Reimagining US federal work for the postpandemic world

Government leaders can use lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis to bolster productivity and ensure effective mission delivery.

The COVID-19 pandemic imposed unprecedented challenges on US government organizations, whose agencies and departments had to act quickly to enable remote work. Limited technical infrastructure, complex processes, and mixed telework and work-from-home policies, combined with significant security constraints, made the rapid transition to remote work challenging. Over the past months, government leaders have worked to address the most significant near-term pandemic pain points, including rapidly disseminating remote collaboration tools 1 and increasing access to sick leave. 2

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As a new administration moves forward with plans to revitalize the federal workforce and act on the nation’s most pressing challenges, it will be critical for government leaders to address the needs uncovered by the pandemic in order to ensure resilient, efficient, and effective mission delivery. Leaders can take action now—as the workforce begins to slowly return to the office—to safeguard the mission, preserve productivity, and bolster workforce health in both this current context and for future crises. Based on our experience and our extensive work on the COVID-19 response, we see four priority areas for leaders to continue to address: remote or flexible work models, technology, automation, and facilities.

Leaders can take action now to safeguard the mission, preserve productivity, and bolster workforce health in both this current context and for future crises.

The new post-COVID-19 imperative for public-sector organizations

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As the workplace arrangements of the COVID-19 pandemic have made clear, remote work is possible for a range of tasks, and many employees find they prefer it. As a result, organizations competing for top talent and leaders seeking to revitalize the federal workforce will need to carefully consider policies that provide opportunities for remote work or flexible models that support a diverse workforce.

Leaders will also need to ensure that their workforces have access, where possible, to all relevant technologies so that they’re able to work at any time of day or in any place. Many government personnel cannot access key systems—including email and required software—outside the office, or are not equipped with government-issued technology, including laptops, monitors, and keyboards. This access has been crucial during the pandemic but will also ensure operations continuity during more mundane occurrences such as inclement weather.

The pandemic also highlighted the amount of time government personnel spends on low-value tasks, including one-off office visits for rote tasks such as timesheet submission or repeated business processes such as the completion of acquisition forms. By implementing a robust automation program, organizations can help their workforces refocus efforts on mission-critical tasks.

And finally, government leaders can also rethink facilities footprints and layouts to better align with new workplace needs.

Initiatives to drive progress in priority focus areas

Leaders need a bold action plan to address these priority areas—including both long-term, transformative initiatives and quick wins to address immediate pain points and create momentum for the effort. Within these topics, leading organizations can focus on several types of initiatives.

Update workforce policies to enable greater flexibility

Enabling greater work flexibility, including flexible work locations and hours, additional training, and an intentionally developed workforce culture can help organizations both deliver their mission more effectively and continue to attract and retain top talent. The majority of the US workforce—86 percent—would like to work remotely at least one day a week postpandemic. A survey of federal workers and contractors found that nearly half—48 percent—would like to work remotely full-time. 3 Flexible policies may very well be critical to future talent strategies, as a recent survey found that 28 percent of US employees would consider looking for a new job if their current employer returned to a fully on-site model.

As an example, the headquarters of the US Air Force announced an ambitious new telework policy 4 in September 2020 that expands telework access with the goal of increasing performance, improving work–life balance, and reducing costs. While not all positions will be remote, Air Force leadership has made it clear that telework is here to stay. 5

Leading organizations have deployed the following example workforce policy initiatives:

  • Remote-work classification. Organizations can develop a system for classifying jobs and individuals based on whether roles and tasks can be performed off-site, taking into account elements of the actual role as well as mission and technology needs, not just the criticality of the position. Some roles, for example, may have security requirements that mandate on-site presence, and some individuals may have developmental needs that require them to be in the office. Once this classification is complete, managers will need to take a team-level approach to scheduling remote work so that on-site work has the appropriate coverage.
  • Updated performance-review criteria. Leaders can take care to ensure that employees are not penalized for taking advantage of the new flexible models. Performance-review criteria should be adjusted to reflect new skills such as effectively managing a hybrid team. (A hybrid work model combines some remote work with work in an office.) Traditional competencies such as collaboration will need to be updated to reflect new flexible work practices.
  • Connectivity and organizational culture. Research shows that remote work can be detrimental to social cohesion, underscoring the importance of initiatives that foster and preserve organizational culture. To build connections, organizations can sponsor virtual happy hours for smaller teams, or mandatory on-site retreats at an appropriate time.
  • Training. For most organizations, shifting to remote collaboration is not easy. Employees’ challenges may range from simple—not understanding how to use new technology, for example—to complex, such as not knowing how to collaborate on work asynchronously. Managers too may struggle to understand what employees are doing and how to ensure work quality in a remote setting. Offering a wide and thoughtfully designed set of capability-building modules is a critical step to ensuring that the organization can maintain productivity while working remotely. Organizations can also consider microtrainings—on digital tools, for example—so that the workforce can stay up to date on new technologies.

