Leading a remote workforce requires different mix of flexibility, empathy, managers say

The pandemic has changed when and how federal employees work, creating new challenges and opportunities for managers, leaders at several agencies say.

The current pandemic has changed how and when federal employees work, but agency leaders say managing a remote workforce isn’t so different from supervising their colleagues on site.

Today’s challenges just demand a different mix of flexibility, empathy and creativity.

“If our employees do not feel safe and protected, they ultimately can not be productive,” said George Scott, deputy inspector general at NASA. “As leaders, managers and supervisors, our number one duty is always to ensure the safety and protection of our workforce. Nothing has challenged the traditional ways of thinking about work and about work productivity means than this current pandemic.”

For NASA’s Office of Inspector General, that meant acknowledging the way employees work — and even the schedules they keep to conduct that work — have changed. Scott’s workforce was allowed to telework up to two days a week before the pandemic, he said.

Today, NASA OIG employees are teleworking full time.

“It looks like we’re going to be in this for the long-haul now, and I really want to make sure that ultimately, the staff at NASA OIG continue to remain productive, but also I’m concerned about potential burnout for my folks,” Scott said Thursday at a virtual remote work summit organized by Government Executive. “If our folks are not doing OK personally, they’re not going to be able to do OK in terms of the work.”

Most Department of Homeland Security employees in mission-support positions already had telework agreements before the pandemic, and many of them had worked remotely two-to-three days a week already, said Nicole Barksdale-Perry, DHS’ executive director for human resources management and resources.

For other employees whose positions are location-dependent, the situation was much different.

“We had to quickly pivot and provide them with duties and functions that they could in fact perform at home,” she said.

DHS hosted weekly webinars for supervisors on how to manage their employees remotely. One webinar, for example, explained how managers could allow their employees to rearrange their schedules so they balance their work and child care responsibilities.

Scott too is rescheduling meetings and checking in with OIG supervisors to ensure they’re still offering and promoting flexible work schedule options for their employees. The “normal work day,” no longer works for everyone, he said.

“If you need to log off during the middle of the day for caregiving reasons or just for self-care reasons, not only is that OK, that’s expected,” he said.

Telework is common and in most cases highly practiced at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Most PTO employees had telework agreements in place before the pandemic, but 1,600 others didn’t, said Danette Campbell, director of the agency’s telework program office.

Campbell said she and others PTO took a particular focus on the employees who had never worked remotely before the pandemic.

“It was critical that we made sure we had the proper training for these folks, that when they got home they didn’t feel completely alone,” she said.

For Barksdale-Perry, she’s hosted more all-hands meetings with her staff during the pandemic. Before, she gathered her colleagues once a quarter to meet in person. Today, those meetings occur on a biweekly basis.

She’ll also send emails to her staff at various points throughout the day to encourage them to step away from their laptops and go outside, take a walk and relax.

“There are people who are going to thrive during this time, but there are also people who are not thriving and are really struggling,” Barksdale-Perry said. “You have to be able to quickly pivot between those employees, but also manage overall.”

Scott said he too is trying to be intentional in his efforts to reach out to employees. He added reminders to his calendar to check in with his colleagues at NASA OIG.

“We’re not talking about what audit or investigation they’re working on, but we’re just talking about how they’re doing,” he said. “We have to be intentional in those actions. We can’t wait for staff to raise his or her hand to say, ‘Hey, remember me?'”

For Campbell, she’s especially concerned with the employees who may live by themselves and away from family members.

“That can be very isolating,” she said. “A really good, empathetic manager will take a little bit of extra time and effort to reach out to that pocket of individuals to make sure yes, they still feel included.”

PTO has also found other ways to keep employees engaged. The agency hosts virtual book club chats and recipe sharing sessions, Campbell said.

“It could be something as simple as a virtual coffee. [We’ll] jump on WebEx with the team,” she said. “Let’s get together for 10 minutes and talk about your family, talk about your dog, how are things going?”

Not all managers, however, have embraced telework during the pandemic, Barksdale-Perry acknowledged.

“In some cases the very hard conversation is, ‘You do not have a choice. The telework for employees who have telework-ready work, is required and mandatory. Therefore, you need to implement what executive leadership has already stated is going to be the way forward for this department for the foreseeable future,'” she said.

As NASA discusses how it might reopen its facilities and offices, more frequent telework is “absolutely under consideration” for the OIG workforce, Scott said. Most NASA centers to date are still operating with mandatory telework.

Scott set up an employee-manager working group to talk about what the reopening might look like at NASA OIG.

“It’s never a good idea just to impose,” he said. “It’s better to collaborate and make sure employees have a voice, because their health is at stake. Their mental well-being is at stake here.”

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