Can Federal Managers Adapt to a Hybrid or Remote Workplace?

Agencies are developing plans for returning federal workers to the office. What that looks like is still undecided. Government, like the private sector, is likely to see a variety of practices that are dependent on agency mission, type of work, and agency culture. The issue of the pandemic and employee safety is still first and foremost in the mind of many people.

In the private sector we see companies trying different approaches. Apple announced they are moving to a 3/2 hybrid, with employees in the office three days per week and at home two days. Apple also specified the days employees will be in the office, choosing to bring everyone in on the same days. Apple CEO Tim Cook said ““For all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other. Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure, but there are things it simply cannot replicate.” Employee complaints about the new policy quickly leaked. Other companies are making full-time remote work available to many employees, while some are planning to bring most workers back to the office. It is likely that the ability to work remotely will be a bargaining chip for workers whose skills are in high demand.

We should expect to see similar issues in government as agencies make and execute plans. I don’t expect every agency find the perfect solution the first time out. They have a lot to learn to operate in a new environment. We may see hybrid workplaces become the norm for many employees. If that happens, how will managers who have been trained and operated for years in an in-person environment change their approach?

One of the areas that will be of interest to everyone is performance. How do agencies monitor employee productivity? How do they ensure taxpayers are getting what they pay for from people who are working at home? For some work it will be relatively easy. Outputs are easy to measure. For others it will be more of a challenge because their work is not so easily quantified.

Some people will look at that challenge and argue that the government should not continue with expanded telework. The argument might make sense, unless we look at the challenges with monitoring and evaluating performance that agencies faced prior to telework. Does a manager whose direct reports are working remotely know what they are doing every minute of every day? No. Does the same manager have that knowledge when s/he is in an office and the direct reports are down the hall in the same building? No. We generally don’t do a great job of handling performance. Agencies struggle to measure outputs regardless of where workers sit. They also still have a one-sided approach that evaluates what is expected of employees but doesn’t include what is expected of the agency and it’s leadership to facilitate employee performance. It’s no surprise that performance rating processes do not have the confidence of employees. In the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), 32 percent did not agree that “Managers communicate the goals of the organization.” Only 51 percent agreed that “In my work unit, differences in performance are measured in a meaningful way.”

Those numbers actually improved during 2020 (while 59 percent of respondents in the FEVS reported they teleworked full time) at the peak of the pandemic. While it is true that the respondents skewed to higher grades and supervisors were disproportionately represented, the numbers tell an interesting story. It appears that the adaptations to remote work caused more communications. Agencies should use that knowledge and take deliberate steps to increase communications between supervisors and employees, and to facilitate more communications among employees who are working remotely. That means more than just Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other video conferencing software.

Such a change is likely to require agencies to deploy better technology for communications and for performance management. Many agencies do not have significant automation in the performance management process. They do not provide an easy means of providing frequent feedback to or from workers. Performance information during the rating cycle is kept in unofficial files, many of which are paper, during the year and only recorded as a mid-cycle review or annual rating. Few agencies provide an easy means of employee recognition of their colleagues’ achievements. That should change.

Another challenge agencies will face is building teams where many or all team members work remotely. During the pandemic that was not so much of a problem because agencies had an existing workforce where people knew one another and had worked together. Bringing new hires into a remotely managed organization will require new approaches, and will require more deliberate efforts to build teams. That is likely to be done through training, technology, work practices, and other means that facilitate team building. Some agencies have a head start because they are very good at onboarding, introducing new staff to the organization, and building a strong organizational culture. Others hire people and leave it up to them to make their own way. In a remote organization that simply isn’t going to work.

One last issue to consider is morale. Who works remotely and who doesn’t is going to be a morale issue. Part of the problem is that many people simply cannot do it. Their work requires their presence and there is no alternative. An aircraft mechanic who works in a Navy Fleet Readiness Center is not going to take parts home to do work. There are hundreds of thousands of employees who are similarly prohibited from doing work from home because of the nature of their work.

Then there is the issue of safety. With the pandemic easing, but not gone, many workers simply do not feel safe getting in a room full of people, particularly if a third of those people choose not to get a vaccine. That concern about safety has to be recognized and considered. If employees feel they were forced back to the office and do not feel safe, morale will suffer.

I have also heard conflicting arguments about a “haves and have-nots” workplace. Some people believe the people who work from home are the “haves” and the rest are the “have-nots.” Others say the people who work remotely are the “have-nots” because they will be out of sight and out of mind and may find they are at a disadvantage when it comes to availability of information, work contacts, and promotions. The fact that such diametrically opposed opinions exist, and that both views have merit, makes it likely that morale is going to be an issue that is hard to solve. The fact that many people who can telework are in higher grades and many who cannot are in lower grades is likely to build resentment and add another dimension to the have/have not issue.

Leaders who have spent an entire career working in a different model will have to find ways to deal with the real and perceived safety, equity and productivity issues. They will have to accept that the workplace people return to is not the one they left before the pandemic. People have found other jobs, new employees have been brought on board, and the world has gone through one of the most catastrophic events in our lifetimes. The anti-telework crowd who have fought telework for years cannot simply put people back in offices the way it was before. It is not happening.

Everyone will have to adapt to a labor market where some employees who do not get the working arrangement they prefer will have far more options to go to work elsewhere to get what they want. Those are challenges most federal managers have not faced before. They will get some help from OPM and their own agencies, but re-entry into the workplace needs to be managed carefully, it needs to be done with an eye toward flexibility and willingness to change as they learn what does and does not work, and it needs to accept that one size definitely does not fit all.

I think Apple CEO Tim Cook made a good point when he talked about what is missing when people work remotely – the random discussions that produce ideas, teamwork, and a sense of being part of an organization. It may be possible to replace that with a technology solution, but if the most valuable tech company on the planet does not see it happening today, there is a good chance they are right. When I talk with people who have worked remotely for years, more often than not they have mixed feelings about it. The convenience is great, but spending your day staring at a screen rather than interacting with people in person does not work for everyone. That is why I believe purely remote work is not the best model for most agencies. A hybrid that requires most people to work onsite at least part of the time is the probably the best solution for today.

As the workplace evolves, we may find ways to allow more employees to permanently telework full time. For now, the reality is that full-time telework does not work for every job. It is also reality that the federal workforce is a political punching bag for some folks and they would like nothing better than a chance to argue that federal teleworkers are not producing. It is not true, but without solid performance data agencies will have trouble rebutting that argument and it will be used against people who are working from home. Agencies that get it right will land in a new normal where far more federal workers have the flexibility to choose a workplace. If they get it right, and the government is able to demonstrate that it can accomplish as much or more as it did pre-pandemic, widespread telework will be here to stay. If not, don’t be surprised if the new normal starts reverting to the old normal, with the 2022 and 2024 elections presenting more opportunities to use federal workers as political pawns and remote work becoming more of a partisan issue than a management issue.