With the right tools, there’s no compelling reason for everyone to get back into the office

The Federal Drive with Tom Temin is getting two points of view on the telework. He spoke with a retired federal sales executive, who made the case for a generalized return to the office and, here, with Mika Cross, a former federal manager who specializes professionally in workplace issues, for a different point of view, championing the need for better collaboration tools for a largely remote or teleworking workforce.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
I...

READ MORE

The Federal Drive with Tom Temin is getting two points of view on the telework. He spoke with a retired federal sales executive, who made the case for a generalized return to the office and, here, with Mika Cross, a former federal manager who specializes professionally in workplace issues, for a different point of view, championing the need for better collaboration tools for a largely remote or teleworking workforce.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
I saw you on my LinkedIn reaction to a column I posted. And you said the answer to getting things back to normal is not everybody driving back to the offices and occupying buildings. But improving the way we do interact. Did I characterize it correctly? And tell us some more of your ideas?

Mika Cross
Yes, absolutely. I mean, this is the age all great debate. And it comes down to, I think the bottom line of how we are going to spend the most precious resource that we have that you can’t assign a value to necessarily. And that is time, and where we’re going to spend our time in terms of location when we are working on the clock. And for those who serve the American people. It really comes down to a different way of calibrating how we manage performance, how we’re investing in the right skills and competencies to be able to recognize and avoid bias, when you’re talking about remote and hybrid work. But also all forms of flexibility, especially extending different kinds of flexibility for those who have to be on site and cannot participate in a different location when they’re performing their work duties.

Tom Temin
Yes. And that gets to the idea of people just simply talking with one another. And the thing about the office is that it’s easy to do that. And there’s lots of formal, informal and somewhere in between communication, that in my experience does build cohesion among individuals. It doesn’t work as well in the online platforms as they are currently constituted. So how can that be improved?

Mika Cross
Well, I think the federal government can take a page from those remote first, remote friendly employers in the private sector that we often want looked to benchmark from, who are doing it incredibly well. And what does that mean in terms of diversifying talent? Enhancing customer service delivery. Are they outperforming their competitors? Are they able to complete the mission, regardless of location? I had the benefit of when I left federal government in 2018, working for the fully remote company FlexJobs. I was the vice president there of the employer engagement. Working with employers of all sizes, types, industries, from public sector, nonprofit academia, Fortune 500, you name it. And these were all organizations who got it right. In terms of extending all kinds of flexibility, including remote option jobs for the purpose of finding and attracting top talent.

What I love to see now, is that some agencies are really holding on to the lessons they learned during the pandemic, and keeping an increased flexible posture. Again, I’m speaking about all kinds of strategic flexibility, not just flexibility in location. And that can also impact office space, which was the point of your LinkedIn posts. As employees are using alternate work schedules, compressed work schedules, think about reemployed annuitants. When you’re bringing back that institutional and tacit knowledge. For purposes of delivering the mission, part time, seasonal, intermittent temp, and flexible work schedules, including telework and remote. This is the way that you’re going to be able to embrace the best talent from all five generations.

Tom Temin
Interesting. And what about that idea of people that are new to an organization? Again, my opinion. But no better way to really get that unit cohesion, the transfer of knowledge and the mentorship and all that. If they’re not in person some of the time. It sounds like you’re saying we can do both. Sometimes in person, sometimes not.

Mika Cross
Absolutely Tom. Your preference and your experience is not in the minority. Clearly.

Tom Temin
I’m also as old as water.

Mika Cross
But many of those in leadership positions, if you look at the composition of the federal government workforce in terms of generational differences. The majority are Generation X and above. In fact, the majority of mission critical occupations in IT, cybersecurity, HR, acquisition, finance, you name it are usually above the age of 50. And it’s dwindling, when you’re looking at Generation Z in terms of those mission critical occupations. So when you’re thinking about how are you going to integrate welcome on board, create that culture. It takes new skills. Wouldn’t it take new skills and competencies for you to recognize your own personal preference and bias? And how that might impact? Even if you have the policies to allow telework and more flexible remote and hybrid options. My ability to say, if these leaders are all required to be on site, maybe the only way for me to get promoted and advance my career is to actually have to come in. And who does that affect in a negative way? Often it’s those with disabilities, medical conditions, caregivers, military spouses, parents. And the working women, to the tune of millions, had to leave the workforce during that pandemic because of childcare and parental issues.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Mika Cross. She’s a former Army officer, now a specialist in workplace issues. And what are some of the best practices then that you have seen in the private sector? Government has also been pursuing telework and some of these other issues for a long time. But they often are maybe a step behind what’s happening in the best of the private sector.

