Federal employees working from home largely report being more productive than when they go into the office — and while large-scale oversight efforts from the Government Accountability Office have only just started, GAO has acknowledged that it’s also seeing improvements from its own employees.
“From an internal GAO perspective, we found by some measures, our productivity is increasing, which I think was maybe a little bit of a surprise to us,” Vijay D’Souza, GAO’s director of Information Technology and Cybersecurity, said during a June 17 GovExec webinar. “We certainly aren’t going to be able to do all of our work this way. But there’s definitely been some positive advantages we’ve seen.”
That tracks with findings from a recent Federal News Network survey, which found that 52% of federal employees who responded feel more productive from home, and another 40% feel about the same.
There’s long been a stigma around telework in certain sectors of government that employees won’t work without managers peering over their shoulders. Some federal leaders have acknowledged that stigma and are beginning to re-examine it, but Federal News Network’s survey showed that many federal employees remain pessimistic that previous distrust of telework will change after the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has largely accelerated the use of collaboration tools that only a few months ago hadn’t yet made the jump from personal use to mainstream business use.
“One thing I want to mention which I think is interesting is there’s definitely a little bit of a generational issue,” D’Souza said. “I think the more junior staff really have pretty high expectations for the performance of these tools. And so it’s been interesting for management to hear the feedback, and realize that we need to support what folks are used to using in their personal lives in the workplace.”
D’Souza said that internal feedback is already helping GAO make decisions about the tools it provides for its employees, which are currently undergoing a trial-by-fire.
“We had actually just deployed a new video conferencing remote work solution right before this coincidentally, and wow, it was interesting to put it to the test,” D’Souza said. “I don’t think anyone anticipated how much we’d be using it. So then immediately now the demands came out. It was light years better than our previous solution, and then the demands came out: this isn’t good enough. We need to do better. So we’re living that personally.”
And GAO isn’t the only agency seeing a shift in the way it views and uses remote workforce collaboration tools. The Defense Information Systems Agency said the pandemic has accelerated changes at the Defense Department.
“So one of the things we’ve done is we’ve shifted to online video teleconferencing at probably a much faster rate than what we anticipated,” said John Hale, chief of cloud services at the Defense Information Systems Agency, during the webinar. “It’s shifted demand signal within the department. … These used to be nice-to-have capabilities and functions within an office environment. And as these become more ingrained amongst our user community on a day to day basis, what we’re seeing is this is shifting away from being a nice-to-have, to functionality like this is now mission critical.”
One reason for this shift is the increasing realization of the limitations of previous tools and methods, and an unwillingness to surrender ground on the advancements that have been made recently. Even after the pandemic is over, the workforce is making it clear that conference calls simply won’t be viewed as good enough in the future.
“The face-to-face interaction is very important, and not something you can necessarily just accomplish via conference calls. So the ability to actually see the person you’re talking to, read the body language, etc., is turning out to be very valuable,” Hale said. “So what we’re having to do right now, as we put a lot of capabilities in place to get us through the COVID-19 pandemic, is making sure that as we return to normal, whatever that happens to be, that we continue to have capabilities like this available to all of our user base.”
Of course, the move to maximum telework across federal agencies hasn’t been a painless one, and Congress wants to know just how it’s going. As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it’s called upon GAO to oversee and audit how federal agencies are operating in this new telework environment.
“We actually are starting engagement, looking across the government at initial responses to the COVID pandemic from an IT perspective,” D’Souza said. “And one of the issues we’re going to dive into is sort of these collaboration tools, video and other tools and how have agencies responded to that. So we’re hoping to have something out in the next few months related to that, which should shed some light on the challenges and opportunities agencies have identified across government.”
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.