Hybrid work is here to stay. I think it’s safe to say, from here on out, people will have the choice to either “go in,” or telework at least some portion of the week.
Here’s one piece of evidence: According to a survey of corporations by productivity software company Scoop, 58% of employers offer work location flexibility. Scoop found that fewer and fewer require people to come into the office full-time. Of the companies that offer what Scoop called structured hybrid, a growing number nonetheless require a minimum number of days in. The average is 2.5 days.
In the federal government, it looks like that’s all agency management can expect. Yes, the memo from the Office of Management Budget, that I critiqued earlier, did have as one goal getting more of you back, more days. As Deputy OMB Director Jason Miller put it, “substantially increasing in-person work.”
But, to quote Lincoln, that plow didn’t scour. Even if anyone could decipher the memo, the zeitgeist favors hybrid with a heavy dose of telework.
Congressional critics of federal telework cite accountability and not being able to reach federal employees. What might be going on is a melting away of one sure-fire way of person-to-person communication without a solid, universal replacement. Even email in some contexts has become less universal thanks to modes like Slack or LinkedIn messaging.
Context is everything. If a congressional staffer is trying to reach a deputy assistant secretary about some budgetary or program matter, or even a constituent matter, email or phone should prevail. A reporter calling a public affairs office dials a number listed on a web site. Those calls should be picked up, but if not, the caller should be able to leave a message and have it returned. By contrast, a citizen asking a question of, say, the IRS or Social Security over the telephone will reach a call center. In both cases, that a response occurs matters more than the location of the responder.
Meantime, cloud computing and robust, secure networking reduce time-and-place limitations of the information people need to give answers or take action.
In his blog post, OMB’s Miller also wrote, “COVID-19 no longer dictates how Federal agencies work and serve the public.” Yet, but though the pandemic has ebbed, it littered the beach with changes that won’t wash out to sea. Plus, agencies have made heavy investments in technology and workflows that take telework farther than it could go just a few years ago.
And the telephone? The telephone, as we understood it through about 2010 or so, has become a casualty of the new hybrid. Telephony had been morphing for some time, and it’s long ceased to be the primary form of direct communication for many. Phone usage varies along age lines to some degree, but in business settings the internal chat and video-over-IP applications have supplanted the telephone.
Two anecdotes: The other day I was interviewing the chief information officer of a large component agency. His audio on one of the video platforms was dreadful, so I asked to phone my studio so I could patch the phone call into my mixer. (I’ve got a really cool office.) He was in his office, which is lightly populated these days. After 10 minutes of fiddling with desk phones, plugging and unplugging RJ11 or RJ45 cables, he concluded he could not place a landline call.
“I think we got rid of all the phones,” he shrugged.
I wondered, what happens when someone calls the agency?
Later the same day, I was moderating an online panel for the AFFIRM group. Before we went live, I related the incident to Energy Department CIO Ann Dunkin. A highly available and responsive official, Dunkin remarked that she had a desk phone in her office, but since arriving at DOE in 2021, she couldn’t remember ever using it. But it presumably works.