Invest in technology to sustain a secure hybrid work model

Security considerations, funding constraints and timelines, and bureaucratic approval processes may mean that public-sector organizations lag behind the private sector in deploying the tools required for an effective hybrid work model. Nevertheless, building a more resilient and productive organization can mean that employees are able to work in the office, at home, or out in the field. Some initiatives to consider include the following:

  • Mobile hardware. Many government employees report that they do not have access to government-issued mobile hardware—laptops and smartphones—and that when they’re away from the office they use personal devices, 6 which can pose significant security risks for public-sector organizations. Issuing government hardware where appropriate will help mitigate these risks. Given government funding and procurement cycles, these initiatives may require a rollout strategy that prioritizes those employees with the highest-level needs.
  • Enterprise collaboration tools. Collaboration within and across teams is increasingly important for mission delivery, regardless of remote work. To facilitate collaboration, organizations need enterprise-wide software for virtual collaboration, including secure videoconferencing, content creation and management, and task- and project-management tools. Since employees will not all be working at the same time, they will need access to the same tools so that updates are easily shared across the organization.
  • Cloud security tools. Employees increasingly need access to data and software from multiple locations, whether at different on-site locations or during remote work. Cloud tools provide this functionality, but government organizations have often insufficiently invested in cloud security to enable full use of core applications and systems. Governments can provide secure remote access to core applications and systems, including identity management, single sign-on, and data-loss prevention, by investing in cloud-identity and access management, multifactor authentication, cloud monitoring, and other tools that enable employees to operate securely.

Reduce on-site and low-value work with automation and business-process redesign

Government adoption of new technologies can be slow. But new business processes that use automation—a core enabler of flexible work—can help personnel focus on mission-critical tasks rather than lower-priority work. Many processes across the government could benefit from automation, and government savings estimates from automation within finance, HR, and procurement could be at least 30 percent. Some areas to consider include the following:

  • Automation of activities requiring office visits. As organizations seek to revitalize the workforce and ensure personnel are focused on critical activities, it may be helpful to first focus on processes that are driving unnecessary and time-consuming office visits. For example, automating the submission of timesheets can reduce trips to the office for public-sector organizations.
  • Workflow automation. Public-sector organizations often require many layers of sign-off and paper processes that can be time consuming and distracting. Enabling workflow automation—for example, through digital signature tools or by generating autocompleted forms—can reduce the time spent on these activities.
  • Priority process automation. Automation of core processes can enable new operating environments or facilitate the goals of the new administration. For example, automation of résumé screening during hiring can significantly speed up recruitment as companies look for new talent, and can also help reduce bias in the recruiting process, fulfilling critical diversity and inclusion objectives.

Rethink the facilities footprint

As organizations rethink the physical locations of their personnel, they also have an opportunity to reimagine their facilities footprint and the purpose of the office. Doing so could lead to significant cost savings for government in the medium term. Some private-sector organizations are considering similar approaches, which could reduce their real-estate costs by 30 percent. Offices can also be redesigned to promote greater collaboration for those on-site and for hybrid teams. Facilities-related considerations can vary widely, but some areas for consideration include:

  • Facilities portfolios. Organizations can draw on flexible-workforce initiatives such as remote-work classification to assess the right facilities portfolio. Public-sector organizations may have an opportunity to reduce office space or reconsider where offices are located to better suit the future workforce.
  • Hoteling and flexible space. Walking into an office that is largely empty can be disconcerting. In the coming months and once it’s safe to do so, organizations will want to bring together teams. Many offices are not equipped with meeting spaces for larger team meetings. As flexible-workforce initiatives are adopted, desk hoteling systems and moveable walls can increase office-space flexibility and facilitate greater collaboration.
  • Technology infrastructure. A hybrid model will only work if teams can work effectively regardless of an individual’s location. Investing in physical technology such as audio and visual equipment for conference rooms and high-speed Wi-Fi in office spaces will support more seamless collaboration.

As organizations rethink the physical locations of their personnel, they also have an opportunity to reimagine their facilities footprint and the purpose of the office.

Rapid execution across the priority areas

Leaders can consider the following best practices to ensure that the right portfolio of initiatives is in place and to drive improvement across priority areas:

  • Clear aspirations. Set a specific, quantifiable vision for the future against the priority areas, and timing to achieve the outcomes.
  • A respected senior sponsor. A respected senior leader can signal that redesigning the future of work is a top priority, and help galvanize the organization to action.
  • A data-driven approach. The collection and evaluation of pilot data can help ensure that initiatives are moving the needle against the set aspirations.
  • Workforce input. Information gathered from the workforce can help ensure that initiatives are addressing real organizational pain points and needs.
  • Governance mechanisms. Coordination between highly interdependent initiatives can help remove roadblocks.
  • Dedicated resources. Dedicate funding and personnel, and plan for cost savings from some initiatives to fund other efforts—for example, using facilities savings to finance technology rollouts.
  • A robust change-management and communications program. An effective program will ensure that individuals adopt the new mindsets and behaviors required to drive organizational changes.

The lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic can help public-sector-organization leaders productively and efficiently deliver on their missions. With a new administration in place, now is the time for leaders to focus on the workforce, technology, automation, and facilities priorities required to revitalize the US federal government so that it can face the nation’s most pressing challenges, now and in the future.

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