Now that many agencies have been successfully teleworking for eight (?!) months, some organizations are rethinking their remote work and recruitment policies.
At least a few agencies are already hiring talent from around the country to fill positions that were once based out of the Washington, D.C. metro area. Many positions will remain full-time remote jobs.
It begs the question: once the pandemic is over and it’s safe to gather in large, stuffy office buildings again, what happens next?
Last week’s hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Financial Management revealed a lot of positivity about telework from some of the agencies present.
The subcommittee’s chairman and ranking member seemed interested in updating federal telework policy to conform with the times. Nearly everyone in the room (and those participating virtually) seemed excited about the recruitment and retention possibilities telework could bring.
Labor said it was already hiring new employees to positions that will be permanently remote. Transportation said it was considering similar arrangements, because the benefits of a bigger applicant pool were just too enticing to ignore.
Here are just a couple other takeaways, now that some agencies
Yes, managing people virtually is a challenge
The Labor Department’s chief human capital officer acknowledged the difficulties of managing employees virtually. Simply being there in person and periodically checking in on employees is easy. Once that tool is gone, it forces managers to get more creative.
Labor has tried to replicate some its morale-boosting activities, like the secretary’s annual employee award ceremony, virtually.
“It takes a lot of effort and you have to rethink the way you do things. Technology has given us the ability to be almost as good as being there, if we try and we use it,” Sydney Rose, Labor’s CHCO, told the Senate subcommittee.
The Social Security Administration is keeping live chat rooms open, so employees can replicate the “watercooler” conversations they previously had to check in, ask questions and touch base with each other.
“We found it to be very effective in keeping those connections that we’re all used to from our physical work space and perpetuating them,” said Jim Borland, SSA’s deputy chief information officer for IT operations.
Virtual onboarding is no longer a problem
It would have been problematic if they couldn’t at this stage of the pandemic, but agencies seem to have figured out how to virtually onboard new employees to their organizations.
Now that orientation is virtual, the Transportation Department has found that more senior leaders are available to join those sessions and welcome new employees to the agency.
Transportation also matches up new recruits with current employees as “sponsors.” These employees help their new colleagues navigate the agency and check in with them throughout the week.
The department has onboarded more than 500 employees virtually during the pandemic, and those remote orientation sessions probably aren’t going away after the health crisis, said Keith Washington, Transportation’s deputy assistant secretary for administration.
The Labor Department has onboarded nearly 1,000 new employees since March.
And the Social Security Administration said it’s had no problem setting up new customer service agents with the security credentials, laptops and other equipment they need to get started.
Looking for telework consistency? Look again
Despite the positivity from four agencies at last week’s telework hearing, it would be inaccurate to say that positivity is universal.
We know some agencies have moved more quickly than others to bring employees back to the office during the pandemic, and some managers are undoubtedly less than thrilled about the prospects of managing their employees virtually.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said she was disappointed last week’s hearing wasn’t completely virtual, but leadership at Transportation and Labor wanted their witnesses to testify in-person.
Some agencies have suggested telework will change the way they recruit new talent in the future, but those conversations are happening in pockets. What about the entire federal government?
How will new cabinet secretaries and agency leaders feel about telework — even after the pandemic?
And once the pandemic is over, will the next administration make widespread, regular telework the policy of the federal government? Will it issue guidance urging agencies to offer some permanent telework positions, and will it encourage departments to recruit new talent for those jobs from anywhere?
Will Congress step in, update the 10-year-old Telework Enhancement Act and legislate some of these changes for the federal workforce?
Unfortunately, we don’t have the answers yet. Just a lot of questions.
Nearly Useless Factoid
By Alazar Moges
Thomas Jefferson was famously the only Founding Father and early president who refused to declare days of thanksgiving and fasting in the United States. Unlike his political rivals, the Federalists, Jefferson believed in “a wall of separation between Church and State” and believed that endorsing such celebrations as president would amount to a state-sponsored religious worship.