Jul 06 2021

As Agencies Plan for a Future of Hybrid Work, They Need to Assess Long-Term Tech Needs

The federal government is shifting to a policy that values flexibility, which means agencies will need to support more long-term telework setups.

On June 10, the Biden administration laid out its key principles for the future of federal work as the coronavirus pandemic continues and eventually recedes. In a lengthy memo from the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration, the agencies made plain that federal work probably isn’t going to look like it did pre-pandemic.

Indeed, what comes through in the 20-page memo is that hybrid work setups and more use of telework capabilities are going to be allowed on an expanded basis, and flexibility will be key. Agencies have until July 19 to submit their final phased plans for reentry and post-reentry.

The memo states that the government’s official operating status remains “open with maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees, pursuant to direction from agency heads.”

RELATED: How is the Defense Department supporting long-term telework?

What Will the Future of Federal Government Work Look Like?

As a result of stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic, the federal government quickly went from 3 percent of employees teleworking every day to 59 percent at the height of the pandemic, according to the 2020 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

OMB, OPM and GSA say in the memo that they expect hybrid work setups to be supported by many agencies.

“Many federal employees will remain primarily or fully onsite or return primarily to onsite work due to the nature of their work, such as delivery of onsite services, support activities in the field, or work with classified information or national-security topics,” the memo states.

At the same time, because of lessons learned across government about “the efficiencies achieved by flexible schedules and telework in many situations, when supported or sought by employees, and when consistent with the agency’s mission,” agencies should consider alternative approaches, the memo notes.

Those include an “increased use of flexible, alternative work schedules, as compared to prior to the pandemic,” as well as “opportunities for such employees, if eligible for telework, to do occasional situational telework, such as for training or administrative duties, on an increased basis as compared to prior to and during the pandemic.”

59%

The percentage of federal employees who teleworked every day at the height of the pandemic

Source: 2020 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

At the same time, the memo states, “many employees — more than prior to the pandemic — will engage in a mix of telework and onsite work.”

Employees who have been teleworking during the pandemic “generally will remain eligible for telework, at least on a situational basis,” the memo states, adding that “in many cases, agencies and sub-organizations will allow and plan for an increased ratio of telework over onsite work, for more employees, as compared to agency work environments prior to the pandemic.”

Such arrangements might include, for some employees, “a balanced mix of working offsite and onsite, including to satisfy business operations, teambuilding, and other needs,” the memo says.

“For other employees, such arrangements could mean teleworking a majority of the time or nearly full-time, with a requirement for employees under the General Schedule to report to the agency worksite at least twice each pay period to receive the locality rate associated with the agency worksite,” according to the memo.

FREE RESOURCES: Get your agency ready for a new way to work.

Assessing Long-Term Telework Needs

Given that the government is going to be more open than in the past to significant amounts of telework, agencies will need to assess their long-term technology needs to support such users.

As agencies develop their reentry and post-reentry plans, they should consider the technology needed to “support transformations of work processes both internal to agencies, such as meeting and conference capabilities that support in-person and virtual interactions, as well as customer-facing interfaces, such as technology support for equitable digital service delivery,” according to the memo.

They should also consider “workspace/workplace usage and mobility assessments, and opportunities to integrate remote work and sharing of spaces among federal agencies into mid- and longer-term real estate/property strategies.”

When conducting a post-reentry mobility assessment to understand shifts in employees’ perspectives on distributed work and the services they need to do their jobs, the memo states that agencies should take into account three factors.

Those include “which positions or job functions really need to be onsite” and “what do employees want and expect in terms of coming to the office post-pandemic, including in terms of health, safety, and cleaning procedures, among other expectations.”

Long-term, the memo notes, agencies can explore “what investments should be made to fill gaps in technology, home office equipment, and work support services to make work away from the office as productive as work at the office.”

Agencies can work with trusted third parties to conduct assessments of their work-from-home environments and IT needs.

Such assessments can include determining user and device data so that agency heads and IT leaders can have a clear understanding of the unique use cases and personas in their environment. The assessment could also include meaningful interviews with IT leaders to validate those findings.

Agencies can also work with third parties to conduct an analysis that determines the health of the end-user experience using real-world data. From there, partners can help agencies develop recommendations to optimize their telework environments. That can help IT leaders make better-informed technology choices, understand their IT options to streamline support and create a better user experience.

How Are Agencies Going to Approach Hybrid Work?

Agencies are still formulating their reentry and post-reentry plans, and it’s unclear how many of them will become public. However, there are some early indications that agencies are going to try to strike a delicate balance between supporting continued telework while maintaining agency missions and culture. It will likely take time for agencies to develop the capabilities they need to support long-term telework.

Jeff Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, tells NPR that he estimates that a little under half of the federal workforce — about a million workers — have jobs that they could do from home. He foresees the government transitioning to a hybrid approach over the long term.

“What I think we’re going to see is something that’s somewhere between what we had pre-pandemic and what we have now,” he said. “I think … you’re probably going to see more people working remotely. I don’t think every agency is going to say anybody who wants to work from home can.”

Writing for Federal News Network, Neal says that the OPM survey indicated that the shift to remote work caused more communication among employees.

“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,” he says. “That means more than just ZoomMicrosoft Teams, and other video conferencing software. Such a change is likely to require agencies to deploy better technology for communications and for performance management.”

Officials in the intelligence community, which deals with classified information more than almost any other element of the government, have indicated they are open to a hybrid work future.

“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 in mid-June during a FedInsider webinar, according to Federal News Network.

The intelligence community will likely continue to support telework for many employees, especially those who are dealing with unclassified information.

EXPLORE: What are best practices for ensuring devices used for telework are cyber-safe?

Agencies must also learn to conduct their missions with teams split between the office and home. “The challenge truly is around supervisors and managers learning how to best manage a team that is in different places at different times … and that also splits us into different [network] fabrics, and so it’s really learning how to think about the mission in a way that engages the whole of the team,” Kalweit said during an Intelligence National Security Alliance virtual event on June 22, according to FCW.

Neal says that in addition to morale, and the fact that some jobs (such as that of an aircraft mechanic) simply cannot be done remotely, agencies will need to continue to consider safety and that some employees still will not feel safe going into an office.

“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,” Neal writes. “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.”