Contractors grapple with the future of the workforce
As the world inches closer to normal, executives share lessons learned and changes need for the future
- By Nick Wakeman
- Jun 07, 2021
The U.S. is increasingly reopening and more employees are returning to their offices, so government contractors are applying lessons learned to create what the “new normal” will look like.
That continues to be a work in progress. At a Washington Technology roundtable discussion in late April, executives from companies of all sizes shared how they weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, what worked, what didn’t and how they are preparing for a new way of doing business.
The discussion was on the record, but we operated under Chatham House rules in that comments from participants will not be attributed to them or their companies. See the sidebar to view who attended.
As these executives shared their experiences, it was remarkable how quickly they pivoted their own operations and supported their customers when the pandemic first hit. In the early days of COVID, there were many unknowns and the planning and preparation often defaulted to the worst case scenario.
“The big question was how do we manage our talent,” one executive said. “What if we have to do layoffs? Will we lose contracts? Will we do furloughs?”
A second exec relayed how a major customer refused to let its workers go remote. “We were afraid,” he said. “No one new how COVID passed from person to person.”
Executive vice president, GTL
President and CEO, ASI Government
Senior director, federal sales and strategy, Citrix
Director of business development, Citrix
CEO, Gunnison Consulting Group
President and CEO, A-Tek Inc.
Vice president and chief information officer, General Dynamics IT
President and CEO, CyberCore Technologies
Principal director, federal CIO advisory services, Accenture
CEO, C2 Technologies
Vice president, Maximus
CEO, 22nd Century Technologies
Chief operating officer, Peraton
Note: Washington Technology Editor-in-Chief Nick Wakeman led the roundtable discussion. The April 14, 2021, virtual gathering was underwritten by Citrix, but both the substance of the discussion and the published article are strictly editorial products. Neither Citrix nor any of the participants had input beyond their April 14 comments.
The answer was to get creative. Like many companies with intelligence community customers, they increased cubicle sizes to separate people. Teams were created and workers began working in shifts. Unfortunately, productivity went down in some cases.
But that was often the exception. Within a few short weeks, it seemed everyone was working remote, customers and contractors alike. Everyone was getting up to speed with using multiple video conferencing and collaboration platforms. The supply chain was strained as laptops were ordered and distributed.
But work was getting done.
“It was a really big achievement. In three weeks we had close to 8,000 people working remote,” an executive said, referring to their own employees as well as the customer they were supporting.
Lesson number one from those early days was to make decisions quickly but also incrementally.
“You don’t make sweeping decisions,” another executive said. “You don’t try to predict what you don’t know.”
Companies focused on what they could control. A critical component was employee safety and well-being.
“Our leadership teams really needed to focus on communications and leading with empathy,” an executive said. “You have to have conversations with employees in a different way.”
Many companies created groups so people suddenly working from home could stay connected with each other. This drove home the diversity of workforce needs. You had some people who were single and living alone. Others who had small children in virtual school. So too were those with elderly parents that needed care.
Affinity groups center around common needs and situations pulled these people together to share their experiences and support one another.
Many companies brought in doctors to educate leadership, so decisions would be made based on facts and not fear.
The situation evolved as the pandemic dragged on. One executive shared that 70 percent of his employees wanted some time back in the office. This led the company to change how the offices were cleaned and configured.
Some companies installed air and ultraviolet filters and equipped doors with pulls that let you open doors with your feet.
No consensus emerged among the executives about the ultimate number of full-time people in the office. All acknowledged that some will never return, but that the majority will likely be in the office a few days a week. Between two and three days was the most cited range. A minority want to return full time.
“Some people really need adult interactions,” one executive said.
One message that has been clear from employees is that many want the ability to return to the office on a regular basis but they want to return to the office when it has a purpose – collaboration, brainstorming sessions, training. They do not want to come to the office if it is to make phone calls and complete paperwork.
“No one wants to be on the (Capital) Beltway for hours just to do that,” an executive said.
Many companies found that they could do things during a pandemic that they didn’t think they could do: make and integrate an acquisition, bid and proposals work on a major contract, new hires including executives being on-boarded, to name a few.
“We learned to do a lot of things on the fly,” one executive said.
After nearly a year-and-a-half, the expectation is that things will be done differently going forward and particularly with the workforce.
Some customers may be pushing for a full return to the office, but companies are carefully pushing back because they fear what that will do for recruitment and retention, plus for maintaining productivity.
“The future workforce has grown up doing this,” an exec said. “They get out of bed, get on their laptop and work. A lot of leaders are sensitive to this and want to build a bridge and accommodate that.”
Back-office functions, in particular, are ripe for a long-term remote environment.
“I can now recruit somebody that lives in Tennessee, Minnesota or California. They don’t have to be physically close,” another executive said.
Several attendees also voiced the fear that if customers want contractors to be onsite, especially software and systems engineers, recruitment and retention will be a big challenge.
“They can find jobs anywhere and find jobs in the commercial sector that allows them to work remote,” one said.
There are legitimate concerns about security and particularly for mission systems, so industry as a whole needs to develop the tools and the processes that increase security and the comfort level of the customer.
“No one wants to be the person that said, OK to remote work and then there’s a breach,” an executive said. “But this isn’t going away.”
Several conversations and pilots are underway that divides software development, for example, into work that can be done outside a secure facility and then brought in for the so-called “high side” for highly-sensitive work.
“Customers are willing to have those conversations,” an executive said.
“There is a lot that can be done off-site that doesn’t compromise security,” another said.
The executives acknowledge that they are still looking for ways to foster comradery with remote teams. One said they now start meetings with informal chatting. Sometimes that lasts 5 minutes. Sometimes 25.
Some worry that the informal exchange of information and knowledge isn’t taking place.
But the other side of the coin is the increase in productivity, though some worry whether it is sustainable.
How you manage employees will likely change forever with more emphasis being placed on outcomes and results rather than time and attendance.
“I know some companies check and make sure people are online and there are tools for that,” an executive said. “But I think it has to come down to performance.”
But defining performance for a remote worker takes more effort on the part of managers, this executive said. “We’ve all seen people who show up at the office and don’t do anything.”
Companies need to redefine expectations, how you manage career paths, training, as well as how to measure performance.
“I’m not there yet. I’m still learning but I think we all have to do that,” the executive said.
Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.