Fearing a post-pandemic talent exodus, agencies view telework as key retention tool

Agency leaders and human capital managers have long said they’re unable to compete with the private sector for talent because of the federal government’s rigid pay system.

Now more than a year after the pandemic forced government to expand telework in ways they hadn’t previously imagined, agencies fear remote work flexibilities will make or break their recruitment and retention strategies.

“We’re already seeing jumpers already. Folks are finding those jobs where remote work is going to be the way of the future,” Sherry Van Sloun, assistant director of national intelligence for human capital at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said Thursday at an ATARC webinar on retuning to the federal workplace. “Federal agencies are really trying to figure out how we can actually think about this together so that we don’t have folks jumping from place to place to find those jobs.”

If one part of the government offers less generous telework flexibilities, agencies fear their talent will leave for another agency or the private sector where remote work is more prevalent. Van Sloun said members of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council are discussing this now.

Some are ready for the challenge.

“I welcome the competition, because I think that the competition, with obvious exceptions, forces all of us to reexamine why we are doing and executing the way we’re executing,” said Trent Fraizer, executive director for campaigns and academic engagement for the Department of Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

The new environment forces agencies ad supervisors to question their policies, he said.

“Especially with the generations coming into the workforce, we are all facing the same competition with the private sector already,” Fraizer added. “There are a number of instances where we have lost candidates to work environments, not because of salary or stature, but because of work-life flexibility and because of the opportunity to live in a location where maybe you don’t pay half your salary in property taxes or you don’t lose most of your money trying to buy a house. That lack of competitiveness is really going to burden us in the long-run.”

Some agencies will have a more difficult time making those flexibilities available due to the nature of their missions.

Van Sloun said she’s working with intelligence community leaders to reconsider whether jobs are truly top-secret or secret, or whether all or a portion of the duties are unclassified.

“We’re looking are every occupation and every role to see what makes sense,” she said. “What makes sense to have folks in the building part time, and some folks in the building maybe never and some folks in the building full time? We are at a 50% staffing level now, and I think we’re going to keep that for a little while longer. As we gradually start to bring people back in there is going to be some reluctance.”

CISA has already determined what positions are eligible for remote work and which ones have a specific duty station. Some employees have already moved to new locations around the country, said Martin Stanley, the branch chief of strategic technology for CISA’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer.

FEMA is also working on its own telework and remote work plan. Agency officials are careful to develop a cohesive strategy where FEMA offices generally offer similar flexibilities, and one organization isn’t too stingy with telework over others, said Alex Rowan, the resources and systems division director for the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration.

“Getting these employees in and offering quality positions and opportunities has always been difficult, and if we start to battle within ourselves that’s going to be a very difficult thing to do,” he said.

For the intelligence community, allowing more remote work means potentially finding more unique places for employees to get the job done.

“We really are trying to find ways to do work outside of the sensitive compartmented information facility where it’s possible,” Van Sloun said. “But that entails a lot of different approaches about new IT, new secure IT, new ways to access new types of buildings throughout the country. How do we partner with some of the folks we haven’t partnered with before to have SCIF space, whether it be a university, a private sector partner [or] a military partner?”

The intelligence community isn’t the only one thinking about physical space differently.

“By viewing work as what we do, we view these other apparatus as tools to help our employees do their work,” Fraizer said. “Whether that’s a physical space, a piece of technology or a business process, they’re all just tools. If we can evolve to just see them as tools, then we can start to think about things like how to be purposeful when we bring employees to a physical location.”

When the agency does want to bring a group of its employees together, Frazier said CISA makes clear why in-person meetings are necessary and what specific activities they’ll perform together.

Detaching work from the workplace is difficult, Frazier said. Once agencies have changed their policies and deployed new technologies to support a remote workforce, then the real work on change management begins.

“What I think is often missing in the conversation is the need to really dig in on culture and understand that for a number of employees, going to a physical location is part of their actual identity. It’s become part of their work identity,” he said. “The size of my office is not indicative of my status in the organization any longer. I have two physical office locations that I rarely go to, and it means virtually nothing now. The flags that are there no one sees. At this stage we have to rethink those concepts of status, culture and identity and how they work together to bring the organization together and make it effective from a human perspective.”

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