The future of work in the federal government is nearly here, as agencies prepare new telework and remote flexibilities, per recent policy guidance from the Biden administration.
Even the intelligence community — notoriously inflexible when it comes to when and where its employees work — appears ready to embrace the hybrid work environment.
“The hybrid work environment is not a question of should we, but it is a question of we must,” Susan Kalweit, a senior associate for culture and leader excellence at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said Tuesday at a FedInsider webinar on remote work in the intelligence community.
Many IC agencies shifted more work to the unclassified space, allowing employees to work odd hours and staggered shifts in sensitive compartmented information facilities (SCIFs) during the pandemic.
Those kinds of hybrid work arrangements will continue for many agencies in the intelligence community, said Sherry Van Sloun, assistant director of national intelligence for human capital at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
ODNI itself recently signed a new telework policy.
“When it can be done and it is truly unclassified, maybe it’s two days a week at home, three days a week at work,” Van Sloun said. “Even [with] those three days at work, we’re offering different hours [and] schedules, so you can work in the evening or you can work even on weekends. We’re finding ways to just really be creative to give folks space to do the work they need to do.”
The National Reconnaissance Office isn’t seeing a mass exodus of people leaving the agency, but some employees have expressed an interest in moving to a position that’s conducive to full time telework, said Liz Gruchacz, the agency’s director of human resources.
“They want to continue the same flexibility that they were given during COVID,” she said. “We get asked that often. Are we going to be allowed to continue to do this? People like the balance of doing some work outside of the SCIF and some in the SCIF. The NRO is definitely looking at different ways that we can continue and expand what we’re currently offering, but we do want to have that flexibility for those that want it.”
But with those hybrid work arrangements and new workplace flexibilities, inevitably, comes a mix of employee emotions, and some agency leaders and supervisors acknowledge they need to prepare for all of them.
For some employees, they’re hopeful about the prospect of continuing to work from home, Kalweit said.
“They’re hopeful for the hybrid work environment in order to continue to take advantage of the work flexibilities that they’re accustomed to, and [they’re] feeling like they have created healthier and more satisfying work-life habits,” she said. “Some teammates also are very hopeful in being able to maintain the hybrid work environment as we move forward, because it’s stress-free from microaggressions and similar behaviors that these teammates have faced inside the building that they don’t have to deal with when they’re working in a telework situation. That has made them more productive and also created a greater sense of belonging when they’re working from home.”
But others are still fearful about the pandemic. They’re concerned about still-emerging COVID-19 variants and whether the vaccines will be effective into the future.
“There’s also teammates who are really excited and thankful that they’re returning to the building,” she said. “They’re tired of the pandemic, they miss seeing their colleagues and they want life to return to normal. For them, the hybrid environment is perhaps not really of interest.”
The sheer variety means agency leaders and supervisors must recognize that employees will emerge from the pandemic from different places. Kalweit said it’s up to leadership to create the right conditions for employees to simultaneously succeed and meet the mission.
“As leaders we have to acknowledge that every emotion — hope, fear, excitement and many more — are valid emotions, and they’re now part of our workplace,” Kalweit said. “Truly in order to successfully shift our organizational norms in support of a hybrid work environment, we have to accept all of these emotions and we have to address them uniquely.”
Hybrid work arrangements will create several challenges for managers and supervisors, who will have to juggle a workplace where some employees are on site while others are working from home, the IC leaders said.
“There’s consistency when absolutely everyone is remote, and there’s consistency when absolutely everyone is on site. But when you have half the room in person and half the room on the video screen, it is harder for managers and participants of that meeting to participate in a fulsome way,” said Hayden Temin, assistant director of the FBI’s human resources division. “For each one of us it just requires us to learn new tools and techniques and continue to be flexible and shift our own styles.”
Hybrid work environments will prompt a cultural shift in how managers and supervisors communicate with employees and set expectations about performance and promotions, IC leaders said.
Kalweit said some employees who plan to continue some form of remote work are asking their managers about their performance evaluations and ratings — and how they’ll stack up against their colleagues who might spend all of their time in the office.
“They’re so used to accounting for work being done by seeing teammates sitting in their chairs or sitting at their desks. Now they’re questioning, ‘Well how do I know that my teammate or that my employee is doing their work if I don’t see them visibly at their chair?'” she said. “There’s some skepticism perhaps among teammates as to whether their fellow teammates are actually doing work when they’re at home. Supervisors and managers are struggling with this issue of explaining fairness and even for themselves to feel like yes, I’ve set fair expectations across my team.”
NGA is using virtual whiteboard platforms where employees can collaborate and brainstorm ideas online throughout the day, giving the workforce a visible space to contribute.
As agencies like ODNI and others loosen up workplace flexibilities, the intelligence community is discussing ways it can better advertise those perks to prospective recruits and new hires, Van Sloun said.
“How do we talk about that when we do our recruitment events, talking about the way the intelligence community is really trying to lean into this and not going backward to where we were before? We’re really going to take stock of this, and we’re going to move in a new direction,” she said. “We’re going to be more flexible in the way we think about the future of work, the future workforce and the future workplace.”