Jul 14 2021

Technology Inclusivity, Maintaining Culture Will Factor into Feds’ Shift to Hybrid Work

As federal agencies adapt to hybrid operating models, agency and IT leaders will need to consider more than whether the videoconferencing tools work.

Hybrid work seems to be the future of federal work — at least that’s the subtext of a recent memo from the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration outlining governmental policy on everything from telework to occupancy limits in offices.

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

While many employees will return to agency offices, the memo states, “many employees — more than prior to the pandemic — will engage in a mix of telework and onsite work.”

As part of that shift, federal agency heads and IT leaders will need to consider not just whether they will have the technology in place to support such work setups but also how the tech will be used by employees, according to federal officials and experts. That will require ensuring users have access to accessibility tools to perform their jobs, as well as a concerted effort to create an inclusive culture.

In a recent CDW Tech Talk, Tara Barbieri, vice president for integrated services orchestration at CDW, said that while it may seem like a “soft skill,” a key element of supporting a distributed workforce is “trust and communication.”

“I think when you’re a distributed team, you’ve just got to have a lot more transparency and be a lot more deliberate with the information you push out, and how you push it out,” she said.

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What Will Hybrid Work Look Like in Government?

In many instances, the federal memo says, agencies and suborganizations “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.

Hybrid work tools will need to be inclusive and support all users’ abilities and disabilities, according to Daniel Pomeroy, the deputy associate administrator at the Office of Information Integrity and Access at the General Services Administration.

During a July 7 webinar hosted by GovLoop, Pomeroy noted that agencies will face challenges in integrating onsite and remote employees while maximizing everyone’s capabilities.

“It’s incumbent upon all of us that we make accommodations and be fully inclusive,” he said, according to MeriTalk.

Moving forward, Pomeroy said, agencies need to know which toolsets they have — and which ones they don’t — so that they can support all users in focusing on the agency’s mission.

“Agencies must assess and provide reasonable accommodations to meet employee needs, whether that be text-to-voice document features or audio descriptions,” he said. “And if we are proactive in this effort to build a toolset that has a high level of inclusion, then we can maximize a broader workforce.”

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

Maintaining Culture Is Critical to Hybrid Work

That inclusivity extends to the office culture. Barbieri said it is important to embrace a “philosophy of access to information and making sure everybody feels included.”

“And so, one of the rules we set on our team — and I know other leaders who’ve done this as well — is, if it’s a virtual meeting, everyone’s virtual,” she said. “Even if three people happen to be in the same building or location, everyone’s got this kind of quality of being in the same system, of being one of the little boxes on the screen with the same audio hiccups and difficulties of maybe breaking into a conversation.”

Sherry Van Sloun, assistant director of national intelligence for human capital at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said agency leaders need to become more “intentional” when engaging digitally with teleworkers.

“There’s just going to be some cultural shifts in how we think about engaging with each other and looking at ways we can communicate differently and still stay engaged,” she said during a June 15 FedInsider webinar, according to MeriTalk. “I think that’s going to be a growth area for all of us as we kind of get this down to the middle-level managers and below to really find ways to engage and continue that communication that, you know, used to be going on every day as we saw each other in the office.”

Barbieri also stressed the importance of being intentional about communication and “careful to not have side chats or people feeling excluded because there’s a core group with maybe only one or two people who are on the video system.”

EXPLORE: How is the Defense Department supporting telework?

“So, I’d say, one of the things you struggle with here is just getting people to understand — especially if they’re not used to being the person who’s remote — how that feels, and appreciating that that kind of deliberate focus around communication is really important in order to continue to keep your community together,” she added.

Barbieri discussed how, during the heart of the pandemic, her team set up a virtual channel to let employees post “random thoughts, what they did that weekend, ask a question about a passion that they have or a hobby, in order to replace that casual interaction that you might have in the lunchroom because people didn’t have that.”

She stressed that it became more important for employees to “fill in some social gaps” for their colleagues and take more care about each other’s health and wellness.

Susan Kalweit, senior associate for culture and leader excellence at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, said during the June 15 webinar that there should be workforce training with a focus on creating “a culture and inclusive environment for the entire team.” She noted that some employees are likely going to be excited about returning to offices, while others will be apprehensive.

“Culture always goes back to the human and how humans are feeling,” Kalweit said. “What we came to recognize during COVID as emotional resilience, I think, continues to be a very valid need in this post-pandemic environment.”