What does the dramatic shift to telework mean for GovCon's future?

The rapid shift to telework driven by COVID-19 is raising significant questions for individual workers and the organizations they work for. We look at what's working well, what challenges are ahead and what we don't know yet.

Dave Garrett, with the Project Management Institute, says that 73 percent of American professionals believe their companies will update their telework policies based on their experience during the pandemic. It is less clear what the trend will be in the public sector specifically, but it will likely be greater than the federal government’s 22 percent pre-pandemic rate.

What does this dramatic shift in how and where we work mean for individual workers? What’s working for them? What are some of the challenges and solutions? And what haven’t we figured out yet about being effective in distance work arrangements? We’ll explore these three questions at a personal level in this blog post, and at an organizational and managerial level in a subsequent post.

What’s Working Well for Individuals Working from Home?

When the Office of Management and Budget directed agencies in mid-March to maximize telework flexibility, some agencies found themselves unprepared and lagging. Others were able to swiftly shift successfully. However, agencies were not the only ones forced to adapt; their individual employees were too. For many, it was a pleasant surprise. Following are three outcomes of the telework experiment:

A more flexible lifestyle. Increasing remote work capabilities has allowed some federal employees to lead more flexible lives, a benefit that might not always be possible in on-site work settings. With many employees working from home with children, some agencies have implemented flexible work hours to allow employees the ability to care for their families and fit work into their schedule. For some families, this led to shiftwork. This increase in flexibility has improved employee productivity during designated work hours, ultimately leading to a boost in creativity. While creativity is often not a critical skill for all positions, it has the potential to reinvent solutions and develop fresh insights.

Schedule flexibility can optimize workers who are morning people versus night owls, as well. Jim Cortada, a former IBM Senior Research Fellow who pioneered corporate telework in the 1990s and now teaches at the University of Minnesota, found that with this flexibility, “employees put in as many hours (or more) as they did in offices and plants, often diverting time spent commuting now to work.” The experiences of federal organizations that have implemented flexible hours have strongly paralleled this, meaning that both employees and agencies can benefit from flexible schedules if they do not threaten the mission.

More personal autonomy.  Because individuals who traditionally work in an office setting are on their own, they face similar challenges as those who have been working in the gig economy – they have to be more self-managed and organize their time to be effective. Some find that a visual checklist helps self-motivation. But this also means they can:

  • organize their time how they want and have an opportunity to work in a quiet environment with fewer interruptions (for those who don’t have young children to tutor or care for!).
  • avoid multi-tasking interruptions that are often a dynamic in an office setting.
  • take more responsibility for managing their own career paths and skill development.
  • have more control over their calendars to attend children’s school events, run errands, etc.

Increased job satisfaction. A 2016 report from the US Government Accountability Office found that remote work improved the retention rate of federal employees, meaning that increasing telework capabilities post-COVID-19 could reduce overall hiring costs for federal agencies. Because the achievement of a more equitable work-life balance increases employee satisfaction and reduces burnout, continuing remote work practices could also appeal to a younger talent pool that strongly values flexibility in job prospects.

What Challenges Need to Be Overcome?

In some ways, gig workers have been pioneers for distance work arrangements.  Alexandra Cote has been working remotely for three years and writes that it can be hard to get used to because there is a blur between work and home life. If not managed, this overlap can result in longer hours that can lead to burnout.  Following are several other challenges that she and others have raised:

Isolation. A 2018 study reports that 46 percent of people experience loneliness on a regular basis. And that's in general. Cote notes that remote workers are at an even higher risk of experiencing loneliness without meaningful interpersonal interactions with colleagues, especially if coworkers are in different time zones and have to communicate asynchronously. Countering this requires an active strategy on the part of remote workers to create informal links with colleagues via collaboration tools to overcome a sense of isolation.

Childcare. Ironically, the opposite of isolation is a challenge for those with children. Everyone’s support system has been disrupted by stay-at-home orders, and these remote workers have no control over their situation. With no daycare and/or with children having online classes or requiring parental tutoring, juggling work commitments can be straining. The hope is that this dynamic will be temporary, and that distance work will be able to continue as childcare and schooling arrangements return to some semblance of normal.

Tech tools. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that employees experienced at the onset of remote work was engagement in informal or incidental communication. Suddenly, the casual exchanges of information or informal brainstorming that are natural during in-person communication had to migrate online to maintain productivity. As a solution, employees turned to agency-provided tools like Slack and Zoom to facilitate collaboration and preserve sociality, and access to collaborative technologies is only improving. For Vince Stamper, a Navy civilian manager at a shipyard in Maine, remote work has actually allowed him to connect with his employees more than ever through virtual tools such as FaceTime.

