How a few agency leaders are defining, measuring ‘meaningful’ in-person work

After the White House called on agencies to increase “meaningful” in-person work at agency headquarter, federal leaders are considering how to balance, meas...

Agencies are still mapping out their workforce plans after the White House called for an increase to “meaningful” in-person work at headquarters offices.

The Office of Management and Budget defined “meaningful” work as “purposeful, well-planned and optimized for in-person collaboration,” but what that actually looks like depends on the agency.

For the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), an agency housed within the Department of Agriculture, the approach to defining meaningful in-person work, and responding to OMB’s memo on organizational health and performance, has focused on balance. Jody McDaniel, NASS’ director of eastern field operations, said much of the work in his office, such as data collection and editing, can be done remotely, but occasional in-person training is still beneficial for the staff.

“What we’ve done is a balance of about two in-person workshops over the course of the year, but most of our training is actually done on a virtual platform,” McDaniel said during a GovLoop event Thursday. “We’ve taken a really deliberate approach on when we need to come together. It’s about assessing what items require us to meet the needs of our customers. We’re always going to be available, but there’s a lot of our activity that staff can do from anywhere in the country.”

To measure workforce productivity and then align that measurement with meaningful in-person work, NASS looks at the delivery of on-time statistics from staff. That delivery was on time more than 99% before the COVID-19 pandemic, and has remained consistently above 99% ever since, which shows that hybrid work has been largely successful, McDaniel said. Attrition rates are also declining at NASS, usually hovering around 8-10%.

“People are able to start having that work-life balance that allows them that flexibility to work where they choose to work and how they choose to work, but also do it in a meaningful way. It is nice to see attrition coming down, as well as the engagement scores going up,” McDaniel said.

At the National Science Foundation’s Inspector General Office, composed of just 76 employees, the picture looks a little different. Still, any meeting in person should be intentional, said Javier Inclán, the office’s assistant inspector general for management and chief information officer.

“It’s not a check the box. It’s not that every Tuesday, you’re going to come in. It’s as needed,” Inclán said at the event. “I think people understand what their responsibilities are and they enjoy the autonomy and the flexibility to conduct their work.”

The office staff is mostly teleworking, but there are instances where in-person work makes sense for NSF’s OIG. Some employees, for example, recently came into the headquarters office for training.

“Our Office of Investigations came into the building to conduct in-service training on law enforcement equipment … and did CPR training,” Inclán said. “Those are the things that, to me, really mean something. And then there’s the added benefit of bringing people together and having that socialization, because a lot of these folks were hired during the pandemic.”

Inclán said the success of hybrid work in his office shows through in the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), an annual survey that the Office of Personnel Management conducts on federal employees’ engagement and satisfaction. For the 2022 FEVS, NSF’s OIG received a 90% response rate, and 82% on the employee engagement index.

At the same time agencies are thinking about how to add more meaningful in-person work, operating in a hybrid work environment means it’s also crucial for managers and supervisors to learn how to engage teleworking employees. Communication among employees has to be more deliberate, said Robin Kilgore, deputy assistant director in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Diversity and Civil Rights.

“Managing a virtual work environment is very different than managing an in-person one, but a lot of the competencies are similar,” Kilgore said during the event. “If your managers weren’t great pre-pandemic, they’re not going to be great in a virtual environment. You really need to be looking at the competencies that you want your leaders to have, regardless of where they’re leading, and really help them build that if those skills don’t exist.”

In an effort to help feds build those skills, the Office of Personnel Management is offering free training sessions for managers, supervisors and other employees on how to succeed in a hybrid environment. Being in a virtual environment requires a different set of skills, for both managers and employees, to be productive and remain engaged with their work.

“You have to constantly be checking in with employees, with your stakeholders, with managers,” Kilgore said. “Is this working for you? If it’s not, what do we need to do to change it? Pre-pandemic, I don’t know how often we were looking back into our programs and deciding, does this make sense for us? This [OMB memo] forces us to do it.”

Agency leaders should measure productivity over time, track changes and adjust telework levels where needed, OMB said in its April memo.

“Where agencies are successful, we will scale and replicate best practices,” Jason Miller, OMB’s deputy director for management, said in an April blog post. “Where agencies fall short, including if their workplace policies negatively impact results, they must be held accountable and work to make responsible changes, improve their operations and tackle challenges wherever they arise.”

The White House gave agencies 30 days to create initial work environment plans, detailing what the future of work will look like for their employees. OMB is now in the process of reviewing agencies’ plans. For some, adding meaningful in-person work might not mean much difference at all — if the agency is performing well, it can keep employees on a similar work schedule.

“We’re very happy with hybrid work right now,” said LaKeya Jones Smith, a supervisory workforce management analyst at NASS. “Overall, our engagement has increased, people are more willing to reach out to us, where they probably wouldn’t have before, because we actually have more flexibility.”

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