Ask agencies today about their experience with telework since the start of the pandemic, and many of them will describe the leaps and bounds they made to quickly move their employees to a completely virtual environment.
Some will rave about the productivity of their employees, even despite the initial hiccups with bandwidth and virtual private network capacity, which they’ve largely addressed.
Many will talk about the steps their agencies have taken to outfit employees with second monitors or ergonomic keyboards. Others have found ways to allow their employees to print from home.
The next frontier for federal telework?
Allowing federal employees to work from anywhere — even if it’s several hundred miles away from their agency’s physical office space.
Several agencies say they’re actively considering it, even after social distancing is no longer a necessity.
“We are considering positions that are 100% telework, where that wasn’t the case before,” Jasmine Avila, a cybersecurity training and policy branch chief for Customs and Border Protection, said Wednesday at ACT-IAC’s virtual Executive Leadership Conference. “That means that we’re able to recruit from a geographically dispersed candidate pool, and we wouldn’t have to limit ourselves to the highly competitive D.C. market. That is something that is going to be something that we look forward to in the future. As time goes on, maybe we’ll have some dedicated virtual support folks working from wherever.”
Some CBP leaders have shifted their attitudes on telework since the pandemic, Avila said.
“Now they’re seeing that with the huge uptick in productivity, we’re able to get a lot done without ever seeing each other and without stepping foot in the office,” she said.
Other agencies say there’s a noticeable benefit in being able to advertise certain jobs as remote positions.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is advertising some 100% telework positions, said Natasha Hewlett, diversity and inclusion program manager for the agency. It’s not something she would have envisioned even a year or two ago, especially for a law enforcement agency.
“Our recruitment efforts now can expand more than just outside where our current workforce or our office location is,” she said. “Working from home and teleworking gives us the opportunity to bring in and target some of the new graduate students who are more inclined to go to jobs like Google that have more flexibility in their work schedules.”
The National Nuclear Security Administration, which already has a geographically-dispersed federal and contractor workforce, sees a high potential for previously-office bound employees to telework full-time, so much so that the agency reconsidered a move to new leased space it had originally planned for the spring.
Lewis Monroe, NNSA’s director of human resources, said the agency is instead focused on retrofitting current office space into sensitive compartmented information facilities (SCIFs) and other areas where employees can handle classified work.
“Now that we don’t have to entertain a [permanent change of station] authorization or a relocation incentive or something like that, we’re able to cast that net all across the country, and folks work right from home,” he said last week at a virtual workforce summit produced by Government Executive.
NNSA has also found success with virtual hiring fairs in the last several months.
At one hiring fair with NNSA and its contractors and partners, more than 3,000 people signed up to participate, including 2,000 who created a profile and uploaded their resumes to the agency’s virtual recruitment platform.
On the day of the event, 1,564 connected with NNSA through interviews, and hiring managers have followed up with the most promising candidates for further interviews, said Lewis Monroe, the agency’s director of human resources.
Since March, the agency has virtually hired more than 300 new employees, he added.
Many agencies said the benefits of expanding their recruitment pool for virtual internships or employment are noticeable, but there are other fringe benefits as well.
Avila said leaders can focus more on managing specific outcomes instead of employee tardiness or distractions.
“It’s also shifting the mindset toward more of a productivity-based, output-based workforce, versus [clocking] in from 8 to 4,” she said. “Now we’re looking more at [managing] by output. It doesn’t matter exactly when you work. If you have elderly parents or children that you need to take care of, as long as you meet the deadline and your work is of high quality, then we’re doing well.”
Virtual workforce poses new challenges for managers
Managing employees and specific work outcomes in a virtual environment poses new challenges too.
“It really is about putting the focus on coaching managers on why this is the time for them to hone in on those emotional intelligence skills,” said Traci DiMartini, chief human capital officer for the General Services Administration. “Because not only are we in the middle of a pandemic where we have to work virtually, but people have a lot of other stressors on them. They may be starting a new job while they’re also home-schooling their kids. They may be working a job while they’re also helping manage other family members who have become ill. You have to invest in that one-on-one communication, whether it be through a video chat or an email.”
Leaders play a role in helping their employees manage work-life balance, she said.
“If you don’t take the time to actually select people who have great management potential and you don’t invest in coaching and training them up to be good managers, they’re going to have a very difficult time doing it in a virtual world,” DiMartini said.
NNSA will require its leaders and supervisors to take dedicated training on managing a virtual workforce, Monroe said. That training is especially critical for managers tasked with onboarding brand new employees, he said.
“Nothing is more important than that first step in the virtual door — that that employee understands they are part of the team, they’re going to be given all the resources they need to be successful and they’re going to be given an opportunity to become acclimated into the workforce and the work environment, even through a virtual process,” Monroe said.