One big question: how does everyone return to the office?

The IBM Center for the Business of Government has leveraged a series of commentaries it wrote for Washington Technology into a new report exploring how the sudden rush to telework is reshaping the workplace.

Over the summer, we ran a series of commentaries led by John Kamensky exploring the workplace of the future.

They were triggered by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden rush to remote work. Kamensky, a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business Of Government, and his co-authors laid out the myriad considerations and impacts of teleworking in their series of commentaries.

The IBM Center has now packaged those commentaries into a new report: Distance Work Arrangements: The Workplace of the Future is Now.

A few things stick out to me from the series and this report. Telework is nothing new. Many agencies have encouraged telework since the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, but its growth was slow until the pandemic hit and we were forced into large scale remote work. That sudden shift raised a significant number of questions and concerns that Kamensky and his colleagues explore.

Here is one major conclusion: whether you call it remote work or telework or distance work, working away from the office will remain a common practice long after the pandemic has subsided.

Kamensky and his co-authors take on multiple aspects of remote work. They look at industry perspectives and what it means to federal and state and local workplaces.

One of my favorites was the last in the series they wrote for Washington Technology. Kamesnky, Sheri Fields and Michaela Drust shared their experiences based on the perspectives of their individual generations: Kamensky as the boomer, Fields as a Gen Xer, and Drust bringing her Millennial perspective.

The challenges they all faced working from home full-time reflect where they are in their lives. But a common theme is that each recognized a need to balance their work and personal lives. Finding that right balance is a challenging all of us face.

Working in an office often forces a deadline to stop working. As Drust says, working from her kitchen island meant she didn’t have to turn work off to rush to catch the Metro. In my case, it would be trying to beat traffic to get the boys before the school closed its aftercare program at 6. We all have similar dilemmas.

The IBM report includes an extra commentary that did not run on Washington Technology. It asks this question -- "Should the U.S. Go Back to the Office After COVID-19?" It is written by IBM Fellow Lawrence Tobin, who is a U.S. Army major detailed to IBM to learn about industry best practices.

He describes a decision matrix to weigh the pros and cons of returning to the office. Among the questions he asks are:

  • How do you measure employee success?
  • Is it productivity alone?
  • Are employees treated equally regarding responsibilities?
  • Do you only bring back those who want to come back to the office?

He rightly asks another underlying question about how to determine where the line is between work and personal. If work can be done from anywhere and at any time, can a supervisor make a request at any time? Where is the line?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but the IBM center’s report provides a foundation of knowledge that both reviews our recent history. The report also presents framework of what to consider as we move forward.