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Three priorities to help agencies bounce forward through return to work

By Dave Witkowski
We’re just past the one-year mark since most government offices shut down and began working remotely and hope for returning to the office is peeking over the horizon.

Three vaccines – by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – have received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and are being rolled out to working-age Americans. Two more vaccines – by Novavax and AstraZeneca – are in the process of applying for approval in the United Kingdom and may soon file for EUA in the U.S. 

These very promising developments recently led President Biden to project that the U.S. will have enough vaccine doses to cover every American adult against Covid-19 by mid-May.

While much anticipated, the road back to the office is complicated for employers. Our own research of U.S. workers finds that employees have mixed views on issues relating to vaccination requirements and other safety measures as they return to the workplace. But they agree that they want employers to implement parameters around workplace safety.

I believe that these parameters should be based on science and public health policy and that leaders should plan around employee sentiment when it comes to returning to work. For example, according to Eagle Hill research, more than 40 percent of U.S. workers believe employers should delay re-opening workplaces until COVID-19 vaccines are more widely available. Additionally, more than half (52 percent) believe employers should require employees to be vaccinated before they come back to work, and between 70 percent and 90 percent want employers to play an active role in ensuring various COVID-19 precautions even after a vaccine is widely available. Requiring vaccination is not just something that leaders can implement at will; there are a host of policy and legal considerations such as civil liberties and union rules. 

For the federal government, two things are certain. First, each agency will have a different return-to-office roadmap, and second, many parameters will be out of leaders’ direct control. If anything, this past year of uncertainty has taught us that our ability to navigate change and support our people throughout the transition back is paramount. 

Before I became a human capital management consultant, I worked in medical research labs as an immunologist. This experience gives me a unique perspective on COVID-19 workforce impacts, so here’s what I recommend as government agencies develop their return to work roadmap.

Recommendation #1: Implement workforce planning around the “new normal”.

While safety when returning to the office is foremost, recent Eagle Hill research highlights another important consideration – enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for a return to the office. Our survey found that 45% of U.S. employees are burnt out, with one in four indicating the cause is attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The onus is on agency leaders to have clearly laid-out workforce and performance management plans in place that anticipate employee needs as they return to the office.

Federal agencies have already begun to acknowledge they need to “bounce forward,” and effectively doing that requires an independent workforce planning assessment that looks at 1) telework, virtual collaboration and a hybrid return plan for employees (popular now with many leading commercial organizations), 2) role- and position-based requirements, and 3) the unintended consequences of these kinds of decisions including the importance of retaining top employees who may have developed preferences relating to telework or remote work. 

The performance management planning piece of this goes hand-in-hand with workforce planning. Consideration must be given now to questions such as, how do we best equip managers when their teams are teleworking or remote, how do we still provide career-enhancing opportunities that historically came from in-person or location-based roles, and how do we establish performance expectations when employees are teleworking or remote?

Recommendation #2: Empower – through collaboration, virtual platform optimization and communications – those doing the work.

Collaboration is a much-used term within government agencies. As we move past the pandemic, collaboration must continue to evolve. For example, every part of the government agency that plays a role in getting staff back into the office (HR, Facilities, IT, etc.) must be involved in a back-to-work task force and have a clear definition of roles and responsibilities.

Agencies have been able to weather the sudden, disruptive change to work environment by rapidly implementing collaboration platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. These platforms will continue to play a key role in daily collaboration, irrespective of whether employees are in the office. For example, where agencies used to use conference calls to connect a field office with HQ, they can now use the videoconferencing technology without relying on special wall-sized screens limited to a handful of conference rooms on site. 

Mobile work transformation reshapes workplace culture in the short-term, but how do you sustain a mobile workforce environment in the long run? Successful mobile workforce environments require a long-term vision and an action plan to help teleworkers and their managers implement mobile work policies while teleworking and at the office. This is how agencies get the best of both worlds—lowered costs and reduced footprints with higher productivity and employee satisfaction.

The COVID-19 move to telework – while keeping the country and its workforce moving – has exacerbated issues of workplace stress, isolation, burnout, and mistrust between leadership and lower government service levels. Governments did what it took to continue to deliver during COVID; now, they must concentrate on stability, rebuilding morale through effective internal communications, and bolstering resilience amid a depleted workforce and battered cultures. Bouncing forward requires centering priorities on employees’ well-being and developing new strategies to manage individual and organizational performance in dramatically different work environments.

Recommendation #3: Reimagine where and when people work.

The future of physical work location is bespoke. When reimagining this future for a government agency, it’s important for leaders to adopt a holistic integrated approach that considers where the work is now and how that may – or may not – need to change. Planning agencies’ return to work strategy affords the opportunity to reassess how much real estate they need. With new, proven models of working virtually, government organizations now have the opportunity to implement “hoteling” systems for office seating, are adopting open floorplans, and more. 

Many commercial companies are now allowing employees to choose how and when to work. Options include full-time remote, hybrid, office, and field. For some agencies, deploying new full-time or hybrid remote work approaches will impact an agency’s operating model and culture in ways that far out-pace the change agencies have historically experienced. For others, significant numbers of essential employees have remained in-person and in the field throughout the pandemic and the implications of new expectations will bring retention considerations. In competing for the best talent, agencies should consider how their work environment options are impacting their “Employer of Choice” branding. More and more, employees are seeking flexibility how, when, and where they do their work. 

Clear policies grounded in a flexible, customized approach and informed by what will truly work for employees in various levels and circumstances must be established, communicated broadly and applied consistently.

Returning to the office will undoubtedly be different for all government agencies. Adopting a well thought out human-centric and adaptable approach can ensure that “different” works across your own agency.