Mika Cross
Yeah, private industry takes time to invest in cultivating the right skills. So what do I mean by that? I mean, even in terms of having a good solid foundation for effective hybrid meetings, and leveraging the technology that we already have instead of having to figure out a new solution. How are we going to create leaders and managers of people who are able to establish those relationships and connections? Lead teams, coach for results, manage performance and demonstrate the mission of the agency in terms of customer experience and mission delivery? Well, that really requires new skill sets. Many of us have not put in the work or the time needed to do that. So the easy button is to say remote and hybrid isn’t working, we need everybody back in the office where I can see it. Because if we’re co-located all in one physical location, then we can do what we should have already learned how to do regardless of location. And Tom, that’s going to pay dividends for federal agencies. In fact, I’m seeing great investments from organizations like the National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General who decided to transition many of their positions, who wanted to to fully remote positions and give office space back. They are creating and designing spaces, and time to come together purposefully and intentionally to do so. Leadership off sites creating those kinds of training opportunities. [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)] Civil Rights Office, has given back office space and decided to go 100% remote. We think about the impact of their mission and how they’re protecting our nation and mitigating those kinds of complaints. I’m seeing [United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)] in pockets, my old stomping grounds really lean into remote work. Especially, for those statistical agencies who are able to do so and then regionally come together and figure out how do we collectively build this skill to be able to engage and unite our workforce, regardless of location?

Tom Temin
It seems like perhaps the government might be debating with itself prematurely in the sense that I haven’t seen, and I think OPM and some of the other agencies would also agree, that they haven’t really fleshed out what they want for an office physical space plan. That you can one get the space that’s correct for the number of people that will be there. And also that’s correct for, if it’s a shared space and doing away with individual cubicles, and all of this sort of thing. There hasn’t really been the completion of that thought. Not fair to say they haven’t thought about it. But they’re not yet having a plan.

Mika Cross
I think not a plan that’s been fully communicated yet. I really love what the [General Services Administration (GSA)] is doing. Traci DiMartini and also their workforce of the future. They’re designing like an office in a box capability, where agencies can go in and allow their employees to choose the configuration that they need. Based on their flexible work schedule, their remote or telework work schedule, and the office design of their home space. In order to be more productive, too. There have been a lot of wellness issues. For folks that were mandated to go and work from home, and not have the right sufficient infrastructure to be able to have like an ergonomically correct office space. I think if you look at the data, not just on emotional well being professional isolation and burnout, from doing the work and having, Zoom fatigue and meeting to meeting. But also, design of your office space at home, has had a significant impact. If you talk to physical therapists and chiropractors in the region too.

Tom Temin
Sure. So it really gets down to details like chairs and lighting and microphones. As much as it does to policy, on what’s the best way to make sure that everyone is most productive within their capabilities and limitations that they might have.

Mika Cross
Yeah, absolutely. And from a practical perspective, Tom, it comes down to some of the agencies that I cited. I’ve been able to give advice and guidance to too many leaders and federal agencies. It comes down to thinking about, do you have even a team charter? Have we agreed upon how we want to work together when we’re in the office and when we’re not? So that those who are working off site won’t feel disadvantaged, unseen and not connected to their peers, when they choose to do so. That can cause unintentional equity issues. It can create additional bias. And it can cause a negative impact, quite frankly, if you don’t address it, and help all teams at all levels with the right skills to be able to do this well.

Tom Temin
So the worst thing is just to bump along with this uncertainty.

Mika Cross
Yeah, is to not be deliberate and thoughtful about what you are trying to do. I’ve seen some organizations develop workplace standards documents. And then train leaders, managers and the workforce around what that looks like. Then at a lower level, at a team level. You wouldn’t throw your all star players into a playoff game without a playbook. You would have a clear understanding around what all the players are expected to do in that game so you can win. It’s time to win.

Related Stories

    Amelia Brust/Federal News Network

    Survey: As agencies turn to hybrid work, many feds want more remote options

    Read more