Aug 06 2021

How Should Agencies Handle the Shift to Hybrid Work?

Federal IT influencers share their perspectives on the changing nature of how government functions.

In June, the Biden administration empowered federal agencies to embrace telework and hybrid work setups as a long-term way of operating, a sharp contrast to the government’s approach before the pandemic.

Although the delta variant of the coronavirus and a rise in cases is complicating agencies’ plans to return more workers to offices this fall, it does seem like hybrid work will be a key element of how government functions moving forward.

FedTech recently asked several members of its 2021 30 Federal IT Influencers Worth a Follow list for their thoughts on hybrid work and how agencies can successfully navigate the transition. There will need to be a clear focus on technology to enable as seamless an experience between working from home and in an office as possible. However, there also needs to be a deliberate approach to getting the cultural aspect of hybrid work right so that all employees feel included.

The Tech and IT Management Needed for Hybrid Work

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 Office of Personnel Management’s 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Former NASA CIO Renee Wynn, now an IT consultant, says that agencies should look at that survey and then approach a hybrid work environment “with an eye toward learning and experimentation.”

Some questions Wynn recommends IT leaders ask are:

  • Are your collaboration tools truly helping your employees to do their work?
  • Are the tools you are using secure?
  • Do the tools work and help employees using assistive devices?

“Besides answering questions, conduct town halls and hold managers plus executives accountable for helping employees operate in a hybrid environment,” Wynn says. “That’s their No. 1 job anyway.”

William Eggers, executive director of Deloitte’s Center for Government Insights, says hybrid work “can be transformative, but it’s important to approach it in a way that acknowledges the nuances associated with it,” and that “while the shift to remote work at the start of the pandemic was forced, quick and dirty, the move to hybrid should be intentional and measured.”

Eggers suggests IT leaders “assess the work people do, and where they are most productive doing it” to determine the best setup for employees. He also suggests that leaders “integrate equity into working norms” and work to avoid a situation where those in a physical office have access to more opportunities than those working from home.

“For example, you might implement equitable meeting practices such as having everyone log in to a virtual call regardless of location and documenting meeting notes for everyone to access,” Eggers says.

Technology will be a key element of success of the hybrid model, according to Eggers, where the right tools and technology are taken as a given. “This means making sure that employees have broadband access and the right mix of digital platforms and technologies that enable teams to connect, collaborate and deliver on their mission from anywhere,” he says.

Renee Wynn
Besides answering questions, conduct town halls and hold managers plus executives accountable for helping employees operate in a hybrid environment.”

Renee Wynn Former CIO, NASA

Wynn advises that for a hybrid environment to work, agencies need to provide training on how to work in a hybrid environment.

“Don’t accept, ‘We’ve been hybrid for years’ as the answer,” she says. “You may not truly know what was happening. Tools must be secure, even from home networks, they must integrate well with other systems, be easy to use, use single sign-on and promote engagement for all, including those using assistive technology.”

Eggers also advises that agencies adopt the “secure teleconferencing technologies as well as channels like instant messaging/chat tools for informal conversations.” Another key technology is virtual collaboration technology to enable “real-time collaboration using asynchronous and synchronous tools such as virtual whiteboarding and brainstorming tools, task management and tracking tools, platforms that support shared documents, and multiuser working sessions.”

Another set of tools Eggers advocates for are those that enable knowledge transfer and documentation.

“Making tacit knowledge explicit through the capture and dissemination of information becomes important as well as challenging in a hybrid setup,” he says. “Ensuring that important documents, knowledge and conversations are available, searchable and accessible to workers through centralized, virtual repositories can help mitigate bottlenecks in information flow.”

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

Be Attentive to Agency Culture as Much as Technology

Eggers also supports the introduction of “tools and resources that support worker well-being and physical and mental health.” Those are needed now more than ever, influencers say.

Just as important as the maintenance of IT is a focus on agency culture, and ensuring that employees feel safe, connected to each other and their mission, and not left out by changing modes of work.

Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat, another influencer, tells FedScoop that leaders are going to have to become more accustomed to leading both employees who work in the office and those who work remotely. “We have to be cognizant of how we interact, maintain relationships and reach out to people that may not be in-person as frequently as others,” she says. “This requires conscious action to not exclude people just because they’re not in person.”

Wynn argues that agency cultures “must adapt from the pandemic to the hybrid environment.”

“Put an executive in charge and hold her responsible,” Wynn says. “This person must have the authority to make changes and have the full support of the head of the department or agency. If your culture was toxic prior to the pandemic, it probably hasn’t improved, and I recommend you hire and listen to an organizational development person.”

Eggers says agencies should shift their focus “from an activities-based to outcomes-based style of management and performance evaluation.”

“Rather than trying to monitor inputs, activities or how many hours a worker spends working — which can be harder and sometimes feel like surveillance when working in a remote or hybrid setup — focus on and measure the outcomes or results generated,” he says.

IT and agency leaders should also use this moment as an opportunity to “experiment and challenge orthodoxies” around federal work. “With hybrid work, agencies have an opportunity and need to understand what parts of talent management and the way work gets done should stay, and which parts can go away,” he says. “This calls for a willingness to think differently and question long-held beliefs.”

Finally, Eggers argues agencies should renew their focus on transparency and trust. “Creating purposeful events for in-person meetings and opportunities to develop interpersonal relationships can help build the connection and trust that are so necessary for high-performance teams,” he says. “Transparent and frequent communication from leaders is instrumental in building and restoring trust within the workforce, particularly in times of uncertainty or large-scale change, such as what’s happening today.”

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