Now that a return to the office is within sight, what the government really needs is a strategy

Whatever plans federal agencies had to guide a return to offices, well, those seem to have evaporated months ago, Bob Tobias said.

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Whatever plans federal agencies had to guide a return to offices, well, those seem to have evaporated months ago. Bob Tobias said it’s time for a little strategic planning that brings in productivity, employee preferences and real estate. He is an American University professor and longtime federal workplace expert, and he joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bob, good to have you back. And what are your thoughts on this? Because it seems like there is no real overarching plan for how we had with telework and so on.

Bob Tobias: Exactly, Tom, I mean, the federal government really adapted to telework – forced telework incredibly well. And in fact, there are some places that increase their productivity as a result of total telework. But now, I think it’s time for the federal government to assume that once everyone can come back to work, many will not want to come back to work. So the question is, how does an agency strategically manage its workforce in a way to leverage the telework increase in productivity that occurred in a proactive strategic manner?

Tom Temin: Because it does have some tough questions. Because with respect to where people are recruited from for jobs, and what locations, there’s lots of rules about that, those would have to be reworked, I think. Suppose you have a job that’s normally in Washington, you would not recruit in Memphis. But on the other hand, now, you could recruit in Memphis, because the person can telework. So it doesn’t matter where they are.

Bob Tobias: The agencies, I believe, as part of a strategic plan, need to identify which jobs can be full telework, and therefore, could be located anywhere in the country. And which jobs need, for whatever reason, in-person or partial in-person opportunities. And once they make that decision, all of those that are full-time telework can be announced nationwide. They would have a much broader workforce, and they might even save some money because the locality pay might be less in the place where they’re located in the future than in Washington, D.C., which is a higher cost city. So that’s just one thing that would need to be done. I think the government needs to figure out how much less space is going to be needed as a result of telework, and start planning to reduce that space as their leases expire, or as an opportunity to turn back space to [the General Services Administration] to lease to others. And I think they need to be thinking hard about training people to actually work in this telework environment, because managers have adapted, but they don’t have an overall approach to how am I going to work in this new environment? How am I going to provide promotion opportunities and acting opportunities? Perhaps I’m in Washington and I can get an acting position in California, but no one’s thinking about that. So I’m suggesting that the workforce planning needs to include and involve telework.

Tom Temin: Yes, I think you’re right. And the issue of real estate, that’s a sticky one, because there is clearly an opportunity for some major consolidations to happen here. And the idea that in Washington, for example, your agency has to have its name on the edge of the building up on the skyline – that’s really got to dissolve a little bit. I mean, in the other cities in the major cities, you have six, seven, eight, 12, 15 agencies sharing one big federal building. It doesn’t have to say “Justice Department” only on the Justice Department building wherever it is in Dallas or Boston.

Bob Tobias: Yes, yes. And these leases on these buildings are very long. They’re not five-year leases. And so if I’m going to need 15% less space, what does that mean in terms of either giving it back to GSA consolidating with other agencies who also need less space, but it also means that the space that I have probably needs to be reconfigured and out of cubes and into more open space, and space for people to meet when they are on location.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. What about the – I don’t know, cyclographic or I don’t know what the right word is, but – the idea of some people teleworking, some people in the office, and it may vary from day to day who’s in and who’s out the idea of maintaining coherence of teams. And also maintaining the idea that you can still advance, still have your ideas considered and so forth, even if you’re not mostly in the office, and the boss might be in the office.

Bob Tobias: That’s correct. How do I how do I maximize – well, actually more basically, how do I create a community where some are in the office, and some are not in the office? How do I create the the network, the community that I believe is necessary in all work? And there are some companies, private sector companies who’ve been doing this for years and have figured out how to do it. And I think that’s the kind of thought, that’s the kind of exercise that the federal government ought be taking proactively.

Tom Temin: Because that’s a consideration, I think, for every organization. I know, like, here, for example, one person needed another person to push a certain button on a web development site. But instead of calling that person directly, it kind of went from A to B to C, and back down to D to E to F before that person found out “Yes, click that button when you’re doing something.” And if everyone had been here, he would have said, “Hey, push that button when you do something,” instead of taking days and lots of zoom calls, it would have taken two seconds.

Bob Tobias: Exactly. So if I’m thinking about that proactively, Tom, I can solve that problem in advance, and the right get right button gets pushed at the right time. But if I wait, and I think well, maybe we’re all going to go back together in the workplace. And I don’t have to think about that, then the problem occurs.

Tom Temin: Yeah, and people need to think in terms of a flatter hierarchy. And you have to have a much more discerning, I guess, notion of what really needs to go up and down the chain versus just horizontally to get things done quickly. It’s kind of an empowerment idea.

Bob Tobias: Well, I think so. But one thing I’d like to note is that, I think at the first level, that there have been some who have said, well, we need a ratio that’s larger. But I think telework requires more contact between particularly first-level supervisors and though they supervise, and performing as real leaders. And in that case, I think increasing the ratio in a telework environment is probably not wise.

Tom Temin: And you don’t want to have that video conferencing application running 10 hours a day either.

Bob Tobias: You do not, you do not. The Zoom fatigue is real.

Tom Temin: Bob Tobias – haha, it is real. Bob Tobias is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. Thanks so much.

Bob Tobias: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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