Leaders from the federal and private sectors discussed how the coronavirus pandemic has changed traditional expectations in the workplace, and how agencies can maintain team culture and continue to develop their employees, when ‘a MeriTalk webinar on September 30.
Federal agencies have spent over 18 months learning how to work in a remote or hybrid work environment. During this time, agencies had to learn how to onboard new employees, continue their professional training, maintain the culture of the agency and ensure data security in a completely new working environment.
During the webinar, Clifton G. Douglas Jr., Deputy Director of the Strategic Issues Team at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Jose M. Arvelo, Senior Director of Federal Engineering at Citrix Systems, Tony Holmes, Head of Practice for Public Sector Solutions Architects at Pluralsight, and Erin Howe, Vice President of Strategy and Global Operations at Keeper Security, shared their insights and lessons learned over the past 18 months.
Agencies need to embrace hybrid work environments
While the shift to telecommuting may have been directly caused by the pandemic, the wider trend towards remote working is unlikely to end even after the end of the public health crisis. On the contrary, Holmes said agencies need to embrace the new way of working. He said agencies are challenged to step out of their comfort zone and must view the new hybrid work environment as an opportunity for change and modernization.
Arvelo argued that the hybrid environment helps agencies attract and retain top talent. He explained that the most skilled talent may not live in the Washington, DC area, and that a telecommuting environment allows agencies to hire the best people, regardless of where they live. Agencies must agree to offer this level of flexibility to their employees, because “this is a new expectation that everyone has,” he added. So organizations should focus on providing employees with the tools they need to be successful, no matter where they connect.
When it comes to helping agencies succeed with telecommuting, Clifton said they need to make sure they have hard data to back up what they think works and what they don’t. operate in teleworking. In addition to researching hard data, agencies also need to make sure they have a reference person to lead the telework load. He explained that the contact person should be responsible for developing telecommuting policies, providing advice to employees, and ensuring that agencies and employees have the technology they need for telecommuting.
Workplace culture is essential
All of the panelists agreed that maintaining an optimal work culture is essential to helping teams continue to fulfill an agency’s mission – and that telecommuting can make it more difficult to maintain the desired culture.
The past 18 months have been “tumultuous,” explained Howe, who added that the pandemic has forced agencies to shift on employee engagement. The key to maintaining employee engagement is making sure they understand how the work they do aligns with the goals and mission of the organization – essentially making sure they know their work is important. Before the pandemic, Howe said, it was fairly easy to stop by someone’s desk and have conversations with individual employees. But in a hybrid work environment, she said, “managers need to be more diligent in these conversations.”
In addition to keeping current employees engaged, Howe stressed that during the onboarding process, managers need to ensure that new employees “really feel connected” to the organization. They “need to make sure people have a solid experience on day one, week one” by generating a high level of engagement and enthusiasm, even when onboarding is virtual.
As some workers begin to return to the office, Douglas said GAO is working with agencies to ensure performance is measured equally for in-person and remote workers. On top of that, he said agencies need to make sure they understand the impact of someone working remotely on someone working in the office, and vice versa. To that end, Douglas said GAO is currently working on a report to Congress – due for release in January 2022 – that will examine how agencies have used telecommuting before and after the pandemic, whether the agencies have policies in place. to facilitate telecommuting and how agencies responded to the challenges of telecommuting.
Adaptable, Agile training is the key
The panelists also stressed the importance of offering continuous training to employees not only to adapt to the hybrid work environment, but also to help them adopt new technologies that will lead to the agency’s mission.
Holmes specifically looked at this topic, explaining that organizations need to make sure they give employees the training they need so they can “reach out and grab what they need.” He added that leaders need to understand where their teams are now and where they need to go. Understanding the destination is easy, he said, but figuring out where a team is now is a much bigger task.
To help teams get to their destination, training needs to be flexible and agile. Holmes argued that we need to meet employees where they are and understand that organizations give people much less time to learn than in the past. On top of that, he said the speed of technology is lightning fast, which means the half-life of tech skills is decreasing. To overcome these barriers, leaders must support adaptability and creative problem solving, as well as empower people with the tools they need to fill learning gaps. “We have to make sure [employees] have the tools and leadership has the knowledge “they need,” he said.
Data security changes are needed
Part of adopting and adapting to the hybrid workplace is making sure agencies protect data. Howe said cross-agency collaboration is a critical part of adopting hybrid work. The key to this is cybersecurity so that data and files can be shared without compromising credentials.
Before the pandemic, Arvelo explained, agency IT teams had much more control over employee devices and networks. However, as employees become more mobile, the ability of agency IT teams to control everything decreases and the risk of data and device theft increases.
In response, Arvelo said agencies need to work on abstraction of agency data from physical devices. He added that agencies need to make sure they don’t put themselves in a situation where they have a stolen device and have to scramble to make sure everything is secure against data breaches.
To help secure agency information, Arvelo said agencies need to embrace secure digital workspaces. With a secure digital workspace, all data is completely independent of the physical device. By using a secure digital workspace, even if a device is lost or the network the device is on is compromised, data is not lost or compromised, he said.
Listen to the full conversation to find out more.