and a primarily onsite workforce.
The result will be a far more complicated management and operating model that affects every dimension of the organization – requiring agencies to modernize their approaches to leadership, how the organization is structured, how they onboard new employees and make them part of the team, how they handle performance, the capacity and skillsets of supervisors, how employees communicate and numerous other challenges.
A big challenge will be the potential disconnect between those employers who want to bring back employees and employees who prefer working from home. In a recent United States Department of Agriculture survey of its employees, three key themes emerged: the shift to telework has been overwhelmingly successful for employees, the role of the future office has changed and the future of work centers on employees and their wellbeing.
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As the pandemic and its eventual aftermath develop, agencies will need to track and comply with an evolving set of mandates and guidance. President Biden announced a COVID Action Plan that, among other strategic objectives, requires employers with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccination or regular testing for unvaccinated employees. Federal workers and contractors are covered by the requirements. Memorandum M-21-25 provides guidance to agencies on an integrated plan to get their employees safely back to work, including considerations to reexamine administrative, technology, personnel and workspace policies. Adapting to the new environment is going to involve some degree of trial and error. Rather than trying to do everything on their own, agencies should consider evolving best practices and lessons learned from others that try various strategies and models.
What is your organizational work strategy? This is the big question, and one whose answer is likely to evolve as agencies learn what fits their organization’s mission, culture and labor market. As a starting point, agencies should assume that some employees will work primarily onsite due to the type of work they do (such as Transportation Security Officers at the Transportation Security Administration), some will work primarily from home if they wish and the nature of the work permits it, and many will have a hybrid that combines both onsite and work from home. A smaller number will be remote workers who are rarely required to be onsite and may live in other parts of the country. This will not be an easy call, and agencies should not be surprised if their initial decisions must be revised after they have more experience with them. Because there are so many factors that come into play to make these decisions, agencies may find it beneficial to delegate some aspects of decision-making to the lowest organizational levels, while maintaining other aspects at higher levels. For example, we know there are managers who simply do not like telework and remote work. Agencies should not make decisions based on such biases. On the other hand, there may be local factors that may not be known at the highest levels of the agency and that must be considered. Finding the right balance will be essential and making the wrong decisions could be costly in a competitive labor market.
At a minimum, agencies should conduct a careful assessment of their current state, including workflow, applicable guidance and mandates (as described earlier), the nature of the work being done at different levels, the organization or team objectives, the individual preferences of employees and the need to be competitive for recruiting, developing and retaining talent.
Following a current state assessment, agencies can identify space utilization, benchmark best-in-class practices and obtain qualitative feedback from employees and leaders. Based on this data, they can develop future workplace scenarios – activity-based real and virtual workspaces that address how the organization and its employees plan to collaborate and work in the future. An intentional approach can assist with developing a shared workplace that supports employee interactions and allows agencies to maintain and improve their agency culture.
Such a change would normally be made following an incremental, agile approach that begins with launching initial pilots, obtaining and incorporating feedback and lessons learned, and improving and refining the approach. Agencies were thrown into the deep end of the pool with the pandemic and skipped directly to full-scale rollout of new work models. Now they should take a pause and assess what has worked, what has not worked and what the path forward should be. Employee feedback will be a critical part of decision-making. Agencies should assume that a substantial numbers of employees prefer working from home and move carefully and deliberately with data to back up changes that may be made.
High performing organizations can achieve sustainable results only if the leadership and employees support and endorse the effort and understand the value of the outcomes. Agencies should engage employees early and often, and identify champions — those that can effectively communicate the shared priorities and the benefits.
The benefits of engaged employees are well-known. A recent Gallup study showed that organizations with more engaged employees were 23% more profitable, with 10% higher customer loyalty and engagement, among many other higher performance outcomes, such as lesser attrition, lower number of quality defects and many others. It is important to understand and address potential challenges, such as the disconnect between employers and employees in the return to work, and support the social and emotional needs of employees. Organizations should continue to measure employee engagement and go beyond simply using Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) data. Agencies can complement FEVS with additional qualitative and quantitative measures – these include employee feedback, their experience and engagement/pulse surveys (the administration recently announced its first-ever pilot program launch of an employee pulse survey), and one-on-one interviews and meetings. Finally, it will require an approach to sustain and maintain engagement that recognizes that the workplace has changed, using mechanisms that reinforce agency culture (virtual town halls and lunches, pulse check surveys, among others), adapting HR and other policies to fit the new environment, training, management practices, technology to facilitate a hybrid workplace, and engaging employees and helping them manage their work-life balance.
It is important to pay particular attention to an organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion in the hybrid work environment, since it could create new inequities or worsen existing ones. To ensure fairness, maximize performance and maintain cohesion, there are five practical dimensions to consider: recruitment and remote onboarding, working together, resolving conflict, team cohesion and promotions. To reinforce inclusivity, organizations should ask employees how they work best, acknowledge it, and develop a list of customized actions to support them in their hybrid work environment. Organizations can use the hybrid work environment to maximize diversity since it potentially can reduce the barriers to entry.
Developing an operating model for hybrid work that is sustainable may take a few years. It will have to be designed based on learning what works for each organization – including input and feedback from employees. While it will take some effort, it presents a great opportunity to design an equitable and inclusive operating model for all employees – one that can help to improve mission accomplishment through improved organizational health and performance. That would be a win for everyone.
Jeffrey Neal is former Chief Human Capital Officer for the Department of Homeland Security and author of the blog ChiefHRO.com. Sukumar Rao is President of The Parnin Group and focuses on evidence-based organizational performance.