What Haven’t We Figured Out Yet?

What’s not clear is how individuals and organizations can sustain a distant work environment in the long run. How do you onboard and share culture with new staff in a virtual world?  It’s easier to start with pre-existing in-person relationships and social infrastructure, and then move online. If you search “future of work after COVID-19,” you’ll find numerous links on how work has been irrevocably altered by this sudden, dramatic shift to working from home. While we have learned and innovated and overcome challenges, there are still important issues to be addressed. Following are three such issues:

Preserving and creating interpersonal ties. In a traditional, in-office, in-person environment, we develop both strong and weak interpersonal ties with colleagues. In the workplace, strong ties are usually in closely aligned workgroups that tend to have access to the same broad sets of information. Weak ties are the infrequent interactions and relationships that may develop randomly from seeing the same person often in the break room, on your floor, or in the parking garage.

The value of weak ties is that they bridge gaps and spread information between workgroups. As Aaron Renn notes in his online post at Governing, “knowledge doesn’t just diffuse online, but through face-to-face contacts. This is how people hear the latest news, trends, and gossip.”

Studies find that distance work arrangements make strong ties stronger, and weak ties weaker. But it is the weak ties that oftentimes create new ideas. Observers fear that the damage to an organization’s culture may not show for a year or two, in terms of the quality of new ideas that are surfaced. This is because it is harder to build trust and cohesion virtually.

Renn also notes that even strong bonds are at risk as turnover naturally occurs. “It’s one thing to start working remotely when your colleagues are people you formerly worked with in-person every day. It’s quite another when it’s a group of people you don’t have pre-existing personal relationships with.”

Staying aligned with organizational priorities.  This is hard enough when managers see their teams every day, workers talk over cubicle walls, and leaders can have in-person town calls in multiple locations. It requires increased effort when workers are at home, and don’t have easy follow-up opportunities when they meet with colleagues or managers. To overcome this challenge, Stanford academics Melissa Valentine and Jen Rhymer contemplate an organization with an ambitious level of transparency and trust:

  • “Opening a single source of truth” that gives employees insight to strategy and priorities;
  • “Breaking down the barriers to sharing work” and shifting to the mindset of getting comfortable with work that isn’t perfect and polished; and
  • “Creating a rich public decision trail” to help employees understand how and why a decision was made.

Supporting colleagues challenged by telework. Not every employee can easily transition to working from home. In addition to the availability of a suitable device that connects to the network, workers may face challenges – such as connectivity, security, and bandwidth –  that employers cannot always solve for them.

Workers may have to compete for space, devices, or connectivity with other family members who are also at home. In addition, workers living in rural areas may have limited access to internet. Employers can help by subsidizing internet service and  investing in collaboration applications that allow workers to work offline and periodically upload their output. Employers who don’t offer these arrangements may find business-sensitive information stored in insecure locations, as creative employees try to find ways to get work done and share information with colleagues.

Working from home can also affect relationships and caregiving responsibilities, especially while children are out of school. The New York Times found a difference in how men and women perceived they are contributing to homeschooling their children compared with the amount of time actually spent homeschooling. A working paper authored by Daniel Carlson, Richard Petts and Joanna Pepin found that households sharing domestic responsibilities equally between parents were more likely to share the increased workload of homeschooling. In households that were less egalitarian, increased responsibilities tended to fall on women.

Working from home also presents special challenges to creating inclusive environments. Erving Goffman first introduced the term “covering” in the 1960s to describe how individuals would downplay a known difference such as gender, race, or disability to shift focus away from what makes them noticeably different. It is a practice that continues today. A Deloitte study reports 61 percent of survey respondents engage in covering. A recent Harvard Business Review article by Laura Morgan Roberts and Courtney L. McCluney offers excellent insight into how distance work may increase the sense of vulnerability for Black workers, which needs to be understood by coworkers.

In sum, there are advantages, challenges, and unresolved issues related to an individual worker’s use of distance work arrangements. However, these same issues also affect agency leaders and managers, and how an agency’s culture is sustained or changed.  That will be the topic of the next in this series on distance work in today’s government.

Note: This post is the sixth in a series on distance work:

Part 1: The Future of Work is Suddenly Here: “Distance Work” is Transforming the Workplace.

Part 2:  How Is the Private Sector Pivoting to “Distance Work?”

Part 3: What’s Been Government’s Experience with Distance Work Over the Past Decade?

Part 4: What’s Happening Today with Federal Distance Work?

Part 5: Distance Work: What’s Happening at the State and Local Levels